I consider myself very lucky to be the age that I am. Not now of course, as that’s awful. But the age I am allowed me to be the age that I was at the back end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s when there was so much wonderful chaos in the world of music, and I will always be amazed that it was all going on around me, going a huge defining the person I was then and hopefully laying down the groundwork for whatever I am now. It was a brilliant time when every weekend hanging out in record shops uncovered new treasures and new friends, and almost every night was filled with live shows and clubs where all manner of people gathered to share in this delight.
That’s how I remember it anyway, and I’m sure that it’s wholly incorrect. I don’t particularly care though, as this book helps to reassure me that it really was that much fun and important. In this book, I feel that I have fully corroborated evidence that it Happened, by virtue of the people involved on both sides of Steve Gullick’s camera being slap bang in the centre of it all.
It’s not a coffee table book, which is just as well as I have no coffee table. Its dimensions, at a little over 12″x12″, are designed to fit in with the rest of a record collection that documents the same span as this tome. It’s as much a part of those records as the music it sits alongside, bringing images to the music of the time and, if you were lucky enough, memories of some great shows.
Steve begins his book with something most of us at that time did, by buying a record by the other Screaming Trees (my particular contribution to this is the Beaten By The Ugly Stick EP) before heading out on a gig photo assignment that was to inform much of the next half-decade. His written part of his diary lasts for three and a half pages, yet no detail is missed out from his embrace of what was to be called grunge through the bizarre acceleration of Nirvana’s rise to the top to the final, isolated sentence “Then the phone rang” from April 1994.
It makes for wonderful reading, as the warmth for what Steve was doing and the people around him while all of is was going on is utterly palpable; and just as it was for a lot of us on the outside of it all back then, what was at first joyous and exciting became something altogether too sad. But the story wouldn’t be complete without its ending, so there it is. Thankfully, it’s placed at the very start of this collection of chronologically-arranged photographs that bring the time to life again, beginning not with Kurt Cobain but with Mark Lanegan from that Screaming Trees show from 1990, and a Soundgarden shot during a very odd tour indeed (they were due to open for Voivod and Faith No More, and played anyway when the other two bands dropped out. I saw them in Manchester at this time with what I remember to be a couple of dozen other people and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever been to, partially due to Chris Cornell kicking parts of the ceiling out).
From there on in, it’s a celebration. Plenty of bands you will know, a few you may have forgotten about and will need to re-acquaint with, and a fairly short space of time that felt like forever while it was going on. Central to this of course is Nirvana, a band that started that decade as a curious band that were somewhat different to their labelmates who, two years later, were one of the biggest bands on the planet, and then were tragically ended another two years from then. Their photographic journey from 1990-1994 here is well captured and hindsight gives the whole thing some context, as well as Gullick’s intro providing a bit of foreshadowing (Kurt cutting his hair and donning glasses so he could roam the Reading Festival incognito being a particular favourite).
All the photos contained are beautiful – the band portraits are almost all pretty informal, and the relaxed attitude of the artists towards their photographer translates well onto each image. The live shots capture the shows perfectly, with everything coming from the perspective of someone being part of the crowd rather than someone there merely doing a job, blurred images and flying hair being the order of the day and exactly as I remember it.
Sometimes images capture more than just a moment. With this book, Steve Gullick has produced something profoundly affecting and incredibly beautiful. It captures the zeitgeist wonderfully well, in no small part because his photography was part of it all in the first place, as his work was just the sort of thing that got people to check out these shows and these bands for themselves just as much (and occasionally more so) than the words that accompanied his photography. On a personal level, it’s been a strange read as I found the experience a lot more sad than I had anticipated – not just for the narrative that unfolds for the artists within, but also my own from that time. Ultimately though, I find myself happier as Nirvana Diary encapsulates that whole “I was there” thing far better than I could ever hope to articulate.