Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where ya been, buddy? (Expletive) Nirvana!

Looks like I'll get to see Jack Endino this weekend while I am in Seattle for a journalism conference.

Jack produced the early Nirvana records and the Afghan Whigs classic Up In It, and for years has led the band Skinyard. I put up Skinyard in St. Louis many years ago, and looked up Jack more like eight years ago to fact-check something I wrote about that.

Today Jack can't remember my putting him up or his fact-checking the chapter of my music memoir, but he took me at his word and invited me to his studio on Saturday when I expressed interest in reconnecting with him.

Here is that chapter, from my unpublished memoir And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore.


54. Fucking Nirvana

You have seen in bars how a drunk will scrawl the phone number of a taxi dispatcher on the wall by a payphone. It's a sort of traveler’s folklore, akin to the symbols hobos used to leave for one another on safehouses and water towers. A stick figure carved on a doorway, for example, meant: a kindhearted woman lives here. I am sure, in a similar spirit, the phone number for the Marconi house was written somewhere behind the bar at Cicero’s as a last resort for homeless bands.

My phone rang late one night—actually, very early one morning. It was Benny, the guy who booked Cicero’s.

"Sorry to call so late, man. I’ve got a band in here packing up that needs a place to stay. Skin Yard. Jack Endino’s band. My roommate has family in or I’d put them up."

"Benny," I said. "We’ve been sort of put on notice by the local mafia. I wish I was making that up. We’ve got to lay low for awhile."

"That’s all they’re after," Benny persisted with me, as he knew he could. "Laying low. Laying down. They’re from Seattle. They’ve been out more than a month. They’re wiped."

"Any druggies?"

"I doubt it very much."

"Send them," I said. "But send them with a little beer."

No primping is needed to prepare for a visiting rock band. Indie rock musicians travel with nothing but a battered bedroll and fantasies of a morning shower. The news that even one guy gets a couch is usually met with elation (followed by the complex calculus of whose turn it is to snag the couch).

Still, it was odd to have half an hour on my hands waiting for a band to arrive rather than a van trailing me home from Cicero’s. So, feeling idiotic, I ran around the place, beating couch cushions together and clearing musician-sized plots on the living room floor. I was trying to remember where I heard the name Jack Endino before. I knew I had seen it somewhere. By the time the band arrived, I had placed the name.

"You produced that great fucking Afghan Whigs record!" I greeted Endino.

He had produced Up In It, the tape of electric guitar symphonies on perpetual play in Theo’s jambox. As the other Skin Yard guys drifted off—not to bed, but to floor—I kept an exhausted Jack Endino awake for an hour of shop talk.

The Whigs had stayed at Theo’s house, and she had stories of their debauchery, but our paths had never crossed. I only knew them from my perch in a nest of Theo’s clothes, with avalanches of electric guitars tumbling out of a jambox cranked to capacity. I knew them with the awe of a fan.

Endino knew them with the cool of a technician. He talked about the challenges of keeping two busy guitar lines out of each other’s way, and diminishing the abrasiveness of a Telecaster played through a Marshall amp. The throb of two simultaneous, never ending, not quite sequenced guitar solos, which gave the record its symphonic quality and its dangerous edge of something about to explode, had been for Jack a technical challenge, a monster to stuff into a box.

"I did my thing," Endino said. "I made it rock. I tried not to think too hard about it."

I felt like a fan talking to an athlete. Jack tried not to think too hard about performing a difficult task. The urge to couch the magnificent result in language was my problem, not his.

"What about booze and drugs?" I wondered. "I know from mutual friends that the Whigs can party pretty hard."

"Clean and sober," Endino said. "Maybe a couple of beers before a vocal take to loosen up, but that’s it. We didn’t fuck around. We had a job to do. And no big budget to be burning up my time. I always see people at their best. No drama. No dirt. Just hard-working bands. I’ve never so much as seen Kurt open a beer in the studio."

"Kurt?" There was no Kurt in the Whigs.


"Who’s that?" I asked.

"Nirvana?" an exhausted Jack Endino said. "I did Bleach and their early demos."

I shrugged.

"Turn on the radio, man," he said. "You’re missing it."

I was definitely missing it, if it was on the radio. Growing up around St. Louis, I had long ago abandoned hope for the airwaves. KDHX and a few other stations on what Paul Westerberg reminded us was the "left of the dial", restored some of that lost hope. But, as a band, we never tuned in to the radio. On tour, everyone piled into Old Blue with a ratty bag of their own comfort music, the stuff that would keep them alert at the wheel in the middle of the night.

Through Matt, we all came to know the intricacies of Dinosaur Jr. (They used to be Dinosaur, by the way. You know. Paul told me.) The most peaceful image I have kept from our years on the road is spinning around in the van after hearing a Dinosaur Jr guitar solo reach its crushingly loud crescendo, wanting to share the moment with Matt, only to find him dissolved into the seatback, a smile spread across his face, sunlight dappling his shut eyes.

I drove the Birthplace to Chicago for one of our shows that fall. I wanted to have my own vehicle to kick around the city afterward. I caught Dinosaur Jr. at one of the larger Chicago venues. That show provided a moment of revelation — not the music, which sounded turgid in a big room, but the crowd.

There were so damn many of us. I really had no idea. As I stood there in my Chuck Taylors, bluejeans, obscure band t-shirt, and ballcap flipped backwards, I surveyed thousands and thousands of other people in Chuck Taylors, bluejeans, obscure band t-shirts, and ballcaps flipped backwards. The loneliness of my post-punk nunnery now seemed like a dream. This music was on the march.

One final memory of life before the flood, the flood of grunge. I was sitting in an empty bar in Charleston, West Virginia. Traveling musicians spend a lot of time sitting in empty bars at twilight. Even when the house is packed by show time, it is always empty when you arrive. So you read the local paper, try to resist starting on a pre-sound check drunk, take turns watching the gear while the other guys walk around the slacker strip. And you get subjected to the very latest in very loud rock music, courtesy of the bar staff.

On this evening in Charleston, one muscly barback kept dipping into the tip jar and feeding the jukebox. Every time, he played the same song, a piece of post-punk with dramatic breaks and growled lyrics rendered completely inaudible by speaker distortion. I began to wonder who in the hell I was hearing, over and over and over again.

Finally, I grabbed the barback on one of his trips to the basement for cases of beer.

"Who’s this?" I shouted.

"Who’s this?" he shouted back. "Where ya been, buddy? Fucking Nirvana!"


Endino image from