Credit for this post goes out to Adam Harding — a true gent. Having written to say he’d received his copy of Dark Slivers he took the time to drop me a line about a scanned newspaper article that can be seen in the Mudhoney Documentary “I’m Now.” The article basically suggests that a different name was publicised for Sliver prior to its release; Rug Burn. It’s also fascinating to see how, at twenty years distance, this spell of miscellaneous drummers and multiple options (Patty Schemel, J Mascis, Dan Peters…) now looks like just a ‘blip’, a pause before the arrival of Dave Grohl. The article gives a sense of confusion, of uncertainty, with Dan Peters genuinely under consideration for a longer stint.
The wider point that Nirvana songs existed under a multiplicity of working titles is old news. What intrigues me, however, is the window those working titles often gave onto what was on the mind. This song follows quite a regular pattern in terms of the shift in titles; from the specific to the generic. Rug Burn, as a title, has a very precise domesticity and childhood connection — Sliver could mean just about anything. Two other fair examples from the same phase were the shift from Immodium — a diarrhoea medicine, pointing to the on-the-road experience of Tad Doyle’s extreme stomach problems during the 1989 spell when the song was being written — to the universal Breed. Pay to Play also relates to touring experiences, the practice of bands being forced to buy tickets from a venue then sell them on in order to make any money, and changes to the generic Stay Away. Other examples would be Formula/Drain You, Memoria/Come as you Are. The key exception is New Complaint’s evolution into the highly personal Heart Shaped Box — it emphasises the love song aspect of it, the song as a gift to Courtney Love, named after one of the gifts they had given one another.
The following list, based on the information compiled at LiveNirvana (with thanks to what is an amazing website), lists all the known previous names:
What the list emphasises is that Kurt Cobain did put thought into the details of his music, it wasn’t all just on-the-spot inspiration. It’s also interesting to see him regularly modifying his tendency to make lame quips, opting for more palatable, often more deftly and poetically phrased, titles. There are still further habits and tendencies present.
Firstly, a simple (and not uncommon approach) was to simply refer to a song by a line from its lyrics until it was fully formed; I Think I’m Dumb, New Complaint, Memoria, Knows Not What it Means — they’re all fairly obvious matches. With more visible evidence of the full evolution of songs from first demo to final recording it’s likely that a lot more songs traced this path from namelessness, to lyric-naming, to a final statement.
Naming a song after it’s sound, or feel, was another clear approach. My favourite example is Scentless Apprentice with its over-elaborate working titles mimicking the core riff beautifully. It’s a delightfully humorous example too, I mean, taking the time to write Buck Buck bo Buck, Banana Fanna fo Fuk — fun! There’s no other example as explicit as that one, where the title really is the tune, but, there are a few examples of naming the song after how it felt; All Apologies seems to align with the 1991 Nevermind sessions’ Song in D (this is unconfirmed as yet) then became La La La La which also fits the mood of the song.
As an aside, Dope Hippie/Hairspray Queen is an unusual switch — they’re not necessarily targeting the same audience unless my understanding of the U.S. rock scene is flawed and the last remnants of the Grateful Dead hippy crowd were morphing into the big-hair and androgynous glam metal crowds around Mӧtley Crüe and their ilk. The initial title reeks of Kurt’s later comment about “I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed tee shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia.” The latter title seems to shift to a separate target of his ire. It’s a real one-off.
The rapid fire writing around the Rio de Janeiro recording sessions in January 1993 yields a spell of such titles with Very Ape simply being called Perky New Wave Number while I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’s heaviness fits the Two Bass Kid line well (with the later titles both being far better.) Scentless Apprentice only evolved in rehearsals at the end of 1992 so, again, a scribbled down name until it really has to be thought about in February. The nicest example is Tourette’s being listed as New Poopie; pure and simple, “new shit”, how much more blunt can you get? No time for naming, they knew they’d get round to it. In Utero was certainly the most visibly interesting spell of song renaming what with Sad/Sappy/Verse Chorus Verse making its long transition from 1988 acoustic demo name (Sad) describing its mood, to its mid-period shrug (Sappy) before finally pickpocketing from a now discarded song to take on its final glum, bored with standard pop trope, title (Verse Chorus Verse.)
The band’s final spell offered two fun cases. Firstly, You Know You’re Right seems to have never made it further than a tape marked Kurt’s Tune #1 — a total lack of involvement similar to the way Pennyroyal Tea was the first single since Smells Like Teen Spirit that had no Cobain involvement. On the other hand, the demo known on With the Lights Out as Do Re Mi, and potentially actually called Me and My IV or Dough, Ray and Me, has a different interest. In this case, all three potential names are equally normal Cobain naming approaches — a simple repeat of the chorus line, or rhymes based on the chorus line; or, again, a random snatch from the song or two personal references (Me and My IV a reference to increasing familiarity with hospital stays, the latter potentially about a real person according to http://shutuplittleman.com/history.php?idd=19) that, if they followed the usual Cobain trend, would have been revised into something less personal.