Review/Author Interview: Gillian Gaar Details the Early Years of Grunge in 'Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana'

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In 1992, Nirvana was the biggest band in the world. Nevermind had been released the previous September, and the lead single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ had taken over the planet. The band went from playing clubs to packing arenas in the span of a few short months. Every media outlet imaginable wanted a piece of them, and video crews were recording their live shows regularly. All of this was taking a toll on the band members, and would eventually contribute to the apparent suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994. How did two kids from rural Washington, Cobain and Krist Novoselic, and one from Washington D.C., Dave Grohl, end up defining a generation? Gillian Gaar sheds some light on the subject in her latest book, Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana, which chronicles their rise through the burgeoning Seattle music scene of the mid-Eighties.

Gillian Gaar has been a music journalist since the early Eighties, and has written books about many musicians including the Beatles and Elvis. She has written a few books on Nirvana so when I asked her why she wrote about Nirvana again she said:

“I’ve written the most about the Beatles, Elvis (my previous book for Jawbone was about Elvis; “Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback”), and Nirvana. But there aren’t nearly as many books about Nirvana as about the other two artists, so their story still had fresh angles to explore. Plus, I was there watching Nirvana, and the Seattle scene, develop from the beginning, so I was part of the story in a sense.”

Entertain Us is a very detailed and thorough examination of what made Nirvana special, and how the band became a worldwide phenomenon. Gaar did a ton of research, and got the perspective of as many people as she could, which is witnessed by the 15 pages of end notes chronicling the source of every quote. The author fondly remembers her research when questioned about her favorite interviews for the book:

“There were so many; you always learn something new from people. I like people who talk at length, though I’m sure my transcribers don’t. I had never interviewed Kurt Danielson (of TAD) before, he was quite the raconteur. Mark Kates had some very good observations, and Earnie Bailey is so thoughtful in his responses. But of course I’m grateful to everyone who agreed to speak with me.”

In one section of the book, as the author is chronicling the musical journey of Cobain, she details a time when Kurt and his band mates in the group Fecal Matter drove to his Aunt Mari’s house to record some of their work. While the band was taking a break, Mari looked through Kurt’s lyric notebooks and noticed a disturbing song entitled ‘Seaside Suicide.’ Later, she recalls being worried about him but not speaking to him about it, and according to Gaar her recollection was “partly referencing that he’d written about suicide. But also, I found Mari’s interview to be very poignant, with an underlying sadness.” This section of the book illustrates the author’s drive to include as much detail as possible, because Fecal Matter only played one show.

Impressively, the author references practically every show and recording in the history of Nirvana, from before they were Nirvana to their last show on March 1, 1994. She breaks down each song from the recordings, describes the overall performance at shows, and includes each show’s set list. She credits the collectors of Nirvana memorabilia, and the band themselves for allowing this level of depth:

“Nirvana’s career has been very well documented from the beginning…from their very first show! And before the band signed to a major label the band members themselves were sending out demos to friends and prospective labels. Thus, there’s quite a lot of material on the collector’s circuit already. Maybe certain shows aren’t available, but it’s mostly because no one taped them, not because they haven’t been released. “

Gaar had followed the band for a couple years by the time Nevermind was released, and when I asked her what she thinks made Nirvana go from a band people were unaware of, to the band kids wanted to emulate, she states:

“I would say probably the airing of the “Teen Spirit” video. Interest was already building with the single on the radio, but once it got out of the “120 Minutes” alternative show on into MTV’s regular broadcasting, that really pushed it to another level. That really it gave it momentum and things just took off from there.”

When I asked what her favorite memory of the “Nirvana Years” was as a music journalist from Seattle she picks two:

“I think seeing the Oct 4 1992 show at the Crocodile. There they were, the biggest band in the world, and they were back at the Crocodile! There’s nothing like a club show. It was such a relaxed atmosphere, more fun than the show I’d just seen the month before at the Coliseum (Key Arena). Unplugged was pretty special too; in both cases I felt so lucky to be there.”

Overall, I was very impressed with the level of detail in the book, and would recommend it to any Nirvana fan. The author doesn’t just cover Nirvana in a vacuum, she realizes the scene had a large role to play in the story, and she embraces it like no one has before. If you are looking for an “overview” of the band’s career this might not be the book for you, but if you want an in-depth as possible look at the years before ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ read this book. Once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down, and when I was forced to I just kept thinking about it. (That might be partly due to the title getting “Teen Spirit” stuck in my head for weeks)

Gillian Gaar is in the process of writing a new book entitled “100 Things Beatles Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” which will bring her book total up to 10.

Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana by Gillian Gaar is available now from all good bookstores, and via Amazon, priced $19.95.

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