Friday, April 4, 2014

Kurt Cobain Died For My Free Dinner | Guest Column

Alcohol Funnycar in action. (Courtesy photo)

By Ben London of Alcohol Funnycar

A few quick musings of the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death.

It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
On April 8th, 1994 I was in the back of a white limousine driving between Philadelphia and New York City when they announced Kurt’s death on the radio. The interesting thing is that Kurt Cobain was the sole reason I was in the limo. Let me explain…

I moved to Seattle in 1989 from Yellow Springs, Ohio to follow my rock and roll dreams. Were they dreams of arenas full of cheering fans, endless streams of “hot chicks” and doing drugs like Keith Richards locked in a pharmacy? No, not really.

See, after 4 years of forming bands, playing shows and putting out cassette releases (in between attending a few classes at Antioch College) a small group of us decided to move to Seattle to try and play music full time. This was back before Seattle and Grunge were synonymous. Our DIY ambition was all about trying to put out records, go on tour, possibly be able to quit our shitty day jobs and be full-time musicians. When we arrived on Seattle’s doorstep, it was as if the city was waiting for us. Taking up residency in the audience at the Vogue on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we quickly met the cast of characters that we would begin to call good friends. Within no time, we were playing shows and scheming on how to put out our own records.

My college band Big Brown house shared a rhythm section with The Gits, and it became quickly obvious (for good reason) once we got to Seattle that the Gits was going to be their primary focus. By 1990 I decided to quit BBH and form a new band. I enlisted fellow Hot Lips Pizza co-worker Tommy Bonehead and we went about putting together Alcohol Funnycar. We were up and playing shows within the year.

Around this same time Sub Pop was exploding. Soundgarden had signed to A&M. Mother Love Bone’s first LP was out and Mudhoney was everywhere. Nirvana was a band with a song on Sub Pop 200 that everyone dug when it came on the juke box at the Frontier Room. The rest is history right? Nirvana – Boom! Soundgarden – Boom! Pearl Jam – Boom! Alice In Chains - Boom! It was as if overnight the lunatics had taken over the asylum and these were no longer Seattle’s bands… they were the world’s bands.

First rule of capitalism - Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

It was as if within days of Nirvana’s explosion every major label had a full time scout in Seattle. A&R guys were flying up every weekend to check out bands and whereas once the goal was maybe to get a record on SST, now it was bidding wars, fancy dinners and stenciled road cases for everyone!

First they snapped up a bunch of the Sub Pop bands (Mudhoney, Tad, Afghan Wigs, Love Battery, The Fluid, etc.) Then it was on to the other indie labels in town. I could probably make a list of 50+ bands at that time that got signed to major labels, their subsidiaries or big indies. It was as if the streets were paved with gold.

With an EP out on C/Z Records and a full length coming, the labels started sniffing around Alcohol Funnycar. In any other time or any other place we wouldn't have been on their radar, but now, every band was in play.

We got lots of advice from friends who’d already been through this dating ritual like “order the most expensive wine when you go out for dinner. Fuck ‘em, it’s Michael Jackson’s money anyway.” Or “Get them to fly you down to LA to visit their offices to make sure they’re serious”. Most importantly “There’s a cabinet in every office packed full with records. Make sure you take as many as you can”.

So in essence, we started speed dating. We had a local manager, got an LA lawyer and started working the expense accounts of any label who wanted to talk.

Capitol, Columbia, Hollywood, Priority, Mercury, Geffen. You name ‘em, someone reached out at some point. Not really because they loved us, more likely because they were worried someone else would get to us first. A&R people are an interesting mix of ego and insecurity. It can be a lethal combo.

So back to that limo…

We were flown out to Philadelphia by Rough House Records. They were primarily a hip hop imprint at Columbia and their artists included The Fugees, Cypress Hill and The Goats. They wanted to get into “rock” and were interested in our band. So we wine and dine our way around Philadelphia. Eat some cheese steaks, meet some local folks and drink a million drinks. The plan was that we’d go up to Columbia in NYC a few days later to meet the head of A&R David Kahn. The owner of Rough House was a character named Chris Schwartz who got his start working with Schooly D. He claimed he was not trying to impress us, but never the less picked us up from the hotel in a white stretch limo. We thought it was funny.

So there we are, on the freeway headed to NYC when an announcement comes on the radio: “Kurt Cobain was found dead from an apparent suicide”. The irony was not lost on me. After the initial shock wore off, I started thinking to myself “Well… this is over”.

If Nirvana hadn't exploded with "Nevermind," there is no way there would have ever been a feeding frenzy like this. There is no way a band like Alcohol Funnycar would have received this level of attention and no way we would have been driving in a limo with some record company guy that thought he was going to make a bunch of money off of us. It’s all kind of laughable now.

Over the next few years it all wound down. Our last LP "WEA$LES" was distributed by BMG, we toured a bunch and that was about it. The labels realized they couldn't make a bunch of money of off the Melvins, The Boredoms or Unsane. They packed up their tents and went and found a kinder gentler version of Grunge in bands like Sugar Ray, Smashmouth and Third Eye Blind.

And so it goes. Seattle got back to normal. Bands started focusing on music for music’s sake again and everything worked out in the end. We salvaged the knowledge they left behind and built our own infrastructure for the future.

So on this sad anniversary I try to look for the positive. The one upside? KC didn't have to live through Third Eye Blind.

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