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[Q & A] Eric Erlandson: "The Nirvana thing is so played out."

Eric Erlandson has had the kind of life that lends itself to ghostwritten tell-all memoirs. The Hole songwriter/guitarist was at the epicenter of 90s weirdness, a firsthand witness to the most famous dysfunctional couple of that decade. He also dated Drew Barrymore.

 

And was in a band with Vincent Gallo.

 

 

But instead of calling Legs McNeill to collaborate on a star-studded confessional, he instead wrote Letters to Kurt (Akashic, $17.95), a book of prose poems disguised as letters to his dead friend, Kurt Cobain. He'll read and perform an acoustic set tonight at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square. I called him yesterday following a New York appearance to talk about writing, nostalgia, and why a generation of rock stars made the puzzling decision to shoot smack all the time. 

How's going a book tour different from a rock tour?

It's not a standard book tour, but the book world is a whole lot different than the music world. I'm doing a performance mixed with the book. 

It's very liberating. Artists have different interests and express themselves in different ways. A lot of us tend to put ourselves into boxes and stick to one thing. Any sort of expression is good. 

Why did you write this?

The book is inspired by Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, a book of prose poems written as letters to a Russian poet that committed suicide the early 1920s. At the time, it was the early 70s, and Jim Harrison was  going through a difficult period. There's something about prose-poems that allows you to reflect on all areas of your life. I was really drawn to that book, his style of writing. He wrote Legends of the Fall and hung out with Jack Nicholson. 

Have you ever hung out with Jack Nicholson? 

The closest I've gotten to him was at a boxing match in Las Vegas. My whole life, I've never been into boxing, but someone roped me into going and Jack Nicholson was there in front of me, smoking a cigar. 

Anyway, I was very into the beats and Wallace Stevens and the avant-garde. I'm really talking to myself. Kurt's like my muse. All my influences come through because I was writing in my journal. When you're writing in your journal, it doesn't feel so precious, like you're sitting down to write your life story. That's a good way to stop writing altogether. I had a process -- I tricked myself into thinking I was just writing in my journal. 

Right when the band broke up in 2000, I had a girlfriend I was telling all my crazy stories from the 90s, and she told me I should write a book. That was the first time someone had said that and the first time I entertained the idea. I started writing all the stories out, and it was terrible. I've been journaling since high school, but nothing serious. I wasn't Stevie Nicks about it -- I wasn't an anal note-taker, just fooling around with words. Once I started that process a few years later, I realized I had to do some more research and learn about writing, so I started doing writing workshops. I really believe in that 10,000 hours thing. If someone had told me in 2002 that I wasn't finishing this book until 2012, I would have beat them up. 

When my writing teacher turned me on to [Harrison's] book, I tried to do other muses. I wanted to avoid the obvious one, which was Kurt. The Nirvana thing is so played out. It was just the 20 year anniversary of Nevermind, and all these anniversaries were coming up to get me. I didn't want to just be another person talking to Kurt, but as soon as I wrote that first line, I realized something was different. The book is much bigger than my relationships and my life. 

So why not cash out with a ghostwritten memoir?

There's something about writing -- it's how you know the truth of someone's mind. If you're doing the writing, you're changing yourself as a person. If someone's doing it for you, it's not changing you. It feels so good to have written this. Sitting down and doing it wasn't the most pleasurable experience, though. The commerce thing really bugs me.

I just recently read that Mark Yarm book, and it seems like that struggle with art and commerce was one of the defining issues of the 90s. Is it that same thing? 

I don't blame the technology, I blame the people, always. Technology is made by us and we're the ones that use it. Technology is changing us, and I think people are looking at the 90s as the last great era of soulfulness. It was the last era of the underground. Even though the underground burst forth into the mainstream, you knew somebody was in the club or if they weren't. You could tell by the way they dressed, what they listened to, the way they talked, and now you can't. Now someone can walk down the street in the right uniform, but they could be into anything. 

Money has ruled the show from day one. There's always been that issue, but there was something pure back in the 90s. We wanted to be successful -- Kurt and Courtney did -- but money wasn't an object. It was doing something that mattered and that would change the world and affect people's lives, even if it was just creating something that you enjoy. Then it was the same thing that always happened: corporations got involved and ruined it. Now it's all style and no substance. 

It seems like people now are just regurgitating every possible decade of music. YouTube and all these things -- there's too much of everything out there now. We're fragmented. It's like society has moved from narcissism to BPD, and now we're headed into schizophrenia. 

I grew up on Hole and Sassy magazine, and now I'm seeing college girls dress like I did when I was 15. And I was reading an interview with that dude from Wavves and he called his last album his Nevermind. Does this 90s trip freak you out more because you were at the center of that decade? 

It's just a 20-year cycle. The weird thing is that when I was hitting that same age, I was into things that were closer to that time. I was into some 60s stuff like the Beatles and the Stooges and glam and Johnny Thunders, but I also was connecting to things that had just happened in the late 70s and things that were happening in the early 80s. I wasn't living as nostalgically as people are now. They're building on the past, but it's different. I don't really relate because it wasn't my experience. 

I'm proud and happy that I was able to be a part of something. Last night, we did a Q & A for Patty Schemel's film, Hit So Hard, and people came up to me and told me we changed their life when saw us play at Lollapalooza in '95 [Ed. note: I totally saw Hole at Lollapalooza '95 and it changed my life]. I hope it was a good change.

I think some people got influenced by the negative parts of early 90s music, by the drugs, and maybe they got damaged by it, but I think there was an awareness and a perspective of living life that was associated with the music. . . Feminism, an anti-corporate stance, no groupies. All the things that would have been associated with the hair metal bands and all the crap we lived through in the 80s, it was just, like, no. The kids who had grown up in the me generation, it's natural for them to be a little angry and a little fucked off at all that crap. We didn't buy into all that rockstar bullshit. Everything was more grounded in the real. At least that's one way of looking at it. 

There was a huge fantasy about rock stardom, then you get someone like Kurt. When I first met him, Courtney and I thought of him as the kid you want to bring home and give soup to. He wasn't Bono. He's not like somebody who scares you. He was one of us. 

Why was everyone on heroin? 

That's something that's not discussed much. What was going around then was Ritalin. People were coming from broken homes. Heroin is the drug that takes you back to the womb. It slows everything down and it's warm and fuzzy.

Through the 70s and 80s, you heard about people with drug problems. There's Johnny Thunders and Keith Richards and all these other rock stars on heroin. And then, in the 80s, it was a lot of coke, but you never hear about people going to rehab. In the 80s, it started. Green River had that song, "Rehab Doll."  That was the first time I heard the word rehab. Obviously there were places where people went to get off drugs, but in the music scene, people didn't talk about it until the 90s. Everyone knew that heroin was bad. We have all these examples like Billie Holiday. We knew we were being stupid. But at the same time, there was never talk of going to rehab. It was glamorized, and it got mixed in with music. But grunge was really more about pot and alcohol. 

ERIC ERLANDSON | Newbury Comics Harvard Square, 36 JFK Street, Cambridge | April 16 @ 6pm | Free

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