November 28, 2009
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1994, Courtney Love’s response to the death of Kurt Cobain (and how Rivers Cuomo plays into all this) and Pearl Jam, Korn, and the steep descent of metal. For earlier installments, go here.
One of the funniest conspiracy theories I’ve heard about in the last few years is that Kurt Cobain and Rivers Cuomo are the same person. Right: Kurt Cobain was so affected by the spotlight that he faked his own death, only to return a few months later with a new, poppier sound and a slightly altered look. Even his wife, Courtney Love, believes his death was real. Yeah.
When you think about it, the number of flimsy similarities between the two men are astounding. Nirvana and Weezer were both signed to the David Geffen Company (their recording careers only overlap by the slimmest margin). Both men were the sole songwriters in their respective bands, though Cuomo has deferred to the other guys in recent years, and Dave Grohl got to write one of the B-Sides for In Utero. Cuomo and Cobain are both often seen wearing sweaters in photographs; Cuomo’s dapper and preppy, Cobain’s most likely intended to cover up track marks. Both debuted with music most people did not hear (Weezer’s earliest recordings are still-unreleased pop metal tracks), followed by a slicker-than-owl-shit major label debut, then followed by an intensely personal, self-produced sophomore effort. In Utero is infinitely better than Nevermind, and Pinkerton is infinitely better than The Blue Album. Weezer, after Pinkerton, have slowly pissed away everything that was great about them, while Cobain didn’t last long enough to watch his career go to shit.
Of course, Cobain was a left-handed guitarist, while Cuomo is right-handed, but have you ever noticed that Cuomo became something of a fret-shredder between the first two albums?
Bizarre conspiracies aside, the real Cobain proxy we can all agree on is Courtney Love. Cobain’s widow, always something of an opportunist (watch her scenery-chewing role in Sid and Nancy, if you don’t believe me), her band Hole was all set to release their sophomore album (and debut for, you guessed it, DGC) when Cobain took his life. Rather than exercise restraint and decorum, Hole and DGC went ahead and released the album a mere four days after Cobain’s body was found. The shock of the man’s loss caused Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff to take a break from the band. Less than two months later, Pfaff was found dead of a heroin overdose. Even after that second loss, Hole hired bassist Melissa Auf de Maur and hit the road. That kind of dedication to your craft is pragmatic, if not entirely vampiric.
Look, I’m sitting here, never having been the wife of a voice-of-a-generation guy like Kurt Cobain, going, “take a week off, you greedy harpy!” But I will give Love and Co. the benefit of the doubt, hoping that the band’s motives were more along the lines of, “Guys, let’s just work through these losses. Hard work makes the time go by, right?” Plus, Hole may have needed to strike while the iron was hot. Those allegations many have made against the group that Cobain wrote the album for them aren’t entirely unfounded: Live Through This sounds like In Utero, in a way that Hole never had before, and never did again. Hole even went as far as covering a Young Marble Giants song that Nirvana never got around to, and maybe someone higher up suggested that they go out and make as much money as possible, before the public caught on that they were basically listening to a female-fronted Nirvana.
Weezer, in the meantime, provided a considerably sunnier alternative to Nirvana’s dour swan song – The Blue Album sounds more like Pet Sounds than Vitalogy, and essentially ushered in a new era of slightly-more innocuous pop music, as a tonic to all that long-in-the-tooth grunge. So who’s the perfect Cobain replacement? Weezer, of course. Those first two albums have aged surprisingly well, and some even posit that Pinkerton kicked off the emo movement (which was quite good for a while, so we won’t hold that against them). Courtney Love, meanwhile, has become something of a talking head, drunkenly showing up on celebrity roasts and the like. Sad, really.
In 1994, Pearl Jam became incensed that Ticketmaster had added a surcharge to a pair of the band’s concerts in Chicago. This led the band to boycott all venues that held contracts with Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster, in turn, had contracts with seemingly every venue in America, and thus, Pearl Jam effectively didn’t play live shows (or at least shows that kids like me, the people Pearl Jam claimed to be looking out for, could get into) for close to two years.
I remember the band’s position being that Ticketmaster’s surcharge rendered concert tickets unaffordable for the average Joe, but that’s always rang pretty false to me: a $3 surcharge on top of an $80 ticket isn’t what makes the ticket unaffordable. That Pearl Jam took themselves off the road for so long not only hurt the band’s career, but helped to dismantle the influx of intelligent rock music that had been en vogue since 1991. Imposter bands (Stone Temple Pilots) filled Pearl Jam’s shoes, and smart pop metal bands started touring the nostalgia circuit. I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to say that Pearl Jam’s semi-retirement from the road was the beginning of the end of the early-’90s rock movement, as that’s how it looks to me, today.
But it can’t be entirely Pearl Jam’s fault, either. Look no further than five miscreants from Bakersfield, CA, who called themselves Korn (sic), and who’s eponymous debut album ushered in a new kind of metal – one with all of the guitar solos and stoopid fun of pop metal removed. This new kind of metal, which sounded not unlike grunge (but considerably less fun), was called Nu metal. I’m talking about this stuff in lay terms, because I hope you’ve forgotten about it.
To be fair, Korn’s debut album is quite good. It doesn’t sound like anything that came before it, the pathos in singer Jonathan Davis’s lyrics and vocal delivery seemed genuine, and the detuned guitar stylings gave the band a low-end thump that was absolutely punishing. Face it though, that album opened the door for a million copycat bands, all of which sounded like Korn redux. Their greatest crime, though, is paving the way for Fred Durst to burrow parasitically into household-name status. After his group Limp Bizkit’s pretty funny cover of George Michael’s “Faith,” the band was all up in our grills long enough to dismantle the forward-thought that had become the norm, as well as kill modern rock radio (Watch me prove that one in five weeks. Just watch me).
Things aren’t all bleak, people. Next week: R.E.M. soldier on after Bill Berry’s departure, Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson tie the knot, and lots of people die mysterious deaths.
by Brook Pridemore