Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Nirvana in Concert: 20 Years Later

I usually end my posts by saying that my next topic might be something you’ve never heard of.  That’s certainly not the case this week.  Nirvana is a legendary rock band and certainly not a Cultural Ghost.  Why I’ve chosen to write about them this week is because today marks the anniversary of one of their concerts.  Exactly 20 years ago today, November 5 1993, Nirvana played in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, and I was there.

First, let the music speak for itself.  A user named NirvanaUnseen has posted the entire concert on YouTube:

In late 1993, Nirvana was at the height of their success.  In Utero had just been released and “Heart Shaped Box” was in constant replay on MTV and radio stations everywhere.  Just a week and a half after the Buffalo show, they would record their Unplugged concert in New York City.  In November of 1993 Nirvana was the biggest rock band in the world and to those who were at that concert, the future seemed bright.  History would unfortunately play out differently.  

Kurt Cobain committed suicide five months to the day after playing in Buffalo.  His death was the defining event of my generation and remains one of those “where were you when you heard the news?”  moments.  I remember the moment like it was yesterday.  I was in the campus center at Alfred University playing College Bowl with the same people I had gone to the concert with five months before.  It was a complete shock that none of us believed at first.  After the initial mourning period was over, people invariably started talking about what would happen now that Nirvana was no more.  Some of these ideas and theories bring me back around to the topic of Cultural Ghosts and help to explain why a legendary rock band is being discussed on a blog dedicated to things that have largely been forgotten.

Nirvana left behind a relatively small catalog.  Three studio albums, a collection of B-sides, and a couple of live albums.  That’s it.  Cobain definitely left people wanting more, and after his untimely death, rumors about unreleased album-ready Nirvana songs started flying.  In the late spring and summer of 1993, stories started circulating that the band had recorded an entire album of new material and it would soon be released.  When the album didn’t come out, new rumors about Courtney Love withholding the album from fans started swirling (it was quite easy to hate Courtney Love at the time).  These rumors of a whole album-full of new Nirvana material were taken quite seriously at the time and some unreleased songs did trickle out as part of bootleg concert recordings.  This was in the era before YouTube and smartphones.  If you wanted to hear an unauthorized recording of a concert, you had to buy a bootleg CD or tape.  Sometimes they were quite expensive (as much as $20 to $25, which was a lot to pay for a CD back then).  I had a friend who obsessively collected Nirvana concert recordings in an effort to track down these post-In Utero tracks.  Keep in mind that this was before the current age of the Internet and much of this information travelled by word of mouth. Many of the songs he did track down were older unreleased tracks that hadn't made it on to older albums.  Sadly, the tracks were never released because there simply was no mythical follow-up to In Utero.  Nirvana did record a couple of tracks during their last studio session in January of 1994, but they didn’t record a whole album.  These rumors of new songs could grow because Nirvana fans didn’t want to believe that the band was done.  Accepting that was accepting the fact that Cobain had died suddenly and left his life and work unfinished.  No one wants to believe that they will never hear new songs by their favorite band, and believing that these songs were out there was a kind of wish fulfillment.  Like Beatles fans who search for mystery tracks with odd names like “Colliding Circles” and “Pink Litmus Paper Shirt”, the belief that a load of undiscovered material was out there left open the hope that Nirvana wasn’t really over.  

Another interesting topic of discussion from late 1993 was what the surviving members of Nirvana would go on to.  It was widely believed at the time that the member of the band poised to find success post-Nirvana was bassist Krist Novoselic.  He was often just as noticeable as Cobain on stage and seemed to get just as much attention in the press during Nirvana’s heyday.  His epic bass toss (that ended with him getting smashed in the face with his instrument) was often cited as evidence of his rock and roll bona fides.  If anyone was going to carry on the torch of grunge, it would surely be him.  Shortly after the death of Cobain, Novoselic formed a band called Sweet 75.  People had a lot of expectations for this band, and there was much speculation at the time that Novoselic’s success post-Nirvana was a sure thing.  As often happens in these situations, things played out differently.  Sweet 75 fizzled out after recording one album, and Novoselic became involved with several political issues.  Instead it was Dave Grohl, often literally in the background as the group’s drummer, who went on to form the Foo Fighters. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Ultimately, very little of what people thought would happen after Cobain’s death actually did happen.  In Utero became Nirvana’s swan song.  Dave Grohl, and not Novoselic, became the unlikely successor to the band’s rock crown.  One thing that hasn’t changed over the past 20 years, though, is the influence Nirvana had on music. Like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin before them, Nirvana fundamentally changed things.  Music and culture (especially of the 1990s) would have been completely different had Nirvana not come along.  What musicians have that distinction today?  I really can’t think of any.  There are successful music acts today, for sure, but there’s a big difference between selling a lot of albums and changing music history.  Singers like Katy Perry and Bruno Mars sell countless records and get their music played seemingly everywhere, but would music and culture be fundamentally different without them?  Probably not.  

The experience I had when I saw Nirvana live in 1993 is a Cultural Ghost.  There will never be a live Nirvana show again, and young people today who discover the band will never be able to have that experience.  I was lucky enough to be a fan of Nirvana during the relatively short time they existed, and I cherish the memory of the concert on that November night and still remember it like it was yesterday.  I’m older now, and don’t go to concerts much these days (mainly because of the cost), but I still listen to music, and I still listen to Nirvana.  Their music has held up incredibly well, and doesn’t sound dated or old.  There may never be any more new music from Nirvana, but their legacy lives on.  

Next time, a new topic.  it might be something you've never heard of.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Musée Robert Tatin: A Singular Vision

A few weeks ago I dug some old Smithsonian magazines out of my attic.  They had once belonged to my Grandfather, and they date from the late 70s and early 80s.  He had a subscription to the magazine, and when he was done reading an issue he’d give it to me and my brother.  My Grandfather died when I was very young and I never really knew him.  We saw him all the time growing up (he and my father ran a business together) but I was never able to know him through the eyes of an adult.  These old magazines are probably the only actual link I have to him now, and it offers a little bit of an insight into who he was.  Anyone who reads Smithsonian is going to be someone interested in a wide range of topics since it’s kind of an eclectic magazine.  Any given month, the topics covered can be as varied as history, science, archeology, and art.  It’s a very smart magazine and presents challenging articles about the government, environment, and culture.  I like to imagine my Grandpa reading it cover to cover, agreeing with some article, disagreeing with others, and always eagerly awaiting the next issue.  I can read these old magazines now and feel I’m really connecting with him in a way I was never able to.

What perhaps is one of the most interesting aspects of these old issues is how they document current events with a sense of newness and wonder.  Reading these stories now gives an insight into how people saw these events while they were happening.  They’re windows to the past that can be incredibly poignant.  Among the issues I hauled down from my attic is an article from a 1979 issue discussing global warming and climate change.  These words weren’t even close to being part of the public discussion back then, but Smithsonian wrote about it.  Another cover story documents the construction of the then-controversial Pompidou Center in Paris. This building is an indelible part of the Parisian landscape now, but back when it was built many questioned its design.  I also vividly remember the issue documenting the discovery of the Chinese terra cotta warriors in the mid 70s (this one particularly fascinated my brother).  Another fondly remembered article explored the discovery of the recently re-discovered “Wasp in a Wig” segment from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.  I don’t have all the magazines my Grandfather gave me anymore (I once had dozens, now I have about 10) but the ones that are left touch on topics that can certainly be considered Cultural Ghosts, and this brings us to the topic of this week’s post.

One of the topics that Smithsonian covers with regularity is art.  Almost every issue (both past and present) has at least one article dealing with art, and individual artist, or architecture.  While thumbing through the February 1979 issue I found an article about a strange sculpture garden on the outskirts of Paris created by a sculptor named Robert Tatin.  I have seen a lot of art and studied many architectural sites, but wouldn’t profess to know everything.  This was a place I had never heard of, and decided to research it a little more.

At the most general level, the Musée Robert Tatin could be considered outsider art. It’s really the only thing Tatin is remembered for, and he built the entire thing himself free of wider architectural styles or trends.  Basically, he did what he wanted to do, and didn’t care whether others liked it or not.  Outsider artists often work this way.  They may toil for decades on one project (California's Salvation Mountain or the Watts Towers in LA) or create their work in private, never intending to show it to anyone (Darger comes to mind here).    The  Musée Robert Tatin may be lumped in with other outsider art sites, but Tatin was anything but an outsider.  He hobnobbed with Jean Dubuffet and AndreBreton (the founder of Surrealism) as a young man and tried many careers before starting construction on what would become his museum and legacy.  After a chance meeting with French President Charles De Gaulle in 1965, he set up a meeting with Culture Minister André Malraux and was then relentless while he worked towards getting his site recognized as an official museum by the French government.  His endless self-promotion eventually paid off, and the site is still operating as an official Musée de France.

Tatin had a singular artistic vision, which is probably why he’s often grouped in with outsider artists.  Take this sculpture of the artist Georges Seurat, for example.  Many of the concrete sculptures Tatin made represented artists, but they didn’t use common symbolism or even look like the artist they represented.  Here the female figure is most likely meant to reference one of the main figures from  A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (Seurat’s most famous work).  But why is there a smaller figure under her dress, seemingly playing a shell game?   Tatin had his reasons, I’m sure, even if they may not be clear to us now.  That’s what’s so great about art.  It can be depicted and interpreted in a myriad of ways.  Maybe we see what Tatin intended, maybe we don’t.  Maybe we make up our own meanings.  Our ability to make art personal, while we’re making it or looking at it, keeps it valid and relevant.

Some other views of Tatin’s museum can be seen below:

Unlike some other topics I’ve covered in the past, the Musée Robert Tatin is still in operation and can still be visited today.  I include it on this blog as a Cultural Ghost because it’s a place that exists only a short drive from a major world capitol, but is still largely unknown outside of France.  Robert Tatin doesn’t have an English-language Wikipedia page, nor does the museum itself.  The official website for the museum is in French only and can’t be viewed in other languages.  When I Googled the museum to begin my research for this post, about half of the articles that came up were in French.  There are cultural sites outside of Paris that are part of the tourist landscape in Europe and are visited by thousands of people a year.  Places like Versailles and Giverny come to mind, and are visited and talked about today because they played a part in global history and culture.  Tatin may have never made that much of an impact, but he did leave behind a record of his distinctive artistic vision.  Your individual legacy is what you make it, and perhaps nobody understood that more than Robert Tatin.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What Wasn't Built: The FDR Memorial

In my last posts I looked for alternate designs submitted for the now legendary Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  My search proved harder than I originally thought it would be, and I was only able to find a photo of one submitted design.  For this post, I decided to take a slightly different route and chose something I knew I could find documentation of.  Marcel Breuer’s design for a proposed Franklin Roosevelt Memorial isn’t necessarily hard to find (images of it are available on-line) but I classify it as a Cultural Ghost because it’s the kind of thing that’s hard to find unless you’re specifically looking for it.

It was inevitable that a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt would someday be built in Washington D.C.  FDR was elected president 4 times and lead America through two of the darkest chapters in history.  He enacted social reforms that are still with us today.  A memorial to his presidency (and basically two decades of American history) was proposed as early as 1960, but the memorial that stands today as a symbol of Roosevelt’s greatness wasn’t opened to the public until 1997.  Over the course of 30 years, there were bound to be some changes, and the finished memorial differed greatly from what was eventually built.

The monument was eventually handed to Lawrence Halprin.  As it stands, the FDR Memorial is a series of rooms, each one abstractly representative of Roosevelt’s time in office.  Events like World War II and The Great Depression are remembered with statuary and waterfalls.  Instead of one statue of a president, the FDR Memorial is considerably more complex.  Sculptor George Segal created several of his characteristic figures and vignettes, and other sculptors such as Leonard Baskin and Robert Graham also contributed to the sculptural program.  There’s the obligatory bronze statue of FDR himself, of course, but Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s beloved terrier Fala are also commemorated.  It’s a grand memorial for a larger-than-life figure, but it could have been much different if the original plan for the memorial had been built.

Architect Marcel Breuer seemed to perfectly fit the profile of the designer for an FDR Memorial.  He was of Jewish descent and had taught at the Bauhaus, the school that revolutionized the basic approach to teaching art and design.  He fled to England when the Nazis forced the closure of the school in 1933.  His life was rearranged by World War II, but he had overcome adversity and found success as a practitioner of modern architecture.  His design for the FDR Memorial, submitted in 1966, looked like this:

Breuer’s vision of architecture and design is certainly visible here.  A large block or cube is surrounded by several slanted slabs (they appear to be marble in one of the photos) that seem to be radiating out from the center.  The materials and surfaces speak for themselves.  There is no statuary or giant sculpture of the president.  Such a modern approach would surely have been controversial had it been built, and the design was criticized while still in the planning phases.  Delays in the planning and funding dragged the project out, and it was eventually handed off to a different designer.

Breuer’s design offers an insight into American aesthetics of the mid 20th century.  Modern design and architecture was working its way into the mainstream, and the sleek unadorned memorial reflects the changing attitudes towards design and planning that took hold after WWII. But, I don’t mean to suggest that Breuer’s design would have been better then what was actually built in D.C.  The monument as it stands is a moving tribute to a great man as well as a peaceful place to contemplate and reflect on some of the most difficult times in our history.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

What Wasn't Built: The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, specifically its design by Maya Lin.  She was the winner of a competition held to find an appropriate monument meant to remember a difficult time in American history.  What interested me in starting this topic were the other proposals that were submitted for review.  Many different artists and designers had ideas for the monument, and almost 1,500 plans were received.  I thought it might be interesting to track down some of these alternate monument designs.  How different would Washington D.C, and monument design in general, be if a different design had been chosen?

The task proved harder than I first thought it would be.  Surely an old book or magazine article would illustrate some of these other designs.  Apparently that wasn’t the case.  After looking through many books and magazine articles, I was able to find only one.  It appeared in a 1980 edition of Time magazine.  It looked like this:

The names of the soldiers who lost their lives are listed on two separate wall sections, and what appears to be a sculptural group of some kind is elevated between the walls, creating an arch.  No designer’s name was given in the article (I would give credit to the designer if I could).  According to the article, it was the second place finisher in the competition.  It seems competent enough, and could have been a fitting tribute, but Lin’s design was the overwhelming winner.

The time article doesn’t print any other pictures, but does offer a written description of some of the other designs, stating:

“The rejected entries include such kitsch as a house-high steel helmet and a number of handsomely styled columns, pylons, tables and structures that belong at a World’s Fair or amusement park.  Other designers accommodate the thousands of names on various layouts of slabs, blocks and other geometric stones and look depressingly like constructivist graveyards.”

That paragraph states something that I hadn’t realized before starting this research.  Mainly, it wasn’t Maya Lin’s idea to list the names of all of the fallen soldiers (I always thought it was).  That aspect of the memorial was decided on by the selection committee, and all of the designs had to incorporate it.  The above design seems to have the names listed in columns on white slab walls.

A Strong, Clear Vision

Ultimately, I don’t wish to suggest in this post that something else should have been built in D.C to commemorate the Vietnam War.  Lin’s design won the competition by a landslide and continues to move people to this day.  Even though the idea of listing the names of the fallen was conceived by someone else, her design incorporates this element in a unique and memorable way.  The walls are black granite (not the typical Washington marble) and are reflective.  Therefore, when a visitor looks at the monument they see themselves.  Our history is tied to people from the past.  Our present lives are impacted by the sacrifice of others.  Something as simple as a reflective surface takes on incredibly deep, symbolic meaning in the design.  

Also, Lin chose to list the names in order of their death (not alphabetically), so if one wishes to find a specific name, they will most likely have to scan a section of the wall, reading many names before they find the one they’re looking for.  Finding a name on the wall takes a little effort, and in doing so Lin causes us to confront the enormity of the loss sustained in Vietnam.  It is not a passive memorial, and it demands our participation.  Many deigns were submitted, but clearly the best woman won.  Perhaps it’s fitting that the other designs have faded into obscurity and become Cultural Ghosts.

For more information on the design and construction of the memorial, watch the excellent documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.”  It not only documents the initial controversy surrounding Lin’s selection for the Vietnam Memorial commission, but also highlights some of her other public commissions, such as the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Yale Women’s Table in New Haven, Connecticut.

Next week, some alternate designs for a different memorial.  They might be things you've never heard of.