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Tome On The Range

Opening The Show: When The Television Personalities Met Nirvana
The Quietus , July 23rd, 2022 08:38

In an exclusive extract from his new book Dreamworld, Or: the fabulous life of Dan Treacy and his band The Television Personalities, Benjamin Berton records the meeting between Dan Treacy and Kurt Cobain

Image ©Alison_Wonderland

He was perhaps nine or ten when they used to roam about together, her driving the scooter and him behind. He used to hold on tight and would either snuggle his face into his sister’s back, or slide to the right so that the wind would slick back his hair and force him to screw up his eyes. Patricia drove confidently, and at what seemed to him an amazing speed. You should have seen how the King’s Road and the 60s sped by. You should have seen how the people seemed to be running. There were the colourful clothes, the classy, eccentric get-ups, the blonde beauties and the sophisticated men. Sometimes the scooter would stop at a traffic light or behind a bus, and it seemed as if time stood still forever. Daniel would take the time to look at the sky and smile, and then everything would be mixed into one again: his heartbeat, his sister’s breathing, the houses and the people. He could think back to childhood at will, with great ease, even if it pained him a little to come back to the real world afterwards. Many of his songs had allowed him to go back to when he was still a child. Although he didn’t know why, these songs were always rather sad. Daniel had often felt unhappy. Born quite a while after his two sisters, his mother had not wanted him; and had often made him feel neglected or left him in the care of his big sister or his Irish family during endless holidays. His father was not an easy man and scarcely more affectionate. This status of last-born and unwanted child was long deep-seated in him and according to some, explains his lack of self-confidence and fragility. His family relationships had nevertheless left him with an immense affection and a great fondness for his elder sister Patricia, as well as veneration for his mother whose every movement was closely watched by him. ‘Everything She Touches Turns to Gold’, an 8-minute-long song from the heart, featuring at the end of the album I Was A Mod Before You Was A Mod, was an exceptionally lucid account of the situation.

“I Could never forgive you / I Could never forget you, he sang for his mother’s ears. Mother didn’t want me so she gave me to my sister like a toy A frightened little boy, big sister’s little toy … And in the strangest way they made me feel unloved And Confidence came fleetingly and left as soon the same way that it came Slowly out the way and left me deep in shame I Wish I could love myself and tell myself There’s more to life than this. I held it in my hands, I had it in my hands …”

Sometimes he was frightened and sometimes in pain. His mother had been a homeless child abandoned at birth by her own mother; and brought up by nuns near Torquay. He had often dreamed that his mother would protect and shelter him. He often sang ‘Games For Boys’ on stage, one of the rare numbers for which he demanded an attentive and respectful attitude from the audience. They could insult and jeer at him, which happened quite frequently, but he didn’t like that happening when he sang ‘Games For Boys’, because he felt that it destroyed the harmony of children playing. As pictured in the song, the family circle is idealised: the boys are playing in the rain, father is washing the car (“again”, he insists) while mother is doing the dishes helped by one of her daughters. Then the children are given their toys: an Action Man, a bow and arrow for the boys, a doll and beads for the girls. This stereotyped image is turned upside down by the children’s suggestion that they exchange clothes and pretend to be each other, inverting the assigned social roles. ‘Games For Boys’ is a happy song. It’s not surprising that it often features in the band’s set list. Children’s toys figure on the jacket of the band’s last album, a teddy-bear and a toy box, and you constantly feel Daniel’s nostalgia for those untroubled times, his need to plunge back into that childhood source of tranquility and warmth. It’s not as if he needed to think of anything while injecting himself with heroin, but perhaps Daniel still saw himself back there in time, perhaps he conjured up pleasant images to make the chemistry work. It’s not as if the drug gave you visions, hallucinations or gilded dreams. Its main advantage was to propel you into a timelessness devoid of all contingency, a chilly and gripping calm stripped of all emotion other than a hollow satisfaction. The needle switched everything off and momentarily interrupted your life with all its emotions, its trials and tribulations. With practice you could, of course, act as if everything were normal and still have the feeling of well-being and weightlessness. Either before or after the concert, there’s never a bad time for it, nor a good one. Each day, if possible, and as often as the state of the finances allow. In many ways, heroin is useful to calm anxiety and heighten awareness. Heroin keeps success and failure at bay. It distances you from ethics and compromises, troubles and obligations. Above all, it keeps you away from yourself and all the shit that surrounds you.

It’s Kurt Cobain’s management team that had contacted the Television Personalities with a view to a concert at the London Astoria. When he accepted the offer, Daniel knew nothing of the band’s music and even less of Kurt Cobain, its singer and leader. When he enquired around, his friends told him that the band was no small matter. On the 23rd of August 1992 Nirvana had pulled off a great coup by giving a thunderous concert at Reading, before an audience of 30,000 in early afternoon before the fans were even warmed up. The stage had rocked with the violence of the set, by its aridity and the feeling of acoustic aggression that it produced. A few songs from the band’s new album Nevermind had emerged from the sonic magma and confirmed to the Anglo-Saxon world that Nirvana would be the hot event of that 1991 autumn. Cobain had seriously injured himself by jumping onto Dave Grohl’s set of drums and wandered about everywhere with a huge bottle of cough mixture. A few weeks later, in September, the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ backed by MTV, had unleashed a critical and commercial tidal wave. In just a few weeks, Nirvana changed leagues and went from the status of a great prospect of alternative rock to that of a mammoth of mainstream, heralding the shift of grunge and a whole branch of guitar rock towards the wider audience. The band leader didn’t care much for this sudden craze, which he thought a source of compromise and obligation to take on numerous responsibilities. Spurred on by his record company, and nevertheless attracted by the possibilities opened up by success, Cobain played things by ear, sometimes euphoric and sometimes directing all his rage against himself. Released on the 24th of September, Nevermind and its legendary baby swimming after an out-of-reach dollar, pushed Michael Jackson out of the number 1 spot in the American Charts several months later. In the autumn of 1991, having signed up with the major label Geffen, Nirvana would purely and simply invade Europe. Anxious to have a good time in the face of thousands of fans who he considered to have been brought together partly on a misunderstanding, Cobain decided to invite a few irreproachable bands to join him for the tour. It’s for this reason that he sought out the Television Personalities, a band which he thought of as one of his early influences, after having already attracted for his British tour Eugene Kelly, his Vaselines hero, and his new band Captain America. After appearances at Reading, at the London Astoria and on other dates, Kelly’s career would benefit from Cobain’s helping hand and, thanks to his benevolence, he would even be signed up by Atlantic Records. There would be much less of an effect on the Television Personalities, who would gain no additional notoriety after this one date, apart from a visit by Courtney Love and Cobain to one of their concerts in America the following year.

Although they were in diametrically opposite situations, both winding along the spiral of success, but in opposite directions, Cobain and Treacy nevertheless had several concerns in common likely to bring them together. Among these was the question of the place of success in an artistic career: what worries or hopes could come of it, a sort of fear of being compromised and an attachment to independence. Treacy’s fate was already sealed, whilst Cobain reproached himself each day with having left the discomfort of anonymity and lack of public recognition, for a gilded cage and murderous overexposure. Addiction was another point in common. Treacy was falling headfirst into his heroin habit, whilst Cobain would, for several months, walk a destructive path of alternating efforts to kick the habit and being tempted to drug himself into oblivion.

When they first met backstage at the Astoria, Tracy and Cobain hardly spoke to each other. Cobain asked the singer if he had everything he needed, which Daniel confirmed, though it’s not clear what was meant exactly by this “everything” that each of them had. Although initially programmed to open the show, the Television Personalities ended up with second place in the set, that is to say the tough job of playing just before Nirvana, whose equipment they borrowed moreover, such a thing happening between an American top of the bill and an opening band being a rarity worth mentioning. On paper, it wasn’t such a bad position, but it meant that they would have to confront the impatience of fans waiting for their favourite band. And things didn’t go off wonderfully well.

The audience was abysmally young, knew nothing about the trio in front of them and, above all, was totally unwilling to give them a chance. Faced with a crowd expecting an overdose of decibels and brutality, the Television Personalities take a suicidal opposite stance and persist in a third-degree intimate rock. No need to remind you that nobody gives a monkey’s toss about the lyrics and what they might be saying, and they care even less about why this band is here. Daniel plays the jester and lowers his head when the first whistles ring out. The band is in good shape and plays a subtle, yet powerful set, but it makes no difference. Treacy’s voice is too weak to suggest anything other than a homosexual pop band. Cries of “Piss off” begin to be heard early on in the set, but they don’t bother the band too much. Backstage, the fans of indie rock suffer in silence, whilst the majority of the audience wavers between indifference and hostility. “Oh, fuck off” shouts a guy. “Fuck off yourself” replies Daniel who continues as if nothing had happened. Towards the end of the set, Kurt Cobain leaves his dressing-room and comes to listen to Daniel, standing discreetly in the wings, hidden from public view. Dave Grohl joins him and the two men swing their heads, listening to a few songs. Then Cobain stays there a while on his own, moved by the band’s music. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with this Beavis and Butt-head style army which has made him their commander-in-chief. These morons are incapable of understanding why Treacy is a genius. Have they at least understood what Nirvana’s music is about? You’re always liked for the wrong reasons, thinks Cobain. This idea has haunted him for the last few weeks. This sudden success terrifies him. He has never wanted to be adulated by the masses, because the masses are dummos, who by definition listen to crap music. How can they possibly have become interested in him? It’s what he wanted most but didn’t really want. It seems to him that his whole life has been reduced to this one question. Why have these morons become infatuated with him? And what can he do about it?

The night before in Brighton, he had begun to screw up some of his fucking songs, playing them more slowly or deliberately sabotaging them, but that only made them even crazier as if they were witnessing something “special”. His energy is sapped by that; and he’s already worn out, even though this part of the tour has only just begun. How will he cope? He has a pain in the guts and he feels like he’s living in another dimension. His only privilege is to be able to invite anyone he likes to play alongside him. The Television Personalities end their concert by a cover of the song ‘Seasons In The Sun’, the English version of Jacques Brel’s ‘Le Moribond’, popularised by the Canadian Terry Jacks in 1974. It’s obviously a remarkable farewell song, but infinitely sad and even more sentimental and tearful in the English version. Daniel and his band leave the stage.

“That’s funny”, says the first roadie they come across, it’s Kurt’s favourite song. He’s always going on about it. Daniel goes back to his dressing-room and comes face to face with Kurt Cobain who was waiting for him. He seems even shyer than when they met each other a few hours before the concert. Cobain shakes his hand and gives him a hug.

Good concert, says Cobain.

Thanks, replies Dan. Nice of you to invite us and to lend us your gear.

Don’t mention it, replies simply Cobain.

Cobain wants to tell him that he’s sorry for the cat-calls and the dickheads for whom he’s now a living god, but he says nothing, thinking that it would be churlish and impolite. Nor does he say that it’s nice to see the Television Personalities in such a big hall and before such an audience, because he knows full well that it’s the sort of hall in which the band should play every night if things were logical, but it’s obviously not the case because the Television Personalities have become a bit of a cult band, precisely because they now are TOTALLY unsuccessful. Cobain wouldn’t like people to say that he is condescending, as it’s not at all his style. He doesn’t give a monkey’s about all that. The guy facing him is way above him and he knows that for a fact. At this stage, Daniel is head and shoulders above him.

It was really great. Thanks.

Treacy is no innocent child. He knows that’s the way things go. The two men say nothing for a couple of seconds, then Cobain changes subjects. He tells Daniel that he liked his version of ‘Seasons In The Sun’, the famous song.

“Yeah, a guy told me you like that song”, says Daniel. You’re joking. It’s my favourite song. Do you know the B side of Terry Jacks’ single?

‘Put the bone in’! Laughs Dan.

And he begins to sing this unbelievable story of a run-over dog whose owner wants to give it a bone:

“Put the bone in She yelled at the store ’Cause my doggie’s been hit by the car …”

Hell, you know it?

Yeah. It’s a load of rubbish that song.

One chance in a million that two people who don’t know each other talk about an obscure Canadian singer’s B side, released 17 years before their conversation. One chance in one or two other millions that these two people should give a performance on the same evening before an audience of some 3000 fans. One chance surely, in several tens of millions that one of the two should be Kurt Cobain, don’t you think?

“Don’t let me keep you”, says Cobain to Treacy as if it wasn’t him who had a concert to give.

Treacy goes back to his dressing-room without seeing anyone else. He would keep an endearing and sincere memory of the young man he had encountered and who would in the following weeks become one of the greatest independent rock stars in history. “Cobain was a shy guy”, he would say later.

Their second and last encounter would be in New York, on the 21st of July 1993. Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain would look in on the Television Personalities’ concert at the Wetlands, the first date of a ten-day or so tour centred on the East Coast. That evening, the TVP’s perform at one o’clock in the morning. Debbie Harry is also in the hall. Cobain shakes hands with Treacy and introduces him to his wife. Not much is known of their conversation, or whether they do anything else other than take pleasure in seeing each other. Both have continued their fall or rise at this moment and the handshake has a strange tang to it. It wasn’t obvious that the two men would meet each other at this precise point on the slope. Who’s going down and who’s going up? Who’s dying and who’s living? Since their last conversation, it’s difficult to say who is the unhappier of the two.

The Television Personalities give a mediocre concert. Two days later, Nirvana’s lead singer has a narrow escape from a heroin overdose. Just one of a series. He is reanimated amidst great panic by his staff, without needing to be taken to hospital. Things quickly resume their course: photo sessions, interviews etc. At this precise instant he has less than nine months to live. His daughter Frances is just a year old. He attends a sort of birthday party as if he were a stranger. Both men give the impression of being lost children caught up in a morbid and implacable adult routine.

The question is, which one will be the first to end it all? Cobain has died and Daniel … well … They’ve really made it.

Dreamworld, Or: the fabulous life of Dan Treacy and his band The Television Personalities by Benjamin Berton is published by Ventil Verlag on 29 July