Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Forming Of The Go-Go's, Robert Hilburn, and ... Kurt Cobain?

So the legendary Go-Go's, the first all-female rock group to have a #1 album and take America by storm and break down the barriers for all the female rockers to follow and just plain generally kick ass, knew, right from the start, how significant they were going to be, yes?

Not exactly.

To quote Belinda from a recent interview: "We were friends, we were sitting on a curb ... and everybody in that scene was in a band and they were terrible, and we thought, 'Well, we can be in a band and be terrible too.' "

It's not something that every successful band is willing to admit. But the Go-Go's, to this day, are not shy about admitting one thing: when they started, they were terrible. Couldn't play. Couldn't sing. Couldn't even set up their instruments. But they were punks, they were girls, and when they hit the stage, everyone thought they were hilarious. As Belinda put it in another interview, "We were drinking beer and ... it was like, 'Let's form a band.' 'OK, what do you want to do?' I had never sung before, but it didn't really matter back then because you didn't need to have any experience to be in a band. In fact, that was sort of a pre-requisite, not knowing how to play." Fame, fortune, hit records - you must be talking about someone else, right?

Those two friends sitting on a curb drinking beer with Belinda were Margot Olaverra, the "Pete Best" of the Go-Go's, and one Jane Drano, otherwise known as Jane Wiedlin.
Our first rehearsal was at Margot's apartment off Robertson Boulevard. We were pretty scattered and lost. We didn't even know how to start; we barely figured out how to set up our instruments. We banged around, tried to write songs, and then went to Denny's for dinner.

We rehearsed in the basement at the Canterbury, then shuttled between there and one of several tiny rehearsal rooms at the Masque, which we shared with other bands, including the Motels and X. Both bands gave us pointers. With our purple and fuchsia hair, we were a sight as we wheeled our amps down the street from the Canterbury to the club, which was beneath the Pussycat porn theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

We came up with two songs, "Overrun," a fashionably angry romp that I wrote, and "Robert Hilburn," a tongue-in-cheek ode to the Los Angeles Times's rock critic written by Jane, who from the outset revealed herself to be an incredibly prolific and clever songwriter, something that was even more impressive considering she didn't know anything about writing songs and learned the guitar chords by putting masking tape with numbers on our guitar frets.
Ah, yes, "Robert Hilburn." During a recent interview with the A/V Club for their Set List series, Jane was asked about "Robert Hilburn":
The A.V. Club: The Go-Go’s had a whole life, and repertoire, before the Beauty And The Beat era. There are bootlegs of you playing at the Whiskey A Go Go as far back as 1978, including several songs that never saw the light of day. Do you remember “Robert Hilburn,” which slagged off the music critic of the Los Angeles Times?
Jane Wiedlin: Oh, nice one! Of course. I remember all those songs. I mean, I had just become a songwriter. The Go-Go’s were like my first babies. Robert Hilburn was a sort of L.A. legend. He was a rock-music critic. “Robert Hilburn” was a scathing song about him. It’s kind of a dumb move for a young band trying to get somewhere, to actually criticize Robert Hilburn, but I don’t even know if he ever heard about it. Or if he did, by the time he heard about it, we were doing so well that he didn’t dare not like us.
AVC: What did he ever do to you guys?
JW: No, no, he didn’t ever do anything to us, I think it was more me observing as an outsider. It wasn’t that he actually criticized us. I was just saying he was a poser—which, back in the ’70s, was the biggest insult you could put on someone.
AVC: You also called him old, which is just as bad.
JW: Well, the first line of the song is “Robert Hilburn wants to be young.” [Laughs.] It was “Robert Hilburn wants to be young/Robert Hilburn has his tongue-in-cheek pose down real pat, wonders what it’s like to have fun.” That was the first verse. Can you believe I just pulled that out? Come on.
AVC: That’s impressive. I had to look the lyrics up on the Internet, since they’re hard to discern on the bootleg.
JW: There are lyrics of it on the Internet somewhere? That’s awesome.
Little does Jane Wiedlin know, but Robert Hilburn did ultimately hear about "Robert Hilburn." And you wouldn't believe how.

Hilburn has recently published a memoir called Cornflakes with John Lennon, in which he talks about not only eating corn flakes with John Lennon, but also interviewing Elvis, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and every other major artist of the rock era. But when I saw the book in the library, I didn't care about any of that. Oh no. The first thing I wondered when I saw his name was, "Hey, I wonder if he says anything about that song the Go-Go's wrote where they made fun of him." I flipped to the index, and sure enough, he did mention the song in his book. But I was astounded when I realized just under what circumstances he mentioned it.

Little could the young Go-Go's have known, when they wrote "Robert Hilburn," that one day Robert Hilburn himself would be discussing the song during an interview with a man who was, at that moment of the interview, the most famous and significant rock star in the world:

Kurt Cobain.

It was 1993. Nirvana were wrapping up the recording of In Utero, yet to be released. When Hilburn showed up to Cobain's house for the interview, Kurt was wearing a dress. Hilburn was probably hoping to chat about Nirvana's generational significance, the band's musical influences, etc. etc. But it turns out that Kurt Cobain was thinking exactly the same thing I was thinking. From Hilburn's book:
Around midnight, we were talking about some of the songs on the new record when he suddenly stopped and - out of the blue - asked me if I had ever heard the record the Go-Go's had made about me. When I said no, he looked a little sheepish - as if he was suddenly nervous. I had heard the band wrote a sarcastic song about me during its early days, but I'd never actually heard it. He said he'd go see if he could find it. He seemed so defensive that I felt he was afraid the record might offend me, and I guessed he was going to say he couldn't find it. But after a few minutes he yelled from the other room, "I've found it. Come listen." Sure enough the record poked fun at me. I was a fan of the Go-Go's and got a kick out of the single. When I laughed, it seemed to trigger a feeling in Kurt that I was an okay guy - that he could trust me.
No, wait, really? OK, this is awesome in about twenty different ways.

First of all ... Kurt Cobain was a fan of the Go-Go's? From what I've read, Kurt could have very strong opinions about music. He was known to call certain bands "fake" or "phony." Underground credibility was a "thing" to him. It wasn't all just fun and games. Well, let's just say that Belinda Carlisle's career and "underground credibility" go together like oil and water.

On the other hand, he was also known to like a lot of music that wasn't necessarily "hip" in the alternative community. He was worried that his fellow grunge musicians would find a song like "About A Girl" too wimpy and jangly and R.E.M.-ish for that scene (of course, anybody who would have thought that would have been an idiot). He also had an extreme fondness for amateurish female bands such as the Raincoats, Shonen Knife, and the Vaselines (well, the Vaselines were only half female, but they certainly were all amateurish).

OK, big deal, you're saying, so Kurt Cobain liked the Go-Go's. But you don't understand. Nobody who had a bootleg version of "Robert Hilburn" from the Go-Go's' early punk days would have been just some casual admirer. Hilburn mistakenly calls it a single, but it was never a single. It was never even officially released. It's not even on YouTube. No, to have "Robert Hilburn," Kurt would have had to go out of his way to get some obscure bootleg, probably on cassette or whatnot. And he had it lying around in his house?

Sometimes I'm hard on you, Kurt Cobain. I read your interviews and disagree with a lot of the things you say. I don't care if music becomes extremely popular. I don't care if bands compromise. I don't share your nihilistic attitude. I don't think you were the be-all and end-all of '90s rock. I resent that my American peers elevate you over your British contemporaries, whose music I prefer.

But sometimes, Kurt, you're all right.

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