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Thursday, December 10, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Meditations On Nirvana -- Book On `Nevermind' Album Enlightens Readers On The Seattle Band's Music Making, Personalities

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- Book Report

Charles Cross will read from both "Nevermind" and his upcoming Kurt Cobain biography at Elliott Bay Books, 101 South Main St. in Seattle, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 206-624-6600. -------------------------------

In the summer of 1991, Charles Cross, editor of the Seattle magazine The Rocket, was one of many in the alternative-music scene promoting a record that wasn't even available yet.

"Few albums have had as many advance tapes leaked as Nevermind," Cross recalls. "I was personally responsible for dubbing about a hundred copies of it." At Nirvana's record-release party at the Re-Bar, Cross remembers getting into arguments about the album's commercial possibilities. "I thought it was going to be a gold record (500,000 copies shipped), and to everyone else that seemed almost impossible."

"Nevermind" would eventually sell more than 10 million copies, change not only the Seattle music scene but the music industry itself, and provide a nifty demarcation between decades when it ousted Michael Jackson's HIStory as the No. 1 album in the country. The '80s were over, this coup suggested. Something newer, louder and angrier was on the way.

We're near the end of that decade now, but Charles Cross is still promoting "Nevermind." When Schirmer Books asked him to write a selection for their Classic Rock Album series, they were thinking of a Dylan or Beatles album. "It was my idea to do Nevermind." Cross admits. "It took a bit of convincing. It's the most modern album in the series . . . (But) the interest in this title has been more than all the others in the series combined."

"Nevermind," the book, written with Jim Berkenstadt, details the band's rise and provides a song-by-song dissection of how the record was made: from the early sessions in Madison, Wis., to the Sound City recordings in Van Nuys, Calif.; from the mixing by Andy Wallace to the mastering by Howie Weinberg.

Some readers may be confused by the book's technical jargon. This quote from producer Butch Vig typical is: "(W)e actually split the signal between an amplifier and plugged Kurt's Pro Co Rat distortion pedal directly into the Neve control board and blended both into the final mix." Yet, reading it, even musical neophytes will better understand how Nirvana blended punk and pop, anarchic noise and catchy melody, to create their masterpiece. Of equal interest are the origins of the hidden track at the end of the CD, Cobain's vocal miscues and bassist Krist Novoselic's sarcastic rendering of the Youngbloods' "Get Together."

Unfortunately some of the prose is portentous in the Paul Harvey manner. "One wonders if, sitting there in the Blue Moon that day . . . the members of Nirvana had any idea what was about to happen to them," the authors write. Probably not. "One can only imagine what Kurt Cobain must have thought entering Sound City that May afternoon . . ." Indeed, one can only imagine, so why mention it at all?

During his research, Cross discovered that many of Cobain's peers, silent since his suicide in 1994, were now willing to talk; and it began to dawn on Cross that he had more than a book about "Nevermind" in his notes.

"Who (Kurt) was is something I think that is missing from a lot of popular literature on the band," Cross insists.

One story he was told involved the first time Cobain saw the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video on MTV. "He was in a hotel room in New York, called his mom up, said, `Hey Mom, I'm on TV.' And he kept looking at the video - which he'd already seen before in editing - and he kept going, `There's me. There's me. There's me again.' The innocence of that is in such contrast to the way he's been painted in the media."

This anecdote will appear in Cross' upcoming biography of Cobain, tentatively titled "The Will of Instinct," due in the summer of 2000.

"It's gonna be massive," Cross says. "It's going to be the size of a phone book."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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