This was a tour not for the faint-hearted. Everett True witnesses the chaos & carnage caused by Tad & Nirvana as they rampaged through the West Coast, running over innocent passers-by, insulting the unfriendly natives, being mistaken by police for child molesters, & visiting every porn shop on the way.
YOU KNOW what it’s like, touring with a band. Time seems to stretch into infinity – just an endless procession of highways, byways, houses, factories and the odd traffic jam. You eat a little, you sleep a little. You pray that your van doesn’t break down or end up in a crash. If you’ve got a little dope, you light that up too, anything to relieve the boredom.
We’re in a van with the Tad band, traveling the 160 miles between Seattle and Portland along the West Coast of America. It’s sheeting it down with rain outside and it’s early night-time, visibility zero, with clouds of cigarette smoke clouding up the inside. We’re racing a losing battle against time, as usual, for the soundcheck for tonight’s show with Screaming Trees and Nirvana at Portland’s Pine Street Theatre, but we’re doing okay, stoked up on tapes of the new Boss Hog, Bastro and Melvins albums, M&M’s, and crackers.
It’s just another night on the road.
“Red light/Green light/Driving through the dark night/Driving through the pounding rain/Just gotta see Jane”
(R Dean Taylor)
What do you get up to while you’re on the road?
Tad Doyle (singer with the Tad band): “What do we get up to? Oh, about 85 mph on the interstate and 35 mph down back lanes, and we’re usually hydroplane, because Kurt and I blow so much ice. We smoke a bunch of ice, and we start floating and sticking to the ceiling, and it actually lifts the van off the pavement. We’ve been doing nothing but eating Beef Chubbs the whole way, and every hour we crack open up a battle of malt Jock Daniels, throw away the cap and cruise on down.”
Kurt Danielson (bassist): “Did you know Tad is the Blind Idiot Drinking God, whirling at the centre of the universe with a chainsaw in one hand and a beer in the other?”
Steve Weid (drummer): “He definitely goes through a transformation. When you put him on stage he begins to slobber and his eyes go back in his skull.”
Tad: “And my second eyelid, the one that goes milky like sharks’ do when they’re about to bite into something, closes down in anticipation of the sonic delights and aural horrors to come.”
Tad Hell, you know what this lard-ass dude is all about by now, don’t you? He’s a gross, near-mythical figure, responsible for some of the most uncompromising music around; music that rocks, hard and heavy, relentless and gouging, but music that also contains elements of disquiet, of bitterness at being the perpetual outsider, of the anger at never quite achieving, which adds an unforeseen edge.
He and his band have just released a new mini-LP, Salt Lick, and they’re out touring the West Coast of America with Nirvana to promote it; Portland through San Francisco, Long Beach and Phoenix. The usual. It’s a tour that will take them through February, and the best part of March.
Portland was great: 500 backwoods punks dancing to the bands, Nirvana trashing a few guitars through frustration, Tad wobbling with his usual aplomb (albeit a little rustily), and the whole place like a Palm Springs pinball machine that nobody could touch me on. Weird set-up too: the maitre d’ plied everyone with dope; the bar downstairs served Tofu and Falafel only; beer was strictly limited to over-21’s (with ID). There was a video crew present to record all three bands and they were rewarded with a show of blistering proportions; metal twisted and distorted and gouged so out-of-shape, its origins were barely recognisable.
Afterwards, Tad seemed a little put out over the reaction.
Kurt: “The Portland scene is real protective of their own kind, like they consider people from out-of-town outsiders. They’re kind of stand-offish. Some people out there have a real grudge against Seattle, because the two cities have been in competition for attention for quite some time, and Seattle’s getting the best of it presently.”
After Portland, the boys hit Sacramento and San Jose, a couple of real strange nights. Tad, the man, takes up the story.
“The back stage people at the Sacramento show were weird. They were big black fellows wearing buckleless leather chaps and blue police jackets with Sacramento police badges on their chests – probably police officers or something. And they’d go, ‘Hey, y’all play through here very much? Well how about giving me and my girl friend a shirt so we can have a good Valentine’s Day for everybody?’ They were just real pushy people.
“So, consequently, I did the hula dance to them and they all skirted away, for fear of losing a limb due to my hips gyrating to and fro.”
Kurt: “A couple of nights ago, Gary (Thorstensen, the guitarist) and I got all fucked up in San Jose, and crashed out in the van at six in the morning. At about nine there was a rap on the side of the van and there was a cop standing right there, and I emerged from this drunken stupor, not knowing what was going on.
“He tells us he’s received a complaint from a young mother who’s walking her children to this elementary school right across the street. She was concerned we might pose a threat to her children, that we might go out and molest them or something. So, we had to move the van two blocks away. I would’ve liked to have molested some children, but it was too early in the morning.”
Tad: “San Jose is a cultural backwater, a hell-hole. We played there to a metal crowd on a Sunday night and we got to making fun of the regulars. You can always tell the regulars because they hang out at the bar; big hairspray, no ozone, spandex faggots – just like you British guys in fact.”
I know. I’m one of them.
Tad: “Jerry, I think you should perform tonight.”
Life on the road, especially in America, the land of the free, does have its compensations, as Kurt elaborates.
Kurt: “We go into all these wild porn shops while on tour; there was one in San Jose which had life-size rubber fists. They had a whole library of books, including one called My Curious Friend, Sparky about this girl and her Doberman.”
Steve: “It’s disgusting!”
Tad: “Let me tell you, I was shocked, Jerry. I ran right out that store and never went back in.”
Kurt: “We can’t wait till we get to Tijuana; you know they’ve got donkey shows down there. They call them ‘three-ring circuses’. That’s donkeys having sex with humans.”
Tad: “We’re going to get real fucked-up and go down there.”
So how else should red-blooded American country boys behave?
Do you want to talk about the new album, Salt Lick?
Tad: “Sure. It’s got six songs, it’s on Glitterhouse, it’s abrasive, it’s salty. When your body’s been sweating for hours and you need some salt intake, put this on. It’s like licking a big block of salt.”
Steve: “I know it’s been said and said and said, but it’s true. This record has to be listened to loud. It must be loud to the point where your stereo sounds good, but it’s like completely distorted.”
Salt Lick, as Push said in his review of the album, is “a vegetarian’s nightmare… every song is a heavy smack, the drums and bass perpetually locked in imitation of a terrible thunder, and every available space crammed with the savage whine, screech, shriek and grumble of the guitars”. He also likened it to having a cat’s tongue rummaging around in your ear, but we’ll gloss over that right now.
Produced by multi-media man Steve Albini, Salt Lick reinforces all the stereotypes – colossal, grinding, the aural equivalent of having your lungs chopped out by the butcher, unrelenting, huge – while inventing a few more. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Salt Lick is its durability, the fact there’s a lot more going on inside a Tad sang than its one-dimensional structure might suggest. If you listen close, you’ll find more tortured humanity present then on most feted “sensitive” folk songstresses’ work.
Still, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Kurt: “It’s more songs about things that we enjoy, things we hate, things that we love, things that we’d love to fuck. Most of the songs are about children and flowers and dancing and prancing and sweet romancing. This album is like a visualisation of a big slimy, sloppy tongue licking your ear.”
Possibly its finest moment is the mighty chunder of ‘Wood Goblins’, the single, a song to unnerve all but the hardiest.
Tad: “I was looking at this book which was full of photographs of journals from before the Russian Revolution, and one was called Wood Goblins. It featured graphic illustrations of grim reapers scything down enormous crowds, and it was full of subversive articles and stuff. So it seemed like a good basis for one of our songs.”
The Tad seem to have gone down particularly well over on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps because English people have always been quick to latch onto the weird, the strange, the individual. Are you pleased by the way you’ve gone down in Britain?
Kurt: “Yeah, I think it’s positive. English people are so rock ‘n’ roll! It’s a go-out-forget-your-troubles kind of thing when you see us. But English humour has a lot of sarcasm and blackness, which is very similar to what we do. We’re not afraid to laugh at ourselves.”
Steve: “Though we’re not saying we’re totally worthless, either.”
That’s something you were commenting about the other day, that you’re getting fed up with all the fat butcher comparisons every time you see a review of yourself.
Tad: “It’s alright for a gimmick, you know, but there are other members in the band, and I’m like only one-quarter of what happens. The music is written by all members.”
Steve: “The initial recognition of Tad’s size is on obvious, shallow thing to latch onto. There’s a lot more to us than that.”
Does it bother you that you’re being regarded as some kind of freakshow?
Gary: “Yeah, you do wonder if this music was coming from your average Joe, what the fuck would they be saying then. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it, with a blindfold on. I think the English people pick up on the outsider thing more.”
The Tad band’s favourite on-the-road song is ‘Try, Try, Try’ by The Fluid.
Nirvana have a quality which is similar to Dinosaur Jr. They create classic songs, steeped in tradition and the lore of the Sixties; but immerse them in some of the richest guitar sounds around. Songs like ‘About A Girl’, ‘Blew’ and ‘Reciprocal’ trash any idea of them belonging to some latter-day Led Zep tradition, while they sneakily draw on a rich seam of Sixties American pop like 1910 Fruitgum Company and Chocolate Watchband.
Singer Kurdt Kobain’s voice is strangely resonant in it’s harshness. It can hide the sweetest melody, and then unleash it on you just when you’re least expecting it. Those critics who witter on about them being “devastating”, “thundering” and “grungenomic” are right, of course, but are only picking up on half the story.
Nirvana, themselves, don’t seem too unduly worried at the way they’re presently being tagged.
Kurdt Kobain: “It’s fine, because we do play a lot of grunge, but we consider ourselves a bit more diverse than just full-out raunchy heavy music. We’re aiming towards a poppier sound, and we’ve been into pop music for years; it’s just when we were recording Bleach we happened to be writing a lot of heavy songs at the time.”
Chris Novoselic (bass): “People ask when the Sub Pop thing is going to die away, like they are waiting for the backlash to start. It’s probably going die away when the bands break up, or start putting out lousy songs. Until then, you’ll have to put up with us, I’m afraid.”
Kurdt: “Right now Sub Pop has a lot of good things to look forward to. They’ve just released the Mudhoney album, Tad album, our album… it’s going to be cool!”
Right now, Nirvana are awesome live. The San Francisco show with Tad and Dickless is stunning: the Washington trio blow every other fucking band in existence off-centre with the potency and ferocious intent of their music. ‘Love Buzz’, and ‘Stain’ spiral and shatter, leaving precious shards of the purest manic pop thrill in their wake.
Chris trashes his bass out of petulance; Kurdt trashes his guitar not to be left out and then trashes the drums. Meanwhile, our man Tad is standing left of the stage, looking distinctly worried. It’s his bass Chris is now using.
They encore, exploding with malice and annoyance at a crap PA system, leaving San Francisco’s Gavin Report New Music Seminar in no doubt whatsoever as to quite who is happening where.
The other shows sure ain’t no couch potato fodder, either.
Do you like being on tour?
Chris: “Traveling is fun, and so is keeping yourself busy. Every night is like a different party, for free. Every night is like Saturday night.”
What do you do to help while away the hours on the road?
Chad Channing (drums): “Listen to the stereo, sleep, spark up some asinine conversation, say whatever stupid things came into your mind.”
Kurdt: “We’ve got this stupid record by a band called Witchcraft Coven, who had that hit in the Sixties, ‘Ode To Billy Jack’ (which Killdozer covered on For Ladies Only), and on its cover is a picture of the female singer lying naked on the altar, with the other members of the band holding daggers over her.
“On one side are sappy songs and on the other there’s a Satanic sermon, which sounds like Bob Parker [sic] or some TV announcer saying stuff like, ‘Kiss the goat’, ‘Satan, Leviathan’, So we turn that up really loud at intersections.”
Chris: “We asked this guy for directions and just when we’re about to drive off, Kurdt shouts out, ‘Hail Satan’, and the guy goes ‘Hey!’ looks at me and goes, ‘never mind’.”
Other stuff Nirvana listen to while touring are tapes by The Vaselines (they cover a Vaselines’ song, ‘Molly’s Lips’, live), Gong, The Fugs, Rolling Stones, Marine Girls… anything that isn’t grungy, in fact. Their favourite on-the-road song is ‘Me And You And A Dog Named Boo’ by The Brady Bunch.
Nirvana have experienced similar problems to Tad at the towns they’ve visited.
Chris: “We played in San Jose, which was a shit-hole. We played in Sacramento which was a shit-hole. There was this guy in Sacramento called the Master Blaster, he’s Sacramento’s most hated DJ and we loved him. He was such a wise ass.
“This guy said something to him and he just went ‘Look at him, see why brothers and sisters shouldn’t marry?’. He goes, ‘One chromosome and there you have it: Down’s Syndrome’. He just ran this guy ragged. He was DJing some mad party or other, and played this song called ‘Morrissey Rides A Cock Horse’, and they were gonna kill him.”
Chris: “There’s nothing going on in Phoenix, they’re a bunch of rednecks. It’s bad. All the oil-fields are in Texas, but they don’t want to move from Arizona. It’s a hell-hole.”
What do you reckon to San Francisco?
Chris: ‘It’s one of my favourite cities – the Roaring Twenties art deco architecture, the climate, the vibe… My favourites are here and Rome. Too many cars though.”
You’re telling me; only earlier today the van we were in ran into some guy who jumped straight in front of us. Our female driver looked about 15, had no ID, no driver’s licence, the van had no insurance; and it wasn’t her van anyhow. We were let off with a caution. Chad is now drinking orange juice and watching the cars go by in silence. Oh look, there go Dickless!
Typically, with the consummate bad taste “humour’ of most American bands, upon arrival, Nirvana decided they should make fun of the local population in “the gay capital of the world”.
Chris: “We’ve just been hanging out on Haight-Ashbury, killing hippies. We’ve been flipping off a lot of people, giving them our new attitude. (Chad flips off with his finger straight up, nothing curled, the retard way). Sometimes people will be walking down the sidewalk, and they’ll hear ‘Kiss The Goat’ and see us flipping them off. We’re gonna get our asses kicked one day.
“Last night, we were waiting for Chad to come out of the house cos we were going to go and hang out at some gay bars, and Tad started to pull out and almost hit this other car. So this car sped off in front of us, and stopped about 10 feet off and these two massive guys came out with their Yosemite lumber-jack shirts on. They were just out to cruise, but far those 30 seconds we were really scared.”
Every night on tour, Kurdt smashed up at least one guitar, often two. In Portland, it was because he was enjoying himself. In San Francisco it was because he hated the venue so much. In San Jose, it was through sheer apathy. While making for an entertaining spectacle, one can’t help feeling that if Nirvana continue this way they’ll either a) degenerate into the realms of self-parody (as with The Who), b) run out of money; or c) both.
How on earth do they afford it?
Chris: “Well, we get good deals. You see, we live in Tacoma, and things aren’t so expensive there. In Seattle, people are really into old guitars, but in Tacoma they couldn’t care less.”
Kurdt: “Why do I do it? Why not? It feels good. Somebody already cut down a nice old tree to make that fucking guitar. Smash it! We only ever do it if the feeling’s right; it doesn’t matter where we are.”
Chris: “Kurdt smashed this old Mustang in Pittsburgh in front of 20 people, because all 20 people started rocking out and grooving. We do it if the show’s going real well, or real bad.”
I wonder what Kurdt’s idea of beauty is (I don’t think I’ve ever wondered that before).
Kurdt: “Antique craftsmanship, something that is built well, to last, something solid. Values that my grandparents had – pretty much the opposite of the way things are going now. It’s the some with music – sincerity, craftsmanship. If you do a job, you should do it well – -that’s just good business sense. Same thing my grandfather used to bitch at me about when I was a kid, and I never understood him.
“Our songs are about changing yourself, frustration. There was this anthem the skate-rock kids were claiming for their own, ‘Don’t Resist’, to not resist against repression. ‘No Recess’, one of our new songs, was just some surreal idea I had about being in school and being in social cliques all the time, and then you grow-up, having to deal with exactly the same things with your friends at parties and in clubs as you did in high school. It’s exactly the same.”
Does it feel kinda weird living where you do, in Aberdeen, Tacoma and Olympia (three small towns in Washington state), and then going out on tour? How do you cope with the contrast in pace between life in the big city and back home?
Kurdt: “I like the isolation, because it makes me appreciate being on tour more. I don’t do very much at home at all, I stay in my apartment for weeks. It sure broadens your outlook, all the different attitudes you come across.
“We’re getting fed up with this backwoods image kind of thing we’re getting. It’s like, you know there’s an Aberdeen in every state in the US which is redneck, hillbilly. We’re not unique.
Nirvana are currently recording with Butch Vig, the producer of Killdozer, for a new mini-LP, due out later this year on Sub Pop. It should be well worth the wait.
© Everett True, Melody Maker, 17 March 1990