I grew really fond of Nirvana about eight years ago (shhh, let me finish). OF COURSE I knew about them much earlier. Like any good late-'90s teen, I owned their albums and screamed along to their radio hits with a bottle of Zima in my hand. I knew the singer had died (I was only in fifth grade when whispers of Kurt Cobain's suicide swept through our classroom). And I knew that Nirvana were extremely popular. But so were Marilyn Manson, Kid Rock, and Korn. Nirvana was everywhere—just a giant band in the giant fame wheel. I liked them, but didn't pick them out as particularly subversive (to me, a lot of music then seemed to be—Salt-N-Pepa talked about sex, TLC sang about AIDS, Alanis Morissette was mad about Dave Coulier, and the Smashing Pumpkins were just mad about everything).
Nirvana were rolled up in that world, marketed as the next big thing. Much later, having moved to Seattle, I started listening to Nirvana again, now with the backstory I hadn't bothered with as a myopic Montana kid—an understanding of the forgotten scene and genre that made their place in the world that I had unfortunately missed.
Which brings us to the thing we're supposed to talk about! I brought home a copy of Gillian G. Gaar's Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana to add to my growing GrungePileTM (other Nirvana and Kurt Cobain biographies, magazines from 1994 with Nirvana on the cover, books on the grunge scene, that book of Kurt's drawings and letters, etc.). GrungePile made me blush (I'm not, like, a rabid fan! I swear! You should see the other piles!), but it does represent a subject I've grown pretty fond of. At Bumbershoot this year alone, I saw Eric Erlandson read from his new book of prose poetry titled Letters to Kurt before watching sets by both Mudhoney and the Vaselines (with Krist Novoselic) on the Sub Pop Stage.
The 20th anniversary of Nevermind cued a grunge renaissance. While Seattle has always seemed proud of the music that made it famous, the rest of the world's ardent interest in the genre went from awesome to hokey faster than a riff from Bleach. Other books tend to focus on scandal (drugs), conflicting memories (drugs, everyone was suing each other), and emotional assumptions (drugs, Kurt was gay)—dripping with Courtney Love–juice and hearsay for days.
Gaar's book, on the other hand, is true to its title. This is a book about the rise of Nirvana, written by a woman who was there (Gaar is from Seattle and was a writer for the Rocket) and who has researched the subject inside and out. Before Nirvana, there was Fecal Matter, and before Fecal Matter, there was a directionless 20-year-old who really liked the Melvins. Kurt's early interest in punk rock (he first saw Black Flag on April 27, 1984) and his friendship with the Melvins (named after Buzz Osborne's manager at Thriftway) led him to Krist Novoselic (a Flipper fan) and their first loosely structured band (a Melvins side project called the Stiff Woodies). Gaar gives complete accounts of practically every Nirvana show ever played. She also breaks down every single song, in possibly the most OCD effort of the book—we're talking accounts of when Kurt first brought the song to practice, the lyrics, the alternate lyrics, the recording sessions and dates (if a song didn't make it on an album, she can tell you how many times it was played live, and where)—plus track listings and information about when bonus tracks were added (a record nerd's dream)!
Gaar will reference three other Nirvana books to give the reader every possible take on a disputed piece of information. According to Come As You Are, Kurt met Courtney Love at the Satyricon in Portland on January 6 or 21, 1989; Heavier Than Heaven states that the meeting took place at the same venue in 1990; Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson says it was later in the same month, but in LA; Nirvana: The True Story suggests that the two first met in Hollywood in May 1991.
This meticulous unwinding of dates and places threw me off at first (the ex-drummers are barely talking any shit!), but it soon jelled. Every little moving part of the Pacific Northwest's late-'80s music scene whirred in a delicate balance—many catalysts caused the first grunge domino to fall and put our soggy little town on the map. Gaar does depend on quotes from qualified individuals to add flesh to her bones, but she's not letting a he said/she said stance muddy the facts. Gaar reminds us that it is impossible to separate Nirvana from the scene that made Nirvana. And it's those details that make this an especially fascinating read, without even including Courtney Love's boobs.