If I were, somewhat childishly, to invent a perfect hero – a sort of personal Übermensch – the chances are he’d look a lot like Jason Everman.
If you’ve ever seen the front cover of Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, then you’ve seen him: he’s the guitarist on the right, surprisingly given as much prominence as Kurt himself. Fair enough – he used the money he’d made doing brutal work on Alaskan fishing boats to pay for Bleach’s recording.
Everman was kicked out of Nirvana after a brief spell, dismissed by Kurt Cobain as “a moody metalhead.” He’d struggled to bond with the band, and his long periods of silence on the tour van had become unbearable. Nevermind, things were shortly to look up when he was invited to play bass for Soundgarden, a band he preferred. But the same problems dogged him. A black cloud would appear, and his mood would turn. He spent the time on the tour bus with his headphones on, unspeaking. Soundgarden called a meeting and kicked him out too.
Everman had been thrown out by not one, but two of the biggest bands of the ’90s – a unique level of achievement in the field of rejection
This meant Everman had been thrown out by not one, but two of the biggest bands of the ’90s – a unique level of achievement in the field of rejection. But it’s what he did next that really counts. Nirvana’s bassist and founding member Krist Novoselic recounted a moment with Everman to the New York Times. “He was just pondering. He asked me, ‘Do you ever think about what it’d be like to be in the military and go through that experience?’ And I was just like . . . no.”
There’s something called a Sex Pistols moment,’ probably originating from two gigs the Pistols played at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. Watching those performances were Morrisey, Ian Curtis, Tony Wilson, The Buzzcocks and Mark E Smith, and each of them went home alight with inspiration. A Sex Pistols moment is when you find the thing you love and realise anything is possible.
Mine came in the early ’90s. There was a sound I’d been imagining, something I thought must be out there somewhere and desperately wanted to hear. It was thrashy, heavy and hard but it wasn’t macho or metal.
Then one day, watching Top of the Pops, the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit came on. I was transfixed. It was exactly what I’d been looking for: raw, pure, poppy, perfect. I fell deeply in love with the band and never really fell out of it again. Because of Nirvana and their origins on an indie record company (the one that left it to Jason Everman to pay for Bleach’s recording) I fell in love too with the idea of these labels. It’s what I now do for a living.
But I had a second, more minor Sex Pistols moment around the same time, one that I’m reluctant to admit to. It came when I first saw footage of the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy in 1979. Bear with me here – I’m aware that a fascination with special forces is often the hallmark of unwholesome far-right types. But to me it seemed astonishing that human beings could be trained to achieve these things. They were like endurance athletes who used their abilities in the most dangerous situations imaginable.
So as I deep-dived into punk and indie rock, working backwards from the bands on Kurt Cobain’s t-shirts, I also read countless SAS memoirs. I was struck as much by the intelligence that characterised these men as I was their preternatural hardness. One of the writers had dragged himself to the top of Pen y Fan for the umpteenth time on the notorious selection course, only for an instructor to materialise from the mist and ask: “What’s the square root of 1764?”
In the documentaries I watched, cerebral types described how they were taught to “attack an ambush,” or pointed at pictures of their friends in secret, dirty 1970s wars, and said: “Look at him. He’s in the middle of enemy territory, and he’s just happy to be there.”
And that’s what Jason Everman did next. While, like Kurt, he’d come from a broken home – “that legendary divorce” in Cobain’s lyrics – Everman wasn’t like the other musicians on the Seattle grunge scene. He was born on a remote Alaskan island to a father who wanted to live close to nature. He was tough and self-reliant. Punk had changed his life as a teenager, had brought him joy and taught him to think and do for himself.
But as an adult, living the life of a rock musician, he’d become profoundly dissatisfied. He examined his conscience and realised he was doing what he did for external validation, not internal. So he turned his back on it, “sloughed off these shackles of cool,” and felt free. Then he joined the military. After serving in the Army Rangers, he eventually became a decorated Green Beret, his career coinciding with the massive surge in special operations post 9/11. He took part in the infamous night raids in Afghanistan and intense conventional warfare in Iraq.
Combat was a “heightened state,” he told the New York Times. “It was like being in a band onstage, only more so. I knew this was it. This is living.”
“The deepest, most meaningful human relationships I have are with men I served with,” he said during a talk to a veteran’s group. “Guys I call brother, without irony. Much as I liked them, I never called guys I played music with brother.”
Serving in the military also provided the courage to apply to study philosophy at Columbia University. He graduated in 2013, becoming a real-life warrior philosopher.
Everman’s story is inspirational – it shows that rejection can be the best thing that ever happens to you, and that every life has several acts.
And our former selves stay with us: “When I listen to Black Flag today,” he told the veteran’s group. “I still get goose bumps on my arms.”