Evelyn Glennie interview, copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2004
Evelyn Glennie is a giant of a woman. That’s not to say she’s physically large, -in fact she is tiny,- but she’s a mammoth individual. A pioneer. Among other things, she is the world’s first and most in demand solo percussionist. Before she came along, such a thing was not possible. But Evelyn is nothing if not determined. And impossible is all in the mind.
Perseverance and unwavering self belief have paid off for Evelyn. She has already won two Grammys, a BAFTA nomination, countless honorary doctorates and an OBE. She performs for royalty, and is constantly touring the world. If she isn’t doing that, she’s recording with different musicians, from the Indonesian Gamelan Ensemble to Bjork. She has been on ‘This Is Your Life’ and the BBC have made several documentaries about her, the first was filmed while she was still a student. She is known across the globe.
But apart from being a brilliant musician, Evelyn is also profoundly deaf. A fact which cannot help but attract attention and inspire curiosity. To the ordinary, uninformed mortal the concept of a deaf musician is inconceivable. ‘So if you cant hear what you are playing,’ people ask, ‘How do you know when you play a bummer?”
For the uninformed, this may seem like a perfectly reasonable question. As reasonable as asking a blind painter ‘How do you know when you’ve painted something good?’
It is a question that irritates Evelyn, having had to answer it, as she has, many times. I am due to meet her in London, where she is rehearsing at the Albert Hall for her solo spot at the famous Proms. And I am worried that I will be another source of irritation.
Before I meet her, I am directed to her website, where I learn that Evelyn was the first classical musician to have her own website. It is a fact that is listed among ninety nine ‘fun facts’ about Evelyn. There are the fact that she began performing piano for Old Folk’s homes, at age ten, but wanted to be a hairdresser, as a teenager. The fact that she has her own tartan and speaks Doric, -a dialect of Scot’s Gaelic that is only spoken in the Northeast of Scotland. Her favourite TV programme is Eastenders, she collects many things, including jewellery and different modes of transport, including motor bikes, She endorses Rolex watches and is currently studying Law with the Open University. From the website, one gets the impression of a femme formidable who never sits still, but is constantly striving and achieving something more. There is an essay on the website that Evelyn has written about her being deaf, which I am also encouraged to read.
‘If the audience is only wondering how a deaf musician can play percussion, then Evelyn has failed as a musician,’ it says. ‘For this reason, Evelyn’s deafness is not mentioned in any of the information supplied by Evelyn’s office to the press or concert promoters.’ In her own words, the essay is designed to ‘set the record straight and allow people to enjoy the experience of being entertained by one of the world’s great musicians, rather than by a freak of nature.’
Because the essay is written in the third person, there is a strange sense of chippiness, of defensiveness.
‘To summarise,’ it says. ‘Evelyn’s hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bother’s her. Evelyn doesn’t know very much about deafness, what’s more she isn’t particularly interested.’
Because I am writing this article for the health section, I am duty bound to enquire about her deafness, when we meet. And to be frank, I am just as curious as the next person as to what it might be like to be a deaf musician. I may anger her, I decide, but I will have to take that risk.
We meet in a pub, in Kensington. Evelyn is accompanied by her technician and her publicist. She has lustrous dark hair and bright, bright brown eyes. She is brightly dressed, too, in orange jeans, orange snakeskin high heels and a pale blue diamante studded jacket, which puts me in mind of Suzi Quatro. As we sit down to speak, I notice that there is nothing noticeably unusual about the way we are communicating. I am not speaking loudly, there is not an interpreter. She doesn’t have any speech impediment. WE are having a perfectly normal conversation. Later, she explains that she has been lip-reading, that she wouldn’t have been able to have the conversation if she couldn’t see my face and body language. And far from being chippy, she is extremely jolly. I ask her how she got to be such a high achiever. She laughs.
‘I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do,’ she says. ‘I think it helps to be especially passionate about what you are doing.’ She tells me that she has just been watching the athletes training for the Paralympics and admires them for rising to the challenge. It requires a kind of passion that borders on obsession, she says. You have to be a little bit obsessive to pursue a musical career, particularly if you do what Evelyn has done and create a precedent. Is she obsessive? She laughs.
‘ I am mellowing a bit now. I was very obsessive when I was younger.’
She is also highly focussed. She began to lose her hearing in childhood, but worked with a teacher to learn to feel the vibrations of the instruments.
‘There is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence,’ she says. ‘But to understand the nature of deafness, one has to understand the nature of hearing.’
She goes on to point out that we do not hear only with our ears.
‘When a truck passes in the street, even if we did not hear it with our ears, we would feel it with our whole bodies. Every sound emits a vibration which is felt, more than it is heard. Even somebody who is totally deaf can still feel sounds.’
Evelyn worked hard with her teacher and trained herself to feel where different frequencies vibrated in her body, and to distinguish them. Of course it was hard work, she says, but she has had the advantage of developing levels of sensitivity that ordinary musicians wouldn’t have. So deafness has in fact enhanced her playing. And she doesn’t see herself as disabled.
‘But I am physically handicapped,’ she says. ‘Because I wouldn’t be able to be a heavyweight boxer, or a supermodel! We all wish we could do absolutely anything, but it doesn’t happen like that.’
It is clearly a fact about Evelyn that she won’t let obstacles stand in her way. And she wont let herself be labelled, even if some people still see her as a curiosity.
‘How we categorise ourselves, more than any other impediment is what stops us from being able to achieve the highest levels of attainment,’ she says. And she has proved it.
This is the story of my adventures with Kurt and Courtney. I learned something very important from this adventure, which was that no matter how justified you feel in holding a grudge against someone, it really feels better to let it go. I also learned that writing biographies about people without their consent is upsetting for the people concerned. I apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly for any hurt I caused to Kurt, Courtney and Frances Bean.
Kurt and Courtney copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2011
Kurt Cobain is threatening to have me killed.
‘If anything comes out in this book that hurts my wife I’ll f***ing hurt you. I don’t care if this is a recorded threat. I’m at the end of my ropes…..I’ve never been more f***ing serious in my life.’
Kurt is speaking to my message minder. When I don’t pick up the phone, he keeps calling back.
‘C’mon, pick up the phone,’ he says. ‘Pick up the phone…..At this point I don’t give a flying f*** if I have this recorded that I’m threatening you. I suppose I could throw out a few thousand dollars to have you snuffed out. But maybe I’ll try it the legal way first.’
The year is 1992, it’s late October and the setting is my rented flat in Seattle, Washington where I have been living while researching a book about Nirvana. I am alone in the flat, and all night long Kurt and his wife Courtney Love have been calling me. Because I have not been picking up my phone, they have both been leaving messages. Courtney’s have been just as intimidating as Kurt’s.
‘We will use every dollar we have and every bit of our power to basically f*** you up,’ she tells me. ‘You are going to pay and pay and pay out of your ass. By the time we have finished with you, you will wish you had never been born!’
After I listen to the entire tape, which is thirty minutes long, I am shaking and feeling physically sick.
Every part of me senses that Kurt is not kidding, he really is serious. A suspicion that will be born out a few years later when he actually kills himself.
I am not exactly sure what to do, but I know that I need to do something, so I call the Seattle police and explain to them that I am scared. They send someone to take a statement, but they also tell me that there is nothing they can do, unless someone actually attacks me. Verbal threats on an answer-phone don’t qualify for a restraining order. So I decide to pack my bags and leave Seattle.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Being asked to write a book about Nirvana had been the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me, in my career as a writer, it had been a dream come true.
Twenty years ago this week, in September 1991, I had just started out in journalism, and was writing for ‘Lime Lizard’, a London based independent music magazine, when Britt Collins, my editor played me ‘Nevermind’, Nirvana’s second album, which had just been released.
Britt had been a Nirvana fan for a number of years, and one of the first people to put them on a magazine cover. ‘They are going to be huge,’ she had assured me. She was right. By January 11 the following year, ‘Nevermind’ went to number one in the Billboard 200 charts. It has since sold over 26 million copies worldwide. (according to the Financial Times)
‘We should write a book about them,’ Britt had suggested. Loving their music, and loving the idea, I immediately agreed.
At first, everything seemed to go swimmingly. The very first agent that we approached was AP Watt, one of the oldest in the UK, and they signed us up straight away. Britt was friendly with Nirvana’s publicist Anton Brooks, who put us in touch with their manager John Silva. We had dinner with John, and he liked our idea. Very soon there was a bidding war for our book. We signed contracts with Hyperion in the US, and Boxtree in Britain and pretty soon we had actual cash in our hands and we were ready to roll.
I was given ‘Access All Areas’ passes for Nirvana’s European tour in June 1992. It was decided that I should be the one to go on the tour, while Britt went to Seattle to research the ‘grunge’ scene there. I joined the band in Dublin, and traveled with them to Belfast, Paris and Denmark.
I have spent a great deal of my life touring with bands. My partner Shane Mac Gowan is the lead singer with The Pogues, and because of his job, we have spent a lot of time hanging out with bands, including U2 and the Rolling Stones. But Nirvana were different, for several reasons. For one thing, they were extremely relaxed and friendly, much more so than any other band I had met. Most lead singers (especially Shane) would not allow journalists free access to their dressing-rooms. But Kurt was always polite and charming to me, he even asked me if I would swap shirts with him one night when he came off stage, but regrettably I did not keep his sweaty t-shirt! They were also the best live band that I had ever seen, all of which meant that going on tour with them was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. Which made what happened next all the more horrible.
One afternoon at Rosskilde in Denmark, I was wandering around the backstage area, when I bumped into Courtney Love. We had not spoken much, but I had introduced myself earlier in the tour and she had been friendly. She had previously starred in a film with Shane and The Pogues called ‘Straight to Hell’ and had got on well with some of the band.
Because we had decided to include Courtney in our book, I asked her if she would mind doing an interview with me. She said she would be happy to do one. But Kurt was not at all happy with this idea. Later that same day, I was approached by Janet Billig, the band’s American publicist who told me that the band would prefer if I left the tour immediately. I was devastated. I actually broke down in tears. I simply could not understand what I had done wrong. Kurt, it was explained to me, was not happy that I had asked Courtney for an interview. That was the reason. I was not to know at the time that Courtney would appear in the September issue of ‘Vanity Fair’ and that the article would quote her as saying that she had used drugs while pregnant with Frances Bean, the couple’s child. And that this would lead to a whole heap of trouble.
Britt and I explained to Nirvana’s management that we had no choice but to continue with our book, but that as fans of the band we would prefer to maintain a good relationship with them. At this stage, there was no animosity between us. It was explained to me that while they understood this, they no longer felt comfortable having a journalist at such close quarters. And so I traveled to Seattle, to research their background.
In Seattle, I stayed with Charles Peterson who was a very old friend of the band, and he took me around and introduced me to all the people who were relevant to the story. I began interviewing people about the band.
Everyone that I spoke to in Seattle said pretty much the same things, and confirmed what I had already discovered. Which was that Nirvana were a really nice, friendly, genuine bunch of guys. Apart from that, people didn’t have a lot to say. What most people wanted to do was talk about Courtney. And the things that they said about her were not positive. I have to confess that although I am not proud of it, I rather enjoyed the bitching because it made for a more interesting story.
While I was in Seattle, Britt was basing herself in LA, and while she was there, she interviewed a man called James Moreland, who had been Courtney’s previous husband. Like a lot of people, he had some negative things to say about Courtney, but they were not serious allegations. They mainly concerned her treatment of his puppies and her taste in music. At this point, none of the material that Britt and I had gathered could in any way have threatened Kurt or Courtney.
Then overnight, everything changed. The September issue of ‘Vanity Fair’ appeared, with Courtney on the cover and in an interview with Lyn Hirschberg, she was quoted as saying that she had used Class A drugs, while pregnant. In the state of California it is a criminal offense to knowingly take drugs while pregnant and if proven, it can result in a child being removed from the parents. There was an immediate backlash against Courtney in the US media, and while she denied the story, Lyn Hirschberg stood by it and claimed to have tapes to prove it. Intrigued, Britt interviewed Lyn Hirschberg who claimed to have been subjected to verbal abuse and harassment by Courtney, as a result of the interview.
Somehow, Courtney discovered that Britt had spoken to Lyn Hirschberg, and there was an immediate backlash against us and our book. I arrived at a Nirvana show in Seattle later in the month, and was told that I had been barred from all of their gigs. Charles, the photographer with whom I had been staying withdrew his permission for us to use his photos, which had been an integral part of the book. Friends of the band who had not hesitated to tell me how much they disliked Courtney now told me that they could no longer speak to me. Then, on the night of October 22, while I was in bed with the flu, Courtney called me. I heard the phone ring, but switched it to silent. In the morning, the answer machine tape was full and there was thirty minutes of messages from both Kurt and Courtney, which is where I began this story.
After I left Seattle, I wanted to call Kurt and see if the situation could be sorted out. I knew that he was furious, but I still liked him and respected him. Having discussed the matter with our agent, Britt and I were advised not to speak to Kurt and Courtney. Instead, we made a decision which further inflamed the situation. We gave the answer machine tape to Entertainment Weekly magazine and they printed the transcript in full, across two pages. The story was picked up by the LA Times, the New York Times and most of the British and Irish papers. If this book ever came out, it would already be world famous.
At this point we still had not yet begun actually writing the book, and to be honest, if we had not been obligated to our publishers, I would have moved back to London and abandoned the project. It had never been my intention to write a muck-raking book. I felt totally out of my depth. Then things got worse.
One night, to cheer ourselves up, Britt and I went to see a band at a club called Raji’s in Hollywood where we lived. We got chatting to two members of Courtney’s band Hole, and then just as I had taken a seat, I spotted Kurt and Courtney come in. At first, they did not see me, and I hoped they wouldn’t. But then I felt a sharp bang on my head, liquid poured down my face and I found myself on the floor, with Courtney grabbing me by the hair. She proceeded to drag me along the floor, while Kurt stood and watched. All the while she told me she was going to get me outside. I screamed for help, and a bouncer managed to rescue me. After Kurt and Courtney had left, several people came over and suggested that I call the police, and take witness statements.
I was not seriously injured, mainly shocked and bruised, but I saw a doctor at Cedars Sinai and I duly reported the incident to the LAPD. In the morning, I received a call from the police informing me that Courtney had also reported the incident, claiming that I had attacked her. We both had to go to court the following February, for the preliminary hearing.
I was represented by Axl Rose’s lawyer Albert Dworkin who played the answer phone tape to the judge. Courtney admitted that it was her voice on the tape but claimed to have intended no malice. Kurt did not appear in court. The case was adjourned, and after a month it was dropped. I was told by my lawyer that the judge had not thought it serious enough for a criminal prosecution. I could not possibly afford a civil suit, so I gave up on it.
Britt and I went back to London, where we discovered that our UK publishers had decided not to go ahead with publishing the book, after having been threatened with law suits by Nirvana’s lawyers. Our US publishers also decided not to go ahead with the book. A fax had been circulated from Nirvana’s management to the media warning people not to have anything to do with me or Britt, as we were ‘groupies who had offered bribes and sexual favours to interviewees in exchange for information.’ Which was definitely not true!
We managed to find an Irish publisher who was not intimidated, but he was found dead, before he could publish the book. At that point we gave up and turned our attention to other projects.
On 8 April, 1994 Kurt killed himself at his home in Seattle. Britt and I were horrified. In spite of the way he behaved towards us, I had always felt sorry for him. I had felt that he was a sweet, gentle and sensitive soul, under enormous stresses and strains. And when he had threatened me, I believed that he had genuinely been terrified for his wife and child.
Later, Courtney was arrested several times on different charges of assault. (See attached notes)
Over the years that followed, I only saw Courtney Love once, at a Vintage Couture show at the Victoria And Albert museum. She did not speak to me, but she gave me a look which suggested that she had not forgiven me. The other day, I noticed that she was in the front row at Ali Hewson’s fashion show in New York. I felt angry, but I was not sure why. And then, this morning, for the first time in at least fifteen years, I listened to the tape. And I felt all of the fear and anger and resentment coming back. I had to stop the tape half way through, I couldn’t bear to listen to it. But revisiting the incident made me question myself. Because it was not just anger that I felt, it was also guilt. What might I have felt, what might I have done, had I been in the situation that Kurt and Courtney were in?
Recently, Shane and I were sent a manuscript of a new Pogues biography. It was deeply unflattering, about both of us. After reading it, I was upset and angry for several days. Just the very thought that someone is scrutinizing your life and writing about you can be hurtful. I wondered what it must have been like for Kurt and Courtney, knowing that Britt and I could have been writing something that would affect their child, as well as them? Would I have been angry enough in their position to threaten the writers? Quite possibly!
For the rest of the day, after I listened to the tape I felt depressed. My heart hurt. And then, all of a sudden, I realized why. For nearly twenty years, I have been feeling angry, feeling hurt, feeling victimized, as a result of this experience. What might it be like, I asked myself, if I were to just let go of it? What might it be like if I were to forgive Kurt and Courtney completely, and to accept that they were doing the best they could, given the situation they were in? All of a sudden, the pain in my chest began to dissipate. I began to feel lighter. I began to feel peaceful. And I began to feel love for both Kurt and Courtney. Feeling love was lovely. Forgiveness is a much nicer feeling than resentment. I am only sorry it took such a long time for me to realize it.
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