Sunday 30 September 2012

Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana

Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana

Gillian G. Gaar

It’s probably not surprising that some of the best books about Nirvana have come from writers in Seattle. Charles R. Cross’s book on Kurt Cobain was largely definitive, and even Dave Thompson’s quick biography of Cobain, released within a month of the suicide, was well-researched and written. However, probably no-one’s written more about then band than Gillian Gaar (in the interests of full disclosure, she and I both used to write for Seattle publication The Rocket, as did Thompson, and it was owned by Cross).

It’s a book that’s full of detail and minutae, not a primer for anyone wanting to know the band’s career arc. She takes the tack – quite rightly – that the early years are the most interesting, and the interviews and research she’s undertaken to put everything together is impressive to the point of being terrifying. This isn’t a job, it’s just as much a labour of love, and she’s such a good, clear writer, that everything is laid out like a road for the reader. There’s plenty of depth about the Chad Channing years, as the band was getting into gear, and the comparisons of different versions of songs comes with the real knowledge of the music journalist and the devotion of a fan.

Every show the band played is documented, as is every recording session, radio session, festival, TV appearance. All through the focus is on the music and how, if not always why, it turned out the way it did. For most fans, Nevermind was the album that brought them to the band. By then Gaar was already a longtime fan, seeing them through the Sub Pop years, and she’s someone who sees the first album, Bleach, as seminal. In many ways she’s right. The ripples didn’t spread as wide as they did later, but it was a vital recording that signalled a shift in music, coming as it did in the same period that Mudhoney, Soundgarden and others to herald what became called grunge. But, as Gaar shows, Nirvana stood apart, and, as she shows further, did so throughout their existence and even into their strange afterlife.

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