Remembering Cobain

When you add it all up, Manchester United and Woody Allen and the fear of ex-girlfriends and the whole I’m-a-bit-nerdy-so-bear-with-me thing that I fall back on when I get scared, little of it matters… of the few things that ever really made an impact in my 20s, one of the biggest was Nirvana. Little else, even put together, comes close.

It’s easy to forget this. It has been a long time. Over two decades since Nirvana first seared that thing deep into our brain, made us feel like there was this whole other planet out there, good lord, what is out there, could there be more people like this, there couldn’t be, no way…

You see… we have grown old. We have changed. We are working 9-to-5 jobs now. We are worrying about the economy. We wonder where we’re going in our careers. We don’t want someone to release the plague in Trafalgar Square. We wonder if we’re missing out on the primes of our lives. We wonder if anyone will ever love us. That thing, that part of us that once flared up, previously undiscovered, where did that come from? We try to muffle it.

We discover new things. We find our new obsession. Some of us get married. Some of us devote ourselves to making money. Some of us giggle when we see our company’s commercial come on television. We forget. We forget what happened.

We rationalise it. We were young and stupid, we didn’t know shit. Man, that was college, or that was uni, or that was my 20s, dude. Yeah, that was a great song and everything… but a song’s a song. We were just kids.

Don’t you remember? It hasn’t been that long, has it? Come on, man… you remember. I know you do.

********

Everybody remembers when they first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. Laugh if you will, mock us for being stupid twenty-somethings who never had to fight for anything in our lives, we get it, and we agree. But you ask any of us, we still know where we were when we saw the video for the first time.

You have to keep in mind, we were listening to bands like Warrant at the time. We were listening to Guns N’ Roses. We were telling ourselves that Axl Rose was the new Mick Jagger. We were looking for something, and, unable to find it, we just figured we’d take what we could. You have to cut us some slack here. We didn’t know they were coming.

So when that happened, the experience bore such a deep hole in us, we can all tell you when we first saw it. All of a sudden, some other force showed up. All of a sudden, something new happened, something we never could have anticipated. Where did they come from?

This weird little guy, not singing, not really, but not just screaming either. He was like a bent garden hose finally straightened, a spring uncoiled, a live wire with too much current running through it, as Jimi Hendrix was famously described. Sure, the song rocked, which was what caught our attention in the first place, but there was something else, something authentic, something afraid and pained and sardonic and intelligent and hopeful… and furious.

This sound was so unusual, we had no idea what to make of it. Who were these guys? You heard rumours. They were bisexuals. They were Satanists. I hear Axl hates them. One of them had a baby born addicted to cocaine. A friend of mine, still confused, threw away his CD after hearing that Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had kissed on Saturday Night Live and became convinced Kurt Cobain’s garbled lyrics were going to make him gay.

But man, did it hit us. Everything changed… like that. Suddenly everything we’d been doing up to that point was ridiculous. Authenticity was suddenly what mattered. Really believing, really caring. Sure, like everything eventually, what Nirvana meant was warped over time, and you could buy pre-ripped jeans at Gap and “Grunge!” compilation CDs. But you can’t deny that it was there, and it was pure. Suddenly, something was important. We just wanted to eat something that wasn’t spoon-fed to us; we wanted that fire. It really was a revolution, however brief and fleeting it was. And it was all started by one song, one verse, one chord, one man.

Sure, we’ve changed. Nirvana is classic rock now. But Kurt is as woven into the fabric of our lives as our first date, or our first love, or our first death in the family, or our first broken heart. Or did you forget?

Don’t you remember the first time you got your hands on the In Utero album? Or hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” on the radio? Don’t you remember arguing with skeptical friends that “Rape Me” wasn’t really about rape? Or MTV Unplugged, back when there was an MTV Unplugged, where we were shocked to learn that not only was Kurt not incapacitated by heroin, but also that he could also produce 70 minutes of utter beauty that people would still talk about years later in awe. And you remember the pain, the worry, the fear, those hidden parts of you that sprung up when you listened, even if you weren’t sure why.

Admit it. You do remember now… don’t you? Come on, you have to.

********

Some of us follow foggy tracks, full of faith that, if we stay true to what brought us here, they will lead us right. Some of us have lost our way all together. Some of us can’t remember what it was like to have believed. Some of us are too busy to notice much of anything anymore.

But, remember, dammit! Remember what that was like. It’s as close to something real and binding as we had. Don’t rationalise it away.

Just listen. That is, after all, why they recorded everything in the first place. To remember, to document, to celebrate.

And, today, don’t forget to play it loud. Really loud!

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Whitney: A Moment In Time

Each day I live / I want to be

A day to give / The best of me

I’m only one / But not alone

My finest day / Is yet unknown…

Rare. Perfect. Glorious. Soaring. Whitney Houston’s voice was all these and so much more. From “I Want to Dance With Somebody” to the powerful “One Moment in Time” and, of course, the immortal “I Will Always Love You”, no singer, male or female, has had such an astonishing voice.

Her range was extraordinary, her pitch was perfection and those who were privileged to hear her perform live say she sounded better live than on a record.

Whitney Houston was an inspiration for millions of young women. Her aunt, Dionne Warwick, was a star of epic proportions by the time Whitney burst onto the music scene, but even Warwick was impressed by her niece’s power and grace. I’ve always thought that if there is a Heaven, the singing there might sound like Whitney Houston.

Like Amy Winehouse, Whitney’s problems were well documented. My reflection this morning on hearing of her death was how huge a challenge a life in the limelight must have been, and how always having to meet others’ expectations can so easily become the measure of one’s own self evaluation and validation.

But for now, I won’t remember the bad moments and I won’t dwell on the mistakes and stumbles. What I will remember is her smile, and her laugh and her voice. That incredible voice! And I will remember this Grammy Awards performance of one of my favourite Whitney songs, where she simply glowed with emotion and talent.

Today, I will mourn the loss of one of the greatest talents in the history of music.

R.I.P. Whitney Houston

A sad farewell to Amy

Today, we lost one of the most talented young women in the music industry — a girl famed for her amazing contralto vocals and jazz background who created songs that stormed the charts worldwide and were popular to multiple generations.

Amy Winehouse, who has passed away at the tender age of 27, has shocked the nation with her death, as she had with her drug- and drink-fuelled life. To say this is a tragic loss is an understatement. Along with her father Mick and her mum Janis, the public have watched Amy deteriorating for years, hoping and praying that she would finally put herself on the straight and narrow and come back into the limelight a raving success and (more importantly) a healthy young woman.

This has sadly not been the outcome. Her death has been confirmed so far as unexplained, but it is known she was found dead in her Camden home around 1600GMT today. I was in the Camden area just around that time and noticed the commotion but didn’t know what was going on until I got home later and heard the news.

No one knows what really went on so we can only speculate for now, which usually leads to assumptions and lies. All we can take from her death is to learn the lesson she never could — drug abuse is a fool’s game and if you care about your body, health and life in general, you will steer clear of the stuff.

But it is all too easy for us to judge. As a writer, I know only too well the loneliness, inner turmoil, anguish and even self-loathing that can accompany the creative process. Often, it is only through his/her chosen medium that an artist truly finds an outlet for releasing the pressure. I believe this was the case with Amy. Drugs might have given her a false and temporary respite from her inner demons, but she found her wings when she poured her heart and soul into music — and we were enriched by it.

I had the privilege of seeing and hearing her perform back in 2006, I think it was, as she was launching her acclaimed album Back To Black. I’d never even heard of Amy Winehouse before then, but that one concert was enough to make me a fan. She wasn’t the same fresh-faced girl when I saw her in a Camden pub some years later in 2010 — her well-documented problems had taken their toll — but she was sweet, friendly and nothing like the drugged-up raving lunatic often depicted in the press. She even chatted a bit with me and my mates, and I remember observing what lovely eyes she had.

And this is why I don’t wish to dwell on her death, nor on the controversial way she lived her life. I just want to celebrate her at her height, with soulful songs that smashed the top charts and that beehive hairdo that only Amy could rock.

Amy, we will all miss you, and I hope you’re finally at peace.

Making magic

It is staggering to see how much artistic talent there is out there, everywhere, really. Wherever you look, someone is making something, and they’re quite good at it.

A friend of mine works in the financial industry. He spends his days dealing with hedge funds and separately managed accounts. When he leaves the office, he gets together with a colleague and practices with his band, in which they play the keyboards and start the drum machine and sing and dance in front of mostly empty bars. The next day, he slogs back into work and does it all again.

Another guy I know temps. He hops from job to job, a nobody, the guy floating around the office that no one knows. At night, he hits the stand-up comedy circuit, staving off hecklers, constantly trying out new material. He is constantly pushing for that big break, which has to happen, because he’s working so hard. And he is pretty funny.

And don’t get me started on the Web. At the risk of sounding grumpy, everybody’s got a damned blog. It’s their place where they can be who they really are, unvarnished, expressing themselves truthfully and with conviction. Odds are, someone you know has an Internet presence, a place where they can produce and enliven themselves, and you have no idea. There’s some great stuff out there on the Web. You should check them all out.

The most exhilarating part of any creative endeavour is that, essentially, it’s all magic. Whether you’re a tortured artist driven mad by your own genius or just some loser stringing together bad similes about your ex-girlfriend set to awkward acoustical fumblings in an empty pub, you are introducing something new into the world. Before you put pen to paper, or paint to canvas, or fingers to guitar, there was nothing there. You created it. There was emptiness, and you filled it, generating a real tangible thing out of thin air, pulling the rabbit out of your hat. It’s tremendously exciting. And — and here’s where it gets you — addictive. Ruthlessly so.

Because after a while, even if you’re good, you realise it doesn’t pay shit, and it’s a lot of work, and it’s hard and frustrating and totally thankless. You realise that there are a million other kids out there doing the same thing you are, and some of them are better, a lot of them are. And, worst, you realise that you’re growing older, and all the stuff you imagined for yourself, a family, a nice home, Sunday League football with the kids, all that’s creeping up on you. For a while you compromise, and you balance doing what you’re passionate about with what you have to do to survive and lay the groundwork for future happiness. But that line keeps inching up on you, and you find that you’re expressing yourself less and less, that after a full 8-hour workday, which you have to go through to pay your rent and live your life, get out from under your debt, whatever…  you’re just too tired to create, which, after all, at its core, is just more work. Next thing you know, you haven’t written, or painted, or performed, in months. The momentum stops, and you’re just another person working in an office, hoping to beat the traffic home. And before you know it, you’re the guy telling the upstart new kid at work, the one so full of promise and hope and optimism, how you used to write, or paint, or perform, all the time, really, I was quite good, I just didn’t catch my break, you know? Because eventually you do have to stop. As Chris Rock said, no one wants to be the oldest guy in the bar.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. It happens. How could it not? We only have so much time.

Ask your parents. No matter what they do in their lives, whether they’re an electrician or a nurse or a tax collector, I can guarantee you that when they were young, they had some sort of artistic endeavour. Maybe they wrote poems in their diary, maybe they just tore apart cars and put them back together. Do they do it anymore? Is it still a part of their life? Watch their face when they tell you how they used to paint. Watch it light up, then crest into a faint sadness. “That was a long time ago,” they’ll say.

A smart person said once that the worst thing you can say to someone under the age of 30 in London is, “You will never be famous. Let it go.” It’s a cold-blooded, cynical, joyless thing to say, even more so because it’s heartbreakingly true. And when you consider that 99 percent of the time, you’d be absolutely right, well, it makes you want to hide in your room and not try to create anything.

But yet, but yet, you do, we do, we all do. It doesn’t have to end in fame, or money, or sex (though, to be fair, it’s always nice when something ends in sex). Nobody starts doing something because they think it will ultimately provide them worldly pleasures; they do it because they love it, because they must do it.

One friend spends her day trying to help people with mental health problems, many of whom show no appreciation whatsoever for her efforts. It’s a tough and often emotionally-draining job, but in her spare time she leaves that behind and designs handbags. “It’s just my little thing that I do for me,” she says.

Is she wrong? The others above, the ones sneaking in gigs after the stock exchange closes, the ones telling jokes, the ones writing poetry, are they wrong? Are they fooling themselves? Are they wasting their time? Should they stop?

No, no, no, never, never. They are creating magic, every one of them, and that’s something a nice house and matching linens can never replace. I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of them, or to me, but I love them, I love that they still care, I love that it matters. I hope they never, ever stop. I know I don’t plan to. We all have to keep going, while we can.

Soooo… let’s talk about SEX!

I write about all sorts of things, but I’ve found one aspect of the human condition near impossible for me to write about: sex. I just can’t write a sentence about it without cracking a lame, backpedalling joke or hitting delete immediately before anyone has a chance to make fun of me.

I’m not sure why that is. I enjoy sex. Quite a bit, actually. I might even say, if I dare, that sex was something of a driving force behind some of my decisions in life.

I don’t consider myself a prude, far from it. It’s just… well… a bit hard writing about sex. What seems majestic and earth-shaking at the time comes across ridiculous in print. I can’t fathom how people write those Mills-and-Boon-type novels with a shirtless Fabio on the cover, with titles like Desire in the Desert. I mean, how could you type, “His brawny, sweating chest glistened as he ripped off her blouse and caressed her supple, ripe breasts. She found herself flush with desire,” with a straight face? I certainly can’t.

About eight months ago, as a practice session intended to help correct this writing deficiency, (and to ensure that, if I ever succeed as an author, I would never win the Bad Sex In Fiction Award) I sat down to write a 2,000-word piece about my most recent intense, powerful sexual experience. To make sure I got in the groove, I drank about a quart of Jack Daniels, shut off all the lights and cranked up Motley Crue’s Red White & Crue album (when writing about love, try Miles Davis; when tackling sex, it has to be the Crue). Adequately drunk, I dove in and hammered away for about three hours straight, pausing only for some sausages and to restart the iPod playlist. I didn’t read what I wrote until I woke up the next morning. It could not have been more embarrassing if it had been written by one of my exes with an axe to grind. In fact, it read like Alex Reid being anally raped by Katie Price. Here’s a tip: When trying to write sexy, avoid the words labyrinthine, perpendicular, snorkel and “mayonnaiseish”. I beg you to trust me on this one.

A market has sprung in recent years for sex columnists. People love reading sex columns, but I’m not sure I ever believe them. It’s one thing to be frank and matter-of-fact about sex; it’s another entirely to confess the weird shit you do in print, with your name attached. If most of these women (and, of course, they’re always women; a guy’s columns about sex would always have the same predictable, abrupt end, and they’d all run about 150 words) had sex as often as they claimed, I don’t know how they’d even have time to write their columns. And how real can it be when everyone you’re having sex with knows you’re a sex columnist? I would suspect, knowing most guys, that this would be more of a detriment to finding willing subjects than a benefit. (And, come to think of it, if you’re a sex columnist, is it OK to miss deadline because you’re having sex? Is it considered research? What kind of stuff can you get tax credits for? Do you ever have normal work hours?)

Sex is such a mystery it’s a wonder anyone even knows how to do it. You never know who will be into what. Who would have guessed that Max Moseley fancied a bit of spanking? I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, when Diane Keaton’s character tells Woody about her last lover, a ferocious hellion in bed who sent her to heights she’d never imagined. When we meet him, he’s played by Wallace Shawn, the short “inconceivable” bald guy from The Princess Bride. I suspect that’s always the way it works. The hottest girl is often the coldest fish, and the guy who boasts about sex all the time can’t get it up.

But two play this game, and it’s strange sometimes how two people simply cannot click. I’ve been with people in the past who have surely considered themselves skilful at intercourse, and they appear to know all the right moves. But for whatever reason, we were never quite on the same page. It wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t mine. (No! It wasn’t! Couldn’t be!) That thing just wasn’t there. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, no matter how perfectly matched people seem to be. And, as we all know, when the physical attraction goes, it’s all over. We can fake smiles at cocktail parties, but we can’t fake that (though we can’t help ourselves from trying). On the flipside, we’ve all had that person that we have crazy chemistry with even though they drive us nuts. Sex has a tendency to goad us into abandoning all reason and self-preservation. It’s either a not-that-funny joke played by the universe or God punishing us for having sex before marriage!

You know, it really is a bit nerve-wracking writing this! It makes me uncomfortable just putting it into words. But, driving on… Once, I had a brief fling with an associate of a few close friends of mine. The Monday after we went out, my friends cornered me and demanded some locker-room talk. I couldn’t do it. They peppered me with questions, digging for details, intricacies — they were just friends of hers, but she was pretty, and they had to have wondered — and I gave them nothing. Just stammered, babbled, and changed the subject. “Um, guys, did you see Rooney’s hattrick yesterday? Uh… did you read about those thieving MPs? Man, the weather… what is it with this weather?”

It didn’t feel right, reporting back details. It never does. People look at the sex other people have far more dispassionately than they do their own. Personally, we have this notion that sex is supposed to be this sacred, two-become-one experience that is deeply profound, and we hold out for that ideal, but when we imagine others having sex, it’s either repulsive or just a manipulation of genitals. And both views are right, of course. We never truly and irrationally surrender ourselves to sex — I hereby submit the condom as Exhibit A — but it’s supremely important to us nevertheless. Sex does change everything; it’s just that none of us are sure why.

After all, it’s only natural, right? The birds and the bees do it. (I’m thinking of the way the parents of a friend of mine explained sex to him: “It’s like a hug, only it takes longer and you’re tired afterwards.” Ladies, you have to agree: sometimes, that sums it up entirely!) That sex affects us the way it does is a uniquely human thought process, and sometimes I wonder if the rest of the animal kingdom has it right. I witnessed two flies having sex the other day. It went on for about five minutes, which in a fly’s lifespan is about four years. I doubt the male fly was bragging to his larvae friends the next day, and I seriously doubt the female fly was upset the male fly didn’t call her. (I, naturally, swatted them both. Why should they get to get some?)

Think of it this way: If you and your current mate had never had sex, had never even considered it, how would your relationship be? Is what you learn about your mate during sex worth knowing? I’ve tried to foster an image as a cultured and witty person, but I’m a sweaty, hulking mess when I have sex. It is us at our most open and unguarded, completely bare for another person — a whole, entirely different person! — to witness and comprehend. There is nowhere to hide. That we continue to have sex is a triumph of nature, not our brains. It is safer not to be close. It’s more comfortable keeping it inside.

But look at me. I’m saying too much. I knew this would happen. I’m giving away my secrets… The “sexiest” thing I’ve done? Let me think… Hmmm… Well, there was… Shit, David, you can’t write that! No, seriously, don’t… What if your parents read this? Your readers will lose all respect for you and people will mock you forever… OK, fine, fuck it: a girl and I once filmed ourselves. We were both drunk, there was a camcorder in the room, and we figured: What the hell; we’re young, footloose, fancy-free, and all that. It was a sexy, dangerous thing to do at the time, and whenever we talked about it afterwards — only with each other, of course — it never failed to titillate us both. It was exciting and reckless, and certainly worth the trouble. Or so we thought.

We eventually broke up, obviously, but the tape remained in my possession. Choose to believe me or don’t, I don’t care, but I swear, I never thought about watching it again. OK, that’s not quite true; I did once… but I had no choice.

Two mates on a tour of Europe came to visit me in London one summer. They stayed a day later than I thought they would, so on the last day of their sojourn, I had to work. They grabbed some drinks and hung out at my place while I was gone. I thought nothing of it. They returned about three months later, and the three of us sat around reminiscing and getting drunk. We were giggling through the alcoholic mist when one of them stopped abruptly.

“Um, Dave, we have to tell you something. You might be a little pissed off,” he spluttered, still laughing stupidly. “Remember when we were here a few months ago? Well, we got a little hammered and started watching some of your old tapes. We found one…”

The next morning, when I finally came out from under the bed, I took a cricket bat and destroyed the tape — admittedly, a bit late. When your friends have witnessed something that inspires the comment, “Interesting technique there, mate,” it’s best to destroy the evidence, and violently.

Wahey! Check it out… I think I’m finally writing frankly about sex.

Oh, and about that story I just told? I made it all up. Not true. Don’t believe it. You know what writers and journalists are like… always fabricating! Just pretend you didn’t read it… Um… what about that Arsenal – Newcastle draw, eh?  And the weather! Don’t you think it’s getting a little bit warmer outside these days?

Spotify: Mötley Crüe – Red White & Crue