March 22nd, 2015

On writing and Nirvana

Writing comes bound in romantic images of whimsical missives dashed off in moleskin journals while enjoying the ambiance of sun-glittered conservatories – an image of freedom, gentility, escape from the daily grind.

 Well, sorry, but no.

A standard novel is around 100,000 words – at 1,000 words a week that’s close on two years. Double your workload and you can cut that in half but it’s still a year of your life – and that’s if every word is perfect first time. At some point being a writer is about the production of quantity, about delivery of words on pages. If you’re not part of the 1% then you’ll be reliant on a beneficent supporter for your income or, more likely, you’ll cram your passion into the space left around the earning of daily bread. The lines of your life will become more rigid. With less time to go round you’ll choose what to lose; sleep? Exercise? Perhaps a hobby or an interest that needs to fall by the wayside? And how about people? Even in the most beatific stereotypical visions, writing is a solitary experience, a self-revelation captured alone…

 …Which is why you should take heart, pick up the pen and ignore my glowering warnings.

My first book was an outpouring of thoughts and theories regarding the band Nirvana – and it made it into the world thanks to my friend Maureen Johnson – who lent her skills as a graphic designer for the barest of rewards – Ben Sumner – who used his own publishing imprint to get the book printed and prepared – and numerous friends and family who chipped in with proof-reading and encouragement. The many people who gave it a chance – and who often shared their own music, art and experiences with me – provided the encouragement that kept me delving into the topic, kept me scratching out blog posts late at night.

One of those blog posts led me to look at all the bands with whom Nirvana had shared stages from their days as a no-name garage band in the American northwest through to final European tour. Who were Treehouse? What did Kai Kln sound like? Who on Earth were the Swaziland White Band? I decided to find them. And the more nights I spent alone digging through obscure corners of the Internet, the more people let me into their lives. The work gained momentum, I soon came to feel that I couldn’t let people down, that their stories of life in the rock underground deserved to be heard.

 The week after my grandfather’s death I had to leave for a long-scheduled visit to the State of Washington. Brian Naubert of Yellow Snow, had told me, “you should meet my friend John Purkey.” First day in Seattle I picked up the phone and spoke to John for the first time. A life-long musician, a personal friend of Kurt Cobain, a genuine and warm person I’m honored to know. Meeting him in Tacoma a week later I was soon sat in a basement as John, Pat Watson and Bob Delcour – Sleeper Cell – performed for me. I was blown away. Ryan Loiselle, a former band mate of John’s, joined us and he and his soon-to-be-wife Rochelle hoisted me for a further night because I was enjoying these people’s company too much to leave. Hearing of my book, their friends Mike and Sally Ulianich jogged all the way home, returning to present me with their original copy of one of Nirvana’s rarest releases. It’s on my shelf, signed by everyone, as a memento and a fond memory.

 “I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana” is peppered with these moments where writing brought new people into my life. It was such a delight when Isabel at Creative Authors agreed to take a shot at it – even more of a thrill when it turned out a publisher might want it. Around that the people I’d shared time with continued to share things that mean a lot to me. A lady called Maria Mabra spent several hours on the phone with me, she’d recently come through problems with cancer. I melted when she wrote later to say recounting some part of her time in music to me had left her feeling more energized than in months – enough so that she’d begun writing her next album. Kurt Danielson of Vaporland wrote one day to tell me that sharing memories with me juiced him so much he’d finally begun work on his own writings – again, a pleasure. People matter, they really do. The same week the book was due to the publisher my father died. In the hospital, as I sat by him in the night fidgeted through final editing, he would ask me; “Is it done?”  I was glad to be with him when it was and in the months after I was comforted by so many sweet messages from people who had supported the book, plus it always gave me something enjoyable to come home to.

The editor at St Martin’s Press was characteristically blunt. “I’ll only take this book if the title changes. Why not ‘I Found My Friends’?” I said sure, it sounded good and I didn’t feel like arguing. I sit here now and I can’t imagine a more perfect title or more apt words to sum up what the book has meant to me. I learned that Kurt Cobain and the guys in Nirvana weren’t untouchable god heads, they were people like you, like me, like the musicians I’ve been delighted to meet. They were all striving to create something not because it was a job or because riches rained down from the heavens, but because they wanted to do something they loved with people they enjoyed being with. They wanted to make something they could be proud of. When you finish your book, your song, your garden, your art, I promise you the hours and the sacrifices will feel worth it. And, if you choose your path just right, you’ll never do it alone – there’ll be friends, family, comrades and supporters helping you every step of the way. You’ll be where I am today; waiting for your work to emerge into the world, hoping you’ve done enough to show all those people how deeply they are appreciated, hoping the result makes them all proud.

Nick’s latest book:  “I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana” is out March 31st.

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