Music Industry Issues (Part 2) Muzzling Kurt Cobain

The section of the article which I’d titled Chris Newman and the northwest fuzz-wah continuum states that the fuzz/wah combination was later associated with Mudhoney, and the chorus/distortion sound with Nirvana. The thing about this is, the fuzz/wah effect was used by Hendrix and other blues artists of the 60s and 70s, but I don’t know of any other musicians who were combining fuzz and chorus like Chris was. And as I noted, Chris started using the fuzz sound early on, and he added an Electro Harmonix Small Clone in 1980 which is about when that pedal was invented.

When I first published the article, this part of it included a footnote, in which I stated “Kurt Cobain’s signature effects were a Small Clone chorus and a Boss distortion pedal (DS-1) that sounds a lot like the (Dunlop) MXR distortion pedal which was an early Wipers sound.” That is basically true, but it’s not the entire story, and in fact in a sense, what I realized shortly after publishing the article there is some misdirection going on with that as well.

By way of background, by the time I’d met Chris Newman in 2009 I’d spent quite a bit of time studying the music of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s techniques of songwriting and improvisation. Some of this was from listening to albums and live recordings, some from watching videos, and some from reading books and articles. I was particularly interested in how Cobain put songs together, but I also really liked how he created improvisational soundscapes with feedback and effects not unlike Jimi Hendrix.

Once I began to work with Chris musically, early 2009, I became aware pretty quickly, that Chris was an originator of the “grunge” sound as elucidated by bands like Mudhoney and post-grunge acts like PJ Harvey, Scout Niblett, etc. It took longer for me to see the connection between Chris and Nirvana. That had a lot to do with the way Chris’ recorded music had been sabotaged.

Lots of books have been written about Nirvana, and since 2013, they continue to be written. The difference is, I’ve stopped reading them. So I don’t know what, if any, new information has come out. What I did realize is that with regards to artists like Kurt Cobain (and others), there appears to be what amounts to a scripted narrative, and what essentially amounts to anointed gatekeepers of the narrative. And the narratives contain lies. Even two conflicting stories, when told, may both be lies (or contain enough omissions to effectively be lies). There are a few reasons for the scripting, and it seems one of the reasons is to direct attention away from anything having to do with Chris. And it’s not just because Chris was emulated while paradoxically also being ignored; it’s because Chris was being used in a number ways.

I say this, because in all the reading I’d done about Cobain as a musician, and in the live performances, you see him pretty consistently using just two effects pedals – the Electro Harmonix Small Clone chorus pedal and the Boss DS-1 or DS-2 distortion pedal. And everything that is written about Cobain says that’s what he used. But – and I’m sorry I don’t have sources to cite right now, but we can get to it later as this is all stuff that was published in books prior to 2009 – my recollection is that on the Nevermind album, the recording of Lithium was said to use a Big Muff, and that engineer Butch Vig claimed it was his idea to use that effect. My recollection is that, again, at least prior to 2009, no other Nirvana recording was said to use the Big Muff. However, bizarrely – and this was not anything I was aware of at the time – it turns out I’d published that Napalm Beach article within days of the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s final album, In Utero. And with that, some new information was coming forward, for example, the director’s cut of the Heart Shaped Box video was published for the first time in August 2013.

Possibly because of this anniversary, I found myself listening back to In Utero and realizing that there was Big Muff – and small clone – used on several songs. Two that stand out to me are Heart Shaped Box and Pennyroyal Tea.

So why was it, I wondered, that I’d read all these books about Cobain as a songwriter, and they all mentioned the use of Big Muff on Lithium, but none of them mentioned that Big Muff was used throughout In Utero?

And having read all of those books and articles, I saw Cobain was credited – including by the Electro Harmonix company – as an innovator of this sound – and by now I know that everyone who did this had to know better. They had to know who the real innovator was – that it was Chris Newman. So a reasonable person would have to wonder why this would be kept covered up. And it gets even weirder when you get into pattern-based evidence, and by pattern based evidence I mean how Cobain generally was with regards to other musicians in his community. He was always giving shout outs. And because of his fame, a shout out from Cobain was like fairy dust – immediately the band he name checked would get increased attention, notoriety, maybe even a record deal.

By now it’s pretty clear to me that some of the answers to this are found in the songs themselves – Heart Shaped Box, which expresses the desire to “kill your cancer when you turn black” (Chris died of cancer last year) – Very Ape which as I’ve noted in the past lyrically evokes both a poem I wrote in the late 1980s called Atrophy and a song of Chris’ from the early 1980s called Into The Sky (which also used Big Muff and Small Clone and while never formally recorded, was apparently bootlegged from a Seattle performance) – and Pennyroyal Tea, in which Cobain laments “I’m a liar and a thief.”

Cobain seems to have been a warm, generous-hearted human being. It’s not that he didn’t want to explicitly recognize Chris’ contributions, but it’s that he felt he couldn’t.

Napalm Beach – Into The Sky – Golden Crown, Seattle 1982