Life on the Other Side of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll
I don’t have a great memory. When I was a kid, I would forget how to walk home from school, and if and when I finally arrived there, I’d discover that I’d forgotten my key. I’d bring my flute case to orchestra practice — my flute would be at home — and I could never find my library books. By the time I was 13, I stopped expecting myself to get through even the most ordinary tasks, and I made no attempt to change until my late 40s, when I hit adulthood. Then I tried to master mnemonic devices.
I formed acronyms so I’d remember HTML codes, but abandoned the effort after I realized that Curly Brace Curly Brace Word Pipe Word Curly Brace Curly Brace translated to CBCBWPWCBCB, a word I cannot pronounce.
To remind myself of my niece’s birthday, I tried the song technique — you know, the way you use the alphabet song to remember the alphabet — but instead of singing “Amanda’s birth-day-ay -ay/falls on the 3rd of May” (to the tune of “There’s a Light” from Rocky Horror), I always defaulted to the best song I’ve ever written, a little number called “Walter Is A Very Good Dog (Yes He Is!),” which was no help at all.
I could never remember the name of the nurse-practitioner I’d been seeing for two years, so I tried an association trick. Jackie is totally incompetent, and though “Jackie is a jack of all trades and a master of none” is a natural, I remained unable to come up with her name. Now, when I need to make an appointment with Jackie, I think “I need to make an appointment with that idiot what’s-her-name at Dr. Jose’s office.”
The only events I can almost always recall are concerts, and I remember hundreds of them. It’s a complete aberration — I can’t remember whether or not I locked the door 15 minutes after I leave my apartment, but I’m crystal clear that the Who opened with “Substitute” at the Boston Garden in 1979 and that Tom Waits’ 1996 encore in Healdsburg, California was “Goodnight Irene.” It’s the one area in which I don’t doubt my recollection, or it was until last week. My friend David told me he’d seen me in the Kurt Cobain documentary, sitting in the audience at Nirvana Unplugged, and I had absolutely no memory of being there.
It wasn’t unlikely that I was at the taping — my close friend Janet worked with Nirvana, and we spent a lot of time together in 1993, when the Unplugged episode was taped. I had bad insomnia back then — I still do — and I’d been prescribed Halcion, a drug which turned out to have mild side effects such as hallucinations, rage, violent and bizarre behavior, depression, confusion, and amnesia. Perhaps I’d gone to the taping in a Halcion haze, or maybe I’d gone with my then-client Eddie Vedder and my head was so far up his ass that I didn’t notice there was a show going on. But still, it was inconceivable to me that I’d been at the Unplugged taping and forgotten about it.
I hadn’t planned to see Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Kurt’s suicide bums me the fuck out, and given that I still go into seclusion when I think about poor Bambi, it didn’t seem like a good idea. But the was-I-wasn’t-I uncertainty of whether or not I’d been at Nirvana Unplugged was agonizing, so on Wednesday night, I watched the film.
I expected a Behind the Music style documentary with talking head commentary from the music business sidelines; I was ready to hear Nirvana’s one-time manager Danny say shit like “I was involved in trying to get Kurt professional help on numerous occasions,” or “Kurt had a mystical and powerful connection with the audience that took my breath away. … I realized that Kurt Cobain was not just a smart, quirky rock artist but also a true genius.” But there were no Dannys or label presidents or promotion guys. Kurt’s story was told through his music, his art, his journals and his letters, and it was told by his family and his friends. The only people on the business side that came up in the film were Janet and Amy from MTV, and although they were involved professionally with Nirvana, they were also Kurt’s friends.
The reference was brief. “Can you and Janet and everyone I know come sit in the front row?” Kurt asked Amy during the Unplugged filming. “I don’t like strangers.”
When the camera cut to the audience, I saw the woman that David had mistaken me for. There was a resemblance — she had big brown hair and she looked pretty smug — but it definitely wasn’t me.
I was relieved until Sunday night, when I saw Janet. David’s her husband, and she too thought I’d been at the Unplugged. We talked about it, and as we went through the details, I remembered that I’d been at the sound check for the taping, but hadn’t stayed for the show. I don’t know why.
I was right about whether or not I’d been there, but it wasn’t any kind of comfort. I was crestfallen. I never realized how fortunate I was to be around Nirvana back then. I was at the taping and I fucking left.
I’m not saying there’s an upside to this story — there’s no silver lining — but it does give me a reason to be ok with my weirdly selective memory. I’ll forget that I was ever at Nirvana Unplugged, but I saw a lot of Nirvana plugged in, and I remember every show.