Roadmap to Nirvana

A veteran Seattle music scribe smartly resists sensationalism in a new book about the iconic local band.

Writing about any band whose career was as tumultuous as Nirvana’s is a difficult task if one wants to do it correctly. Much of the material that’s been written about the band in the 15 years since the death of its lead singer, Kurt Cobain, either focuses on the sensational issues that made headlines or asserts itself as the “definitive” source. Neither approach is all that appealing, so it’s no surprise that Seattle author Gillian G. Gaar (who used to freelance for this publication) succeeds, in her recently released The Rough Guide to Nirvana, by simply laying out a path for readers to discover the band themselves.

In her 258-page book, Gaar does a remarkable job of taking readers inside the practice spaces, venues, recording sessions, and environments that nurtured the band before they were famous. Non-local readers will get a sense of what Aberdeen and Olympia are like, and photos of Kurt Cobain’s old digs plus reviews of the band’s earliest Seattle concerts at the Central and the HUB (Husky Union Building) Ballroom add a certain gravitas to the book that only a local writer could inject. Subsequent mini-chapters on the Melvins, Flipper, Sub Pop, and Nirvana vs. Guns N’ Roses add contextual depth, but where the book really shines is in the incredible amount of information that Gaar, who covered the band extensively while they were active, accumulated on their ascent to stardom and the behind-the-scenes factors that rattled them. All Nirvana’s television appearances are broken down extensively, including the enormous media pressures the band faced. The book also does a good job of capturing Nirvana’s experiences abroad, rather than just focusing on their stateside success.

The second half of the book is dedicated exclusively to music, with sections on the 25 essential Nirvana songs, unreleased material, b-sides, and any side projects that band members were part of. Producer Jack Endino wrote the book’s foreword, and former Nirvana member (and current SW blogger) Krist Novoselic worked closely with Gaar as well. As for the layout, there’s never more than three pages without an image, which makes it perfect for the coffee table. Despite how heavy the topic is, Gaar makes it look easy.