I’m intrigued by ghosts, by what is present through known absence — the building that once was, the house sparrows gone from London skies. Kurt Cobain’s music contains quite a number of haunting presences and Rape Me particularly intrigues me.
The song endured an unusual trajectory in terms of its writing. The solo acoustic is quite a lengthy initial effort (admittedly degenerating into scratch lyrics.) Yet it is almost all stripped away leaving just a skeletal refrain when performed live in June 1991. That form is then retained all the way to its showing in Seattle on September 11, 1992. The ultimate second verse and bridge are then created in the fifty or so days leading up to an October 26, 1992 demo session. It’s very common for Kurt to retain the core of a song and shift the elements around that ‘spine.’ But it’s unusual to find three distinct iterations of a song. While some initially pointed out cosmetic similarities to suggest Rape Me was a response to Smells Like Teen Spirit, it was mainly reinterpreted as the female rape victim in Polly’s internal fury toward her attacker.
I’d first point to the fact that the time of the rewrite makes this song not an assault on the discomfort of fame as felt in late-1991/early-1992 but a comment on betrayal and external judgment which was his situation right then-and-there in late 1992. But then what I’d suggest is that, rather than Polly or Smells Like Teen Spirit, the real family ties for this song lie elsewhere in Kurt Cobain’s catalogue.
In its solo acoustic rendition, Rape Me’s true lineage stretches back through Even in His Youth, all the way to Laminated Effect on the Fecal Matter demo. In Laminated Effect, the first verse dwells on a key character who, “raped by his daddy” ends up dying of AIDS with the song ending with the refrain of “made not born” to suggest that his fate was the creation of the father. Rape Me begins not as an anti-rape song but as a song in which the father rapes his son. In the case of the former, the very next line is “told he was at fault” while, in Rape Me, the next line’s motif is “my embarrassment.” It’s an intriguing combination that it’s the victim not the perpetrator who is left with the guilt and negativity. It’s a connection he made again in Floyd the Barber with the raped victim responding with the chorus “I was shaved, I was shamed.”
Even in his Youth is overtly and knowingly bonded to Laminated Effect by the insertion of the line “kept his body clean” taken wholesale from the latter song. This ties the disappointing and shameful son in Even in his Youth directly to the unsympathetically treated and ultimately doomed son in Laminated Effect. While lacking the rape motif of Rape Me and Laminated Effect the crucial connection is the association of the father in all three cases with the main character’s guilt and shouldering of the responsibility for perceived failings.
The first ghost of this song lived within Kurt; in his retention of the memory of what this song’s inspiration and scenario had initially been, even long after all visible male-on-male rape motifs were erased. This can be seen in the way his Journals propose two video treatments for the song; one dwelling on the forced feminization of men in prison; the second in which a man takes on the female role and is examined in stirrups in a gynecologists’ office. Whenever these entries were written (late 1993?) it’s still about the feminization and abuse of a man, not a woman. He reinforced this once again by using the image of a seahorse on the cover of the single specifically because with seahorses it’s the father who rears the young.
So, the song morphed from a song about incestuous rape of a male child, into an anonymous refrain, into the ultimate version in which the refrain was harnessed to a commentary on the media’s treatment of his family. This same bonding of past family and present family seems to have haunted Kurt given it’s precisely the same sandwich he made on Serve the Servants.
On the October 26, 1992 demo of Rape Me it was creepy that Kurt should insist on inserting the cries of his two month old child into a song with this theme. Yet — as with the image of the male seahorse that rears the baby, as with the refrain “made not born”, as with the son accepting that his father’s shame was the son’s own fault — there’s a genuine point to it. The image of the seahorse fulfills a deeper purpose in that it is there not just as an inversion of roles but also because it shows the father influencing the fate of a child at the earliest phase of existence.
This was a song about family and specifically about what a father bequeaths genetically to his child — the guilt and self-critical negativity is the crux of the issue, not the rape itself. In the initial demo of Rape Me and in Laminated Effect what takes place is not a literal rape, it’s the father imposing, against the child’s will, a fate and an identity upon them via the sex act that created them. The line about “our favourite inside source” therefore possesses a double-meaning; the supposed traitor in the Cobain camp in late 1992 but also the internal source of his inspiration. Again, it’s the same trick as used in Serve the Servants where “that legendary divorce”, despite its sarcastic phrasing, is indeed a crucial event for Kurt — the fact he’s fed up of hearing it doesn’t erase its importance. The wry line about the “inside source” refers back to whatever it is that his father has placed within him that makes him who he is.
In each case, and in Even in his Youth, the child’s negative feelings about himself leads within the lyrics to a line holding destruction as the son’s ultimate destiny. The end result of the father’s presence in each song is that the son has no alternative fate other than the release of death. Placing Frances Bean Cobain in a rendition of Rape Me wasn’t just about being ghoulish; it was symbolic of the relationship between a father and their child. It was a statement of Kurt’s fear of what bad things he had willed to his baby made by placing his child inside a song originally about being raped by his father.
These are the ghosts within Rape Me. The first is Kurt Cobain the enraged husband railing against the media. The second is Kurt Cobain, the shameful and un-masculine son. The third is his father, the source of Kurt’s feelings of inadequacy. The fourth is Kurt Cobain, the fearful parent unsure of his influence on the child. Emphasize this by rereading his suicide note and the context in which he refers to the potential for his child to follow him and to become him.
Thank you. Now, if someone could pass me a torch? I just crawled up my own ass and it’d take a lot of work to clamber back out of here in the dark.