Enlightenment on Nirvana

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD feels slightly guilty about Kurt Cobain

The Peaceable Kingdom probably isn’t the first place one might have looked for Kurt Cobain. Of all the ironies and confusions of his brief life, perhaps none was as pointed as his choosing to kill himself in a room overlooking that sign, announcing the entrance to Seattle’s exclusive Leschi neighbourhood, with its panoramic views of Lake Washington and the snow-capped mountains beyond, where one morning in April 1994 Cobain, then in the third year of his marriage to his fellow musician and sometime actor Courtney Love, first injected himself with heroin and then took a shotgun and blew his brains out.

Yes, he was 27, like several other high-profile musicians including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Amy Winehouse to follow, which has helped popularise the belief that age is imbued with a mystical horror for anyone who plays the guitar or goes near a microphone for a living. A professor of psychology at the University of Sydney named Dianna Kenny has even published a statistically detailed paper on the subject. It concludes that the most common age for a rock musician to leave the mortal stage is in fact 56 (2.2%, compared to 1.3% at 27), although she concedes that an inordinate number of those both in and out of the 27 Club have succumbed by suicide, murder, injury or accident. The percentage of professional musicians dying by their own hand reached 9.6% of all such fatalities in the early 1990s, before falling to 4.5% today, set against an overall suicide rate which remains broadly stable at 0.25% of the adult UK population as a whole, while remaining the major single cause of death for males under the age of 45.

Why did Cobain do it? That’s a question the statistics can’t answer. Among other contributory factors, there was a history of self-harm in his family; he was a heroin addict, and, perhaps not coincidentally, suffering from crippling stomach pain; he may have been bipolar. And then of course there’s Richard Burton’s aphorism about the toxic nature of fame, which he defined as ‘a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps, before you come to choke on it.’ In 1989, Cobain moved from the ghost town of Aberdeen, Washington (British readers need only think of one of the country’s sadly reduced former Northern manufacturing hubs, but with rows of domino-like houses built of decaying wood, rather than brick, to get some of the flavour) – where, showing a bitterly precocious lyrical talent, he once scrawled on his childhood bedroom wall, ‘I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom. Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you sad’ – 100 miles up the road to the comparative bright lights of Seattle.

Kurt Cobain (playing drums) in 1981

Within two years Cobain and his group Nirvana, with a sludgy, bottom-heavy guitar sound and a matching dress sense that some critics fastened on to dub ‘grunge’, had accommodated themselves to signing a seven-figure contract with the corporate behemoth Geffen Records. Six months later, the band released its breakthrough album Nevermind, which to date has sold 35 million copies worldwide, been recognised by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically important’ to the nation, and which Rolling Stone magazine, displaying its usual air of critical reserve, describes as

…a dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and life-changing words … boast[ing] an adrenalised skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock … At the album’s sonic extremes, “Something in the Way” floats a translucent cloud of acoustic guitar and cello, while “Breed” and “Stay Away” race flat-out, the latter ending in an awesome meltdown rumble that’s both prehistoric and very contemporary in its approach.

(No, I don’t really know what it means, either.)

Before long, Cobain was wasting away in his own private Graceland, in this case a multi-level Seattle lakefront home hidden behind a brick wall topped by a screen of bushes with a sign out front reading ‘Beware of the Dog.’ He seems to have enjoyed the money, if not the deceitful comfort of living amongst the very software billionaires and corporate bankers whom he despised.

At bottom, I think the sad but inescapable truth is that Cobain saw himself as ill-placed in life’s queue. Perhaps only in America could a multi-millionaire in his mid-twenties complain of being under-valued, but there were compelling reasons for his dissatisfaction beyond the obvious material ones. Not only did Cobain have the misfortune to come from a family of depressives, he chose a profession notorious both for the brevity of its successes and the shark-like aspect of most of its managerial class, whose business morals might well have raised tuts of disapproval among the more malevolent attendees of a Sicilian Mafia conclave. Add the proximity of drugs and guns, for both of which he had a marked taste, and you can see the beginnings of the potential for disaster.

Cobain’s cousin Beverley, herself a psychiatric nurse, once told me that it was always hard to envision him growing old and contented, or for that matter reconciling himself to the indignities of today’s burgeoning senior-citizen rock tour circuit. For what it’s worth, I happened to write a slim biography of Cobain which appeared in the summer of 1995, about a year after he died, where I allowed myself the reflection: ‘The prospect of him playing Nevermind to a crowd of paunchy, late middle-aged fans in the year 2020 must have been unthinkable for a man who insisted life effectively ended at the age of 30.’ I’d change quite a lot of the book if I had the chance to do so today, but I think that one observation, at least, has stood the test of time.

Speaking of which biography: looking back on it now from my advanced antiquity I feel that in certain fundamental aspects I may have done its subject a disservice in suggesting to the world, or at least that small part of it that actually bought the book, that Cobain was at bottom little more than a petulant, self-loathing young man, admittedly with an ephemeral talent to entertain, who ultimately stands as a representative specimen of the sort of individual, surely found predominantly if not exclusively in the United States, who can be both materially pampered beyond avarice and yet simultaneously and vocally unhappy. This was not quite fair of me.

Cobain had certain quantifiable reasons for his misery: ill health, the residual effect of his wretched childhood in the backwater of Aberdeen, a difficult marriage, the bitter aftermath of Nevermind, which led to renewed record-company pressures for more of the same and to the consequent regime of doing tour after album after tour ad infinitum, which Cobain himself likened to the spectacle of a caged gerbil running on a treadmill. Both perversely nostalgic for his impoverished childhood and ever apprehensive about the future, he seems not to have had the gift of enjoying the moment. In the years since his death, several of Cobain’s journals have come to light in either commercial or private form. His disregard for dates and names, his rather approximate handwriting, and his apparently only passing familiarity with the rules of English grammar can often serve to confound the reader. As a rule, he narrates in a kind of singsong stream-of-consciousness which, disconcertingly, gives equal weight to events great and small; drugs and deaths, and thoughts of suicide, roll along with minute observations on the physical appearance of things. But Cobain’s voice is nonetheless always compelling. Reflecting on the whole thing today, one is increasingly left with a profound sense of sadness and waste, as opposed to any more venal emotion, at his loss. There’s also the fact, in passing, that with hindsight I should never have wholly swallowed the reminiscences of certain of those of Cobain’s near contemporaries with an axe to grind against him, or for that matter with some obscure agenda to pursue of their own that might have led them, and thus their interviewer, to an at best partial understanding of the events of the-then recent past. Nonetheless, it should go without saying that none of those who in their different ways contributed to my understanding of my subject can be blamed for the shortcomings of the text. They are mine alone.

Three decades on, Cobain’s image as the unwitting poster-boy of Generation X, the ones experiencing the world through the fun-house mirror prism of MTV and cheap drugs (later stigmatised by the American author Douglas Coupland as “42 million gripers”) serves as a distraction from his actual body of work. For the patron saint of slackers, he was surprisingly prolific. Nirvana released three full studio albums in just four years, which borders on the Stakhanovite by modern standards, quite apart from the profusion of greatest-hits compilations, live recordings, remixes and box-sets padded by spurious ‘rarities’ that help to pay for the Geffen company Christmas bonus to this day. Added to that, Cobain was constantly writing, touring, subjecting himself to interviews and in general becoming the world’s consensus rock star in the era between Michael Jackson and Michael Stipe. No, none of Nirvana’s music changed the world, despite what some of its more excitable proponents claimed for it. But it was always meticulously well crafted, and there are countless stories about Cobain’s habit of simulating ennui (what was Nevermind, but a shrug of indifference?) while in reality spending endless hours polishing the product. An early and rather touching example of this dedication to the job was recalled by a woman named Betty Kalles, who hired the 22-year-old Cobain to work as a summer maintenance man at a Washington state seaside hotel at the time Nirvana were coming up through the ranks.

Kurt was quiet, but he was also clean-cut and polite,’ Kalles told me. ‘He was never able to work on Fridays or Saturdays because his band would go out and play on those days, but he would always make it in to work on Sunday morning on time. He was really a model employee, but when he finally quit his job he told me the chemicals he was using to wash the windows were making his fingernails soft, and he was unable to play guitar. “I have to do everything for my music,” he said.

The author William Burroughs, who knew a thing or two about life (and for that matter death, having once drunkenly shot his wife through the head), whatever one makes of the literature that ensued, once remarked that he thought Cobain had been ‘acting out a kind of morality tale about what it means to be famous in America.’ Essentially, the plot was a simple one: the mother-dominated yet wayward boy from the wrong side of the tracks, discovering a talent to amuse, knows enough to turn it into money and stardom, but would always rather be elsewhere, doing something else.

In that context, I’m always reminded of the story Cobain’s estranged father Don told me about seeing his son for the first time in seven years after talking his way backstage at a Nirvana concert in Seattle in September 1992. The scene was an unprepossessing, concrete-walled room filled with tables of sweating, plastic-wrapped cheese plates and domestic beer, with people constantly tugging at Kurt’s arm even during his few minutes alone with his father. ‘I felt sorry for him,’ Don said poignantly. ‘It didn’t look very glamorous to me.’

Perhaps in the end it’s enough to say that when a materially and emotionally stunted childhood gives way to an adolescent taste for heavily amplified rock music and nihilistic literature, and factors such as debilitating stomach cramps, heroin, and the need to project oneself on stage in front of tens of thousands of delirious strangers are added to the mix, even a more self-confident man than Cobain might have been brought to the point where he considers his options.

Just twelve months after Cobain’s brief reunion with his father, Nirvana released a new album containing a sardonic and often caustic collection of songs named In Utero. One of the record’s tracks contained the line, ‘Wait, I’ve got a new complaint’, and another one ended with the repeated chorus, ‘I miss the comfort in being sad.’ Six months later, Cobain barricaded himself in a spare room above the garage attached to his Seattle home, took a lethal dose of drugs and then put a shotgun to his head. Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s entirely conceivable that had he lived he could have become a sort of David Bowie figure, his cutting edge progressively dulled, perhaps, but still remaining creatively restless across a variety of media, and on balance not likely to be found today crooning a medley of Nevermind-era hits from the stage of a Vegas casino auditorium. He is badly missed.

Is this a dagger they see before them?

STUART MILLSON is appalled to find Mid Wales Opera facing closure

Founded 35 years ago to bring the finest music and drama to rural towns and communities, Mid Wales Opera is a company specialising in bringing pared-down versions of the greatest music-dramas to far-flung parts of the country. 

On Saturday 23rd March, their run of Verdi’s Macbeth came to an end at the c. 500-seat Brecon Theatre (Theatr Brycheiniog), with a capacity audience enjoying Jeremy Sams’s English version of the score. Directed by Richard Studer – and full marks here for the stage lighting and ‘recycling’ of roles among the chorus – Mid Wales’s own glorious opera company succeeded in generating a dramatic effect, just as overwhelming as anything you might hear at Welsh or English National Opera.

How was it possible for an orchestra-pit ensemble, just 15-strong, to conjure much of Verdi’s lush orchestration? Under conductor Jonathan Lyness the resident chamber orchestra, Ensemble Cymru, achieved this miracle – the timpanist also playing the side-drum, and their splendid cellist generating a rich, resonant sound in those dark moments of the drama. 

On stage, meanwhile, Macbeth’s court, began its disintegration: soldiers with a Fascistic air, reminiscent of Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard lll, marched up and down, Lady Macbeth – the brilliant stage presence of Mari Wyn Williams unleashing her amoral powers, and Macbeth himself, sung by Jean-Kristof Bouton, descending into his ‘feverish visions’ as the apparition of the murdered Banquo appears at a castle feast.

The witches, dressed as 1950s’ office secretaries, but with demonic eye make-up reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s unsettling appearance in the 1947 film, Black Narcissus, deserve great praise for their unsettling performance. Finally, the end comes for Macbeth as a forest supernaturally advances upon his fortress – actually, the English army in camouflage, although on stage at Mid Wales Opera only the Scottish saltire was raised. (Surely a major omission that the Cross of St. George did not appear?!)

What next for Mid Wales Opera? A real-life dramatic crisis, no less: the shocking removal of one hundred per cent of their grant from the Arts Council of Wales, casting doubt over whether productions of this kind could ever be staged again. Is this a dagger they see before them? It would seem so. But the story is the same, everywhere. Last year, the BBC tried to disband its own elite choir, the famous BBC Singers, and cut its symphonic strength across three ensemblesMeanwhilethe length and breadth of these islands, from Birmingham to Bournemouth, our orchestras and theatres struggle to convince those in power of the vital need for the arts. 

Quite simply, Britain now has a choice: do we just become a TV/consumer society, turning our backs on the splendour and enrichment of music and the arts? Or do we challenge the Arts Council and those in political office for a change in direction? As the wise Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger put it: “Neglect the civilised arts at your peril…”

To support the appeal for Mid Wales Opera, write to Bryn Wgan, Caersws, Powys, Wales, SY17 5QU

Splendid Sun King

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children. Image: Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE revels in Akhnaten at the ENO

“The thing about Philip Glass is that there’s so much repetition.” A friend pronounces his verdict. Well, yes, but what repetition. The ENO revival in association with LA Opera with the third of Glass’s so-called ‘portrait’ operas, Akhnaten, is entrancing. The set is a multi-level tableau of slow-moving interpretation and quite a bit of juggling. The jugglers are there to symbolise, I think, an imposition of order on the chaotic religious miasma that was ancient Egypt. King Amenhotep IV succeeds his father and declares a monotheistic religion with him, unsurprisingly, at its pinnacle.

The music swoops, swirls and glides across the narrative with the singers seeming to provide accompaniment for the orchestra and vice versa.

Glass had to do shifts as a New York taxi driver alongside regular plumbing jobs to help fund (and subsequently pay for production losses) his first portrait opera, Einstein on the Beach, which he developed with the grandiloquent imagination of Robert Wilson. He began by performing in sparsely attended recitals in New York lofts. Slowly, opera houses around the world caught up with Philip Glass. His second portrait opera on Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha, was a resounding and enduring success.

Akhnaten is now almost 40 years old and Glass has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. He is now chauffeur-driven.

American counter tenor Anthony Roth Constanzo has made the role of Akhenaten his own, appearing in productions in 2016, 2019 and now in this revival. He shows no signs of weariness with the role, commanding the huge stage with his soaring voice and subtle, precise gestures. His wife, Nefertiti, is an equally commanding presence, with mezzo soprano Chrystal E Williams delivering power and gravitas.

Phelim McDermott’s production is bold and sometimes a little baffling when images override meaning – a sort of Zoolander moment or two amidst the creative visual excellence.

The Coliseum was packed for the performance – ENO at its very best. The attempt by the Arts Council to shift it out of London is gesture politics at its most egregious. Let’s have more ENOs in Lincoln, Newcastle, Plymouth as well as London. We all need doses of cultural excellence, as bills mount and services decline.

The audience is wonderfully diverse and soundly engaged despite the singing in Egyptian, Hebrew, Akkadian and English. You do not need surtitles to get the gist. We are now well attuned to small dictators marooned in gilded palaces. It was only in the late nineteenth century that the remains were discovered of the city Amarna built by Akhenaten. In 1907 a mummy was unearthed that is most probably Akhenaten. The body was effeminate with womanly hips, elongated skull and fleshy lips, giving rise to speculation that he suffered from rare diseases. His androgynous appearance is cleverly portrayed in the opera. Akhenaten, the Sun King, is variously described as enigmatic, mysterious and revolutionary as well as mad and possibly insane. This production captures all those contradictory passions in a magisterial sweep. It is certainly repetitive but gloriously so. I will let my friend know. 

An Agincourt for our age

STUART MILLSON enjoys seeing Shakespeare’s Henry V brutally updated

The year is 1415… Trumpets sound at the Globe Theatre; Olivier draws his sword and heroically sets forth to ‘the vasty fields of France’ where English arms and chivalry triumph, and a youthful English king wins the hand of France’s fair princess, Katherine… That is the version of Henry V which we have come to know, but for Donmar theatre’s director, Max Webster, an altogether more brutal side to Shakespeare’s story is revealed, as the mediaeval action and intrigue is re-imagined in a twenty-first century war between England and its neighbour across the Channel. 

The King of France (played by Jude Akuwudike) taunts the young King Henry (Kit Harington), whose sudden accession to the throne of England has shaken his retinue of hedonistic followers, including the loud, drunken nightclub reveller, John Falstaff (Steven Meo). Just before receiving the news of his father’s death, the wild Prince Hal is roaring out another chorus of the football anthem, ‘Sweet Caroline’, the whole dancefloor, a scene of the modern drunken excess, witnessed in most town centres across Britain on a Saturday night. But the change of mood could not be more startling, as Techno sounds disappear, to be replaced by Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary

Henry, determined to assert his belief in his right to the kingship of France and to avenge the Gallic court’s insult (their ambassador delivers a box of tennis-balls, thus emphasising French contempt for the immature monarch), the warrior begins to organise his invasion force – a disquieting parallel to current events in Ukraine. As the King makes his speeches, press photographers unleash a barrage of flash photography across the stage, and soldiers – in the battle fatigues of the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq – make their stamping, choreographed appearance. And for this production, military discipline and dance are combined: with former Royal Marine Commando, Tom Leigh, having carefully trained the actors in army ways and psychology, alongside the Ballet Rambert’s Benoit Swan Pouffer slotting each soldier on stage into a battle routine of sinister precision.

The famous line of farewell, uttered at the army’s Southampton embarkation point, ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ (a famous movement for soft strings in Walton’s music to the Olivier film) becomes an almost loveless, cynical farewell: ‘Touch her soft lips, and march…’ Not a shred of glory can be found either, as the mangled English regiments nurse their wounds after the siege of Harfleur, ‘Sweet Caroline’ drifting across the stage, a whispered lament in all the pain and misery. Agincourt, the crowning victory of Henry’s ruthless advance, once again brought out the very best of the production’s costume design and direction: camouflaged men and women advancing with automatic weapons to the stuttering music of Purcell’s Arthurian ‘Cold Genius’, and slicing through the numerically superior French, who were convinced that their chevaliers would beat the uncivilised English on the home soil of fair France. 

English victory, though, is soured by the execution of prisoners; by Henry’s ‘winner-takes-all’ blood-lust (as Zoe Svendsen portrays the King’s character in Donmar’s programme notes) and by the ‘othering’ of the Welsh soldier, Llewellyn. Those who remember Olivier’s Henry V may recall the 1940s actor Esmond Knight’s portrayal of the Welshman, almost as a member of the rustic chorus. But for Max Webster’s production, the Cambrian is embittered and angry at the denigration of his national symbol, the leek, and an ugly, violent barrack-room-brawl ensues. The Kingdom’s unity, here, is far from being even skin-deep.

At the end, Kit Harington’s Henry resembles a prince of the House of Windsor: peaked cap, white gloves and immaculate uniform, the English monarchy at Commonwealth Day, at Westminster Abbey, at the Cenotaph. Yet the play’s narrator (Millicent Wong) warns us that the pomp and circumstance has come at a price; that death and subjugation has followed in the King’s wake – as the Cross of St. George turns into red flames…

Donmar’s Henry V – multicultural, anti-war and Left-leaning in its interpretation – nonetheless has something to say to those who believe in crowns and coronets, or would crowd Southampton’s sea-wall to cheer the Royal Navy’s modern fleet majestical. Perhaps England is not pure, with our leaders holding aloft the crown imperial, but darker ambition and desire spurring them always on, but if this is England’s failure, we share the fault with many other countries. Persuasive (if not entirely fair to England), frank, brutal and always brilliantly acted through its three-hour course, Donmar’s realisation of a great history-play will stay in the minds of its capacity audiences for a long time.

Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse (Earlham Street, London WC2), directed by Max Webster; Production Manager, Anthony Newton; music supervision, Andrew T. Mackay