July 27, 2010
Tommy Stinson, former bass player of the Replacements and also Axl Rose’s bass player-for-hire, once told reporters that Axl Rose is much easier to work with than Replacements’ lead singer Paul Westerberg, to which Westerberg’s responded, “Wouldn’t Van Gogh be more difficult than Norman Rockwell?”
I’m reminded of this dig whenever I see more evidence of what’s becoming a decade-long trend in rock lit to laud Axl Rose at the expense of Kurt Cobain.
In 2010’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, Steve Almond lists Nirvana as his fifth most overrated band and Kurt Cobain as rock’s seventh biggest asshole. Here’s his reasoning for the Cobain lashing: “Back in the early nineties Axl Rose twice asked Nirvana to open for Guns ‘n’ Roses. Kurt responded by telling reporters how pathetic and untalented GNR was. It’s hard to out-asshole Axl Rose, but you, dead sir, have done it.” In the same book, Almond claims, when refuting a friend’s assertion that Cobain is his generation’s John Lennon, “Cobain wrote in one genre, in two moods at most.”
These comments in RNRWSYL reminded me of a similar tone in Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City. Therein, Klosterman goes to great pains to brand Nirvana’s Nevermind as second fiddle to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. He claims Appetite “always comes across as tour de force and a classic rock masterpiece, while Nevermind will forever be remembered as a vehicle for ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and its subversive effect on mainstream culture. It’s periodically brilliant, but half of the material on Nevermind is filler.” I’ve always wondered which tracks on Nevermind Klosterman considers filler, as compared to the “tour de force” of Appetite, but I’ll get to that in Part II of this piece.
In his defense, Almond is quick to state that none of his lists should be taken too seriously. Klosterman, also seemingly afraid of heavy fire, is only willing to include the above “tour de force” quote as a footnote. Still, these chides combined suggest a general trend at the higher echelons of rock lit against Cobain and for Rose. How could these two heavyweights get it so wrong, even in good fun? It’s fine to laud Rowling, but at the expense of Rimbaud?
There may be some posturing going on. Arguing for Axl over Kurt cuts so against conventional thought that I suspect these two great rock bards wanted to test their mettle. It reminds me of a famous Cobain couplet, “What else can I say?/Everyone is gay.” Any writer can state the obvious, but who can take the greatest chance and make it true with nothing but the authority of his voice?
So, before we lose perspective, I’ll re-examine Nevermind and Appetite for Destruction, about 20 years after they first rocked our world, and give my assessments of each. But first, let’s examine the above quotes more closely.
Contradicting Almond’s assertions about relative asshole size, Axl was and is a bigger asshole than Cobain ever was. The reasons are obvious to anyone who’s followed these two artists since they debuted, but I’ll settle for this one: Rose’s notorious habit of making thousands of concert-goers wait for hours for him to show up or decide to go on. This was commonplace at GnR shows back in the 1990s, and apparently the practice continues with Axl’s 2010 tour in support of Chinese Democracy. To me, it’s the height of asshole-ness to keep tens of thousands of fans waiting hours for your appearance–not to mention a decade or two for your next studio record–but there is no cure for Axl. Is there an equivalent sin from Cobain I’m not aware of? I doubt it, but calling a spade a spade when it came to Rose is more merit than demerit. If I were Cobain and Axl had asked me to come along on his freak show, I’d skip the drama too.
And wasn’t it drop-dead obvious at the time that Axl, nervous of losing whatever edge he thought he still had, was trying to glom on to this newer, younger, hipper and frankly better heavy rock singer-songwriter? I felt sorry for the guy that something in his megalomaniacal brain made him have to ask. Only a fool would’ve accepted, which Cobain might have been in his way, but his abiding hatred for all 80s rock posturing kept him on the true and right path in this instance.
And now for Almond’s other assertion, that Cobain wrote in only one genre and in only two moods. (In all fairness, Almond makes this argument only to compare Cobain’s legacy to the massive achievements of John Lennon, so I’m taking it out of context when I refute it as though it were written in a vacuum. Still, I feel compelled to defend Cobain because the statement does have its kernel of truth, and because Michael Azerrad probably has better things to do.)
I hope it’s obvious that it’s no sin to write in only one genre. We don’t diss Townes Van Zandt, or the Ramones, or Public Enemy, for similar loyalties to style. But we do and probably should mark off points for not exploring as much as possible the emotional possibilities within a genre. Cobain, as a heavy rock songwriter, could have better utilized the already limited emotional terrain of his genre.
But we also give points for the ability to create something original within the scope a songwriter sets out for himself, thereby expanding the emotional range of the genre. In my opinion, Cobain’s ability to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound once declared, with his already sparse palette speaks enormously to his advantage. We don’t disparage Beckett for not being Shakespeare; we applaud him for accomplishing so much with so little, and for expanding the genre of theater. I’ll explore Cobain’s unique contribution to heavy rock in detail in Part III.
From the moment I read Fargo, way back when it came out in 2002, I was dumbfounded by the above “tour de force” quote, and it’s fermented in my brain ever since. In all fairness, in Fargo Klosterman is out to defend heavy metal music, particularly the much maligned glam metal of the 80s, which is a noble enough venture, so I wouldn’t expect him to fall all over himself praising grunge’s holy grail Nevermind, especially since it all but knocked Axl out of the public eye for a (blissful) decade or so. But what shocked me most about the quote is that its essence seemed an exact photo-negative of my own feelings about these two albums; I always had heard Appetite as three or four great rock songs with filler, and Nevermind as the masterpiece. How could Chuck and I be so diametrically opposite in taste and opinion? Like Klosterman, I’m from a rural hometown in the middle of the country, and I relate very much to his love of 80s glam metal and its potent message for adolescent hayseeds like us (namely, get the fuck out of your rural hometown).
I think our relative ages might be a clue here. Klosterman was born in 1972, which made him about 15 when Appetite hit the airwaves. No doubt the 15-year-old Chuck was defenseless against Slash’s celestial Les Paul licks and Axl’s raw shriek. At 15, I was similarly defenseless against Eddie Van Halen’s two-handed licks and David Lee Roth’s raw shriek. We were hormone-ravaged teenagers desperately looking for messages from the much cooler outside world. How could the best heavy rock bands of our days not touch us deeply?
Still, Chuck’s and my eras don’t quite coincide. I was born in 1969, and by the time Appetite invaded the airwaves of my hometown, I wasn’t in my hometown. I was 18, in my first semester of college two hours east, and doing everything I could to shed any remnant of my glam metal past. I’d moved on to a different echelon of rock listening by then: REM, The Replacements, Husker Du, Talking Heads. By my biological clock, Guns ‘n’ Roses was a little late to the party. As much as I liked their singles, they seemed not for me somehow. And championing Appetite on my dorm floor certainly wasn’t the surest path to getting laid.
(For the record, Steve Almond was born in 1966, making him 21 when Appetite reigned, and probably partaking in some club scene or other for the first time. Do you remember which bands were popular when you first started clubbing? I do. Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and–wouldn’t you know it–Nirvana. All special bands to me. Almond was more like 24 when Nirvana hit, and probably well over it. When I was 24, the band of the moment was Green Day. Good band, but they barely registered on my radar. [And I realize I just gave some nascent rock lit writer three years younger than me a heart attack.])
So, I suspect there are probably a great many prejudices guiding all of the opinions above. Every time Klosterman hears Appetite, he’s 15 and thrilled that life has so much to offer beyond rural North Dakota. Every time Almond hears Appetite, he’s ogling some sophomore with a fake i.d. Every time I hear it, I’m wondering why no one is taking it off and putting on Pleased to Meet Me.
Still, we all grew up, and none of us is governed (entirely) by the fickle barometers of adolescence anymore. Last week, to make sure I hadn’t missed anything–and because I couldn’t write this piece without it–I did something I’d never done before. I bought a copy of Appetite for Destruction. After all, I’d begun re-listening to such glam metal luminaries as Van Halen, Judas Priest, even Ronnie James Dio, and with not a little pleasure. The record might have more to say to me now. Maybe it was actually good.
Find out what happened in Part II.