Interview With Everett True
By Matthew Fritch (June 2002)
Everett True: reviled or revered? Alt-rock’s British lapdog or a critic with a nose for the real stuff, sniffing ahead of the pack? Whatever you think–or may not even know–about True (born Jerry Thackray), here are two important facts that cannot be called into question: He’s a natural-born, talented writer. He was there, and you weren’t.
In 1989, Melody Maker handed True a plane ticket to Seattle with the assignment of profiling Sub Pop Records and the burgeoning (yet still very unpublicized) Northwest scene. The ticket might as well have been one-way, as True spent the majority of the next 10 years as the rock-crit godfather of grunge and confidant to “Kurtney”–he introduced Kurt to Courtney at a Butthole Surfers gig in ’91. He was the liaison for breaking American alt-rock in England, the one who could effectively bestow upon a band a cover or feature in Melody Maker or the NME. Nirvana, Hole, Screaming Trees, Melvins, Mudhoney, the Breeders, Sonic Youth, Babes In Toyland, the Lemonheads, Sebadoh, Beck: He rode in vans with them, drank with them, stood on the sides of their stages and occasionally performed with them (he’d sometimes fill the opening slot as one-man-band The Legend!). Sometimes he even got around to interviewing them. He was a celebrity. And he was there at the Cobain residence in Lake Washington, standing with Courtney and Mark Lanegan in the house as the police sorted out the details of Kurt’s suicide. He remained in the U.S. for a few years afterward, then exited quietly, taking that return trip back to England.
Well, that’s one version of True’s ’90s story. And it’s the clean, heartless one. Prone to blackouts from drinking and immersed in the camaraderie of whatever band he happened to be hanging around with, True rarely let critical distance stand in the way of a good time. Reared on an uber-indie British scene (Pastels, Television Personalities) and later enamored with the no-bullshit Olympia one (Beat Happening, Bikini Kill), True maintained clear ideas about the virtues of rock ‘n’ roll and having fun and dancing way up front near the stage.
Virgin Books has recently published Live Through This, True’s memoirs of the crazy, mixed-up times he had with his musician drinking buddies. But underneath the good-times tales are the suicide of a close friend (Cobain) and the druggy, pathetic stories of many others (Evan Dando, Kim and Kelley Deal). True begins the book with a very personal chapter on Nirvana, Cobain, Love and the suicide; he ends it with a brutally honest look at Hole. Live Through Thisis personal business, as True injects himself into every scene, relating what he saw as a journalist, fan and performer. For these and other acts of self-inclusion, True will no doubt be criticized (as he has throughout his career) for writing as if he’s the axis of the Earth itself. For those of us who can’t dig deep enough into fandom’s core, however, there’s no other way a book should be written.
But all this sounds like we’re discussing the man in the past tense. He’s very much alive, and now publishes his own magazine, Careless Talk Costs Lives, with photographer Steve Gullick. True answered some roundabout questions by e-mail from his home in Brighton, England.
[Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in Magnet magazine.]
Matthew: The book’s subtitles are misleading: “American Rock Music In The Nineties”; “The First And Last Word On Grunge.” I was actually relieved to start reading and find out it’s not trying to be some grunge history etched in stone–it’s your subjective experience in the ’90s. Do you think that, in some ways, this book says as much about you as the musicians and scenes profiled
Everett: Absolutely. It’s a memoir, and I don’t pretend that it’s anything but. It so happened that I met a lot of rock musicians because that was my job, but I have only ever tried to make sense of my own life, not of those around me. There was no point me writing a conventional history, it would have been a wasted opportunity. I had firsthand experience.
Matthew: You write that “rock is a club for all those who don’t have the credentials to join anywhere else.” I think that nicely capsulizes how a lot of us came to rock music as performers, journalists, fans, etc. Can you detail how/when the “joining” process started for you?
Everett: As a fan, of course. I used to go to shows to dance: If I didn’t like a band I wouldn’t watch them, if I did I would be dancing down the front. Haphazard and with no sense of rhythm. There was one (relatively unknown) band in particular I saw, where the singer grabbed me the third time I saw them (I was the only one dancing) and that started a friendship. The band was called the Laughing Apple, and the singer’s name was Alan McGee. He said he wanted to start a fanzine (inspired partly by Dan Treacy’s TV Personalities and Paul Weller’s then-record label) and asked me to write a column for it, detailing all I hated about current music (I was very passionate about my likes and dislikes). This was 1982.
So I did. The magazine was called Communication Blur, and a couple of weeks after it appeared I got a call at my work (I was a screen printer) from the boss of one of the labels I’d slagged off, swearing at me for 45 minutes–me, a nobody punk kid. I was shocked at the time, but realized after that this was precisely the effect I was seeking to engender. Cool.
For the third issue, McGee had started concentrating on his record label Creation, and wanted to make me editor (with himself, Bobby Gillespie, Andrew Innes, etc. as main contributors). Fine, but he wanted to put a Smiths flexi on the front. A very trendy band, it would have increased our circulation no end: 10,000 sales easy. I refused because I hated the fucking Smiths (I didn’t hate them, actually, but wasn’t passionate about them, which amounted to the same thing back then). So I started my own fanzine instead: The Legend! (the name under which I recorded the first single for McGee’s label).
The NME took me on, after I showed up there one day and demanded they printed something I’d written. I couldn’t even form a sentence, but got by on my enthusiasm. When I first traveled out to Seattle at the start of ’89 for Melody Maker to write the Sub Pop story, it was both my first trip to America and my first trip for the paper (I’d joined a few short months before).
Matthew: What was your first writing gig, and why’d you choose this maligned and financially unrewarding career of music journalism?
Everett: A tiny review of the X-Men (comparing them to ice cream on a hot summer’s day) for NME in 1984 or 1983 was the first paid work I had (a princely sum of around £15 I recall, around the same I get now the odd occasion people still print my words). I chose it for its immediacy. I was a performer/singer, too, during the ’80s, but would get continually frustrated at what I saw as the “dishonesty” of bands–the fact that you’d write these (presumably) heartfelt words and then repeat them a thousand times. I didn’t like to perform a song more than once for that reason. This made it very hard to hold a band together more than a couple of months. So I switched to writing: I wanted to convey the excitement and disgust that music made me feel, the sheer exhilaration of hearing a great new record or seeing a great new band for the first time. I wanted other people to feel it, too. I still do. When I started writing for the NME, it seemed no one was writing about all these fucking brilliant bands I was going to see (and dance to) and that made me angry. So I wanted to change that.
Matthew: I’m going to throw some more of your words back at you. “For once I thought it would be nice if history was written by one of the losers.” This line seems half-genuine impetus for the book, half-disingenuous sentiment (“loser” in the hip, Beck-ish sense of the word). Nirvana won (as much as it wanted to), you won (correspondent to the stars for nearly a decade), and here’s a book published by Virgin to prove it. What do you think?
Everett: Nirvana didn’t win. It’s a very important difference between wanting something and then being given it. Sure, they wanted success. But my use of “loser” in the above sentence wasn’t supposed to be ironic, it was deliberate. I was comparing myself to the true winners (Courtney, Billy, Trent, the ones with the money and continued fame). I have a book out? It’s not nearly as big a deal as people might think. I still know few people, can’t travel the world as I wish, never changed anybody’s fucking mind about anything. All Nirvana did was pave the way for Limp fucking Bizkit and Smashing fucking Pumpkins, and make a load of soulless corporate bullies even richer. Was I correspondent to the stars? Not deliberate. I was just writing about what was around me. I can’t even get my words published in a two-bit crappy broadsheet like the Guardian or the Times.
Matthew: What’s your comeback line for people who’ll read this and say: “That Everett True, he’s such a namedropper, a hanger-on”?
Everett: It’s true. But I also have way more soul than they’ll ever know. British and American journalism play by different rules. Whereas most U.S. editors would frown on a writer getting drunk with the band or reviewing a perceived rival (Billy Corgan, for example), you had a bit more free reign. Thoughts on this? U.S. journalism seems to be much more worried about what its advertisers think, far more concerned with its audience. (Maybe rightly so.) Traditionally, U.K. press never did (although I think that might have changed by now). It’s down to humor: The victors have no need for it, hence the American image as a complacent, bloated male completely unable to laugh at themselves. Maybe that’s why U.S. editors would frown on the above: They can’t trust their own writers to have integrity. I have any amount of integrity; it’s my own, not anyone else’s.
Matthew: You took charge of your own identity as the guy who could help the careers of many a band. How aware were you at the time of the thin line between being a friend and drinking buddy on one hand, and a person to be used for publicity on the other?
Everett: Sure, I was being used for publicity. But I was mostly concerned with having fun.
Matthew: Do you still talk to Courtney? Has she had any reaction to this book yet?
Everett: No, I don’t. We finally fell out when she refused to take responsibility when I challenged her about helping Charles Cross in his “Oh, I think I need to find the new Bruce Springsteen now” Kurt Cobain book. So I have no idea if she’s even aware my book exists and couldn’t care less, frankly. Part of the reason I wrote it was to finally exorcise myself of her shadow: It’s taken a fuck of a long time. Sure she was fun to hang out with, but Jesus … If she has any sense at all–and she has plenty–she won’t go near my book. She knows what’s good for her.
Matthew: You mourn Kurt in this book in several different ways. Is this the first time you’ve written so directly about him, his suicide and, well, the damage done? And pardon the inference, but was it somewhat therapeutic for you to do so?
Everett: This was the first time I’d written so directly. I was concerned, particularly in the immediate years following his death, not to be another (Michael) Azerrad, another (Charles) Cross, another Craig Marks rushing to collect my blood money. But I hadn’t been able to move on since those times, and by writing about it I hoped that I would finally be able to. It’s helped, certainly. I can now listen to Nirvana (and god, that Unplugged album is a piece of crap). The first draft of the book I completely scrapped on my partner’s advice, it was so self-loathing. If I’d wanted, I could have made it far more commercial, I know how to (I do write for a fucking living). I didn’t want to.
Matthew: This is a book with plenty of personal stories that end, well, not so well: Kurt, Evan Dando, even Kim Deal. We (the media) called these people “antiheroes” in the ’90s, but was their brush with fame and subsequent downward spiral really any different from, say, David Lee Roth’s? What was so remarkable about their brand of distress? What soul-crushing pressures are not depicted in the book?
Everett: I can’t answer the question about Dave Lee Roth, because I’ve never known him. I suspect there are certain parallels. You drink to excess, you wake up the next morning with a hangover. You do that for several years…well, duh. Some of us hated ourselves for becoming famous when we didn’t feel we merited it.
Matthew: Of course, you were along for the ride on all this. What’s been the personal toll, in terms of general health, sanity, your career, your feelings toward music and its business?
Everett: I have no career. I’ve just started a new music magazine, Careless Talk Costs Lives, with photographer Steve Gullick, with the avowed aim of replacing the rotting carcass of the U.K. music press with something far more healthy, a magazine that actually cares about and loves the music is covers, and can show that in a stylistic, witty and passionate way. We’re on our third issue now. We could do with a U.S. distributor, please. For a few years following Kurt’s death, I was almost completely disillusioned with music, a drunk. Whatever. I fucking love playing songs on the piano, singing Dolly Parton covers or Tom Waits or Elvis Costello or the Beatles. I fucking love playing new albums (because of my new magazine, I now receive upwards of 20 CDs every day through my front door). Sure, I can’t handle a drink. If I have one I want to drink the complete bottle of Maker’s Mark and I have very strong whiskey cravings most days (which I don’t give in to). I play badminton. I am visited at home by loads of friends (no, I’m not a fucking invalid). I love going to see bands locally in Brighton (but definitely not in London, not after I used to suffer panic attacks at shows there in ’95, ’96).
Oh, and I’m writing a book on the Ramones. Because I love them. The music business? Let the babies have their bottles. I couldn’t care one way or another. I’m not particularly prepared to do anything that’s not fun, but who knows? Maybe I’m just waiting for the right offer.