Kurt Cobain: Such a Precious Petal

Posted: January 17, 2013 in Analysing Nirvana Songs, In Utero 1992-1993

Lillies

One of Kurt Cobain’s beauties was that he was simultaneously explicit about his reasons, but rarely simplistic. The matter of flowers is a case in point. I recall, back last month when I was suggesting that I didn’t find MTV Unplugged in New York a necessarily joyous occasion https://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/12/21/disquiet-mtv-unplugged-in-new-york), someone quite reasonably said “well, so what if Kurt asked for some flowers?”

Well, I feel there’s quite a big so-what. Kurt is absolutely clear that he doesn’t pick lilies as a key component of his decorative world because they’re merely ‘his favourite flower’ or because he finds them ‘pretty’. The request for MTV Unplugged in New York was very clear; lilies, black candles, crystal chandelier and as the all-knowing Oracle Wikipedia declares the show’s producer responded “you mean like a funeral?” to which Cobain replied “exactly. Like a funeral.”

But this isn’t the only reference to flowers. Within his Journals, in the sketched ideas for a video for the song Rape Me, he notes down “preferably lilies, orchids, ya know, vaginal flowers.” Wonderfully, however, this wasn’t the first time the vaginal flowers had been on his mind. Back in the spring of 1993 he had incorporated these same flowers into the artwork for In Utero with a piece explicitly entitled “Sex and Woman and In Utero and Vaginas and Birth and Death.” And again around the same time, for the Heart Shaped Box single cover, he was using the flowers again on a song that Courtney Love has stated is about her vagina. That charming comment from Courtney is backed up by the circling themes woven into the song; it was originally called Heart Shaped Coffin, it’s laced with ideas like the umbilical noose, a charming combination of woman and death all over again. And even this wasn’t the first time he’d gone with the flower angle, In Bloom in late 1992 had focused specifically on the stamen, the plant’s reproductive organs. It seems that for a period of somewhere over a year (at least) Kurt Cobain’s visual imagery was highly specific and focused. When it comes to covers and even stage decoration he loads the place with reproductive imagery and links it to death.

If we wanted to expand then it’d be easy at this point to comment on naked babies, pregnant women, seahorses too but instead I want to go in a different direction and refer to sex in the lyrics of Kurt Cobain — there isn’t much to be honest but let’s look. In total it amounts to four songs featuring rape — Floyd the Barber, Polly, Rape Me and the Fecal Matter demo track Laminated Effect — plus the song Moist Vagina, plus a mention on Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flowed Through the Strip. What I find intriguing is we’re looking here at songs involving sex and death (Floyd the Barber), an original title for M.V. which ended in “and then she blew him like he’d never been blown, brains stuck all over the wall”, rape and AIDS (Laminated Effect), oh, and Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol combines absence of sex with implied pregnancy and a missing period then has AIDS victim Perry Ellis guest-star.

I genuinely believe one of Kurt Cobain’s most unique qualities as an artist was his ability to work on multiple levels of meaning whether those combinations were humour and horror, delicacy and brutality, or in this case, the knowing use of flowers to represent sex and death, in public, uncensored, throughout that late period. Yet the association of sex and death (it’s the ol’ Doors vibe all over again) had more regular origins in his music with a long-standing issue returning to the fore in his married life. He doesn’t ask for flowers; he asks for a funeral and for vaginas – married, buried. Make of it what you will, I have.

Just as an aside, someone check me on this; Kurt chose the image of him in a Santa hat (partially obscured) for the inlay of In Utero, is it coincidence or self-parody that the frail old man in the Heart Shaped Box video (Christ pose, straggly hair, little beard, piercing blue eyes, thin, weary) also wears a Santa hat…?

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Comments
  1. Dan808 says:

    In regards to the Perry Ellis reference in the end of ‘Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol’.
    There was a Marc Jacob’s Perry Ellis ‘grunge’ collection fashion show in 1992. Catwalk grunge.
    It’s what Kurt was refering to in end part of “Gallons” in my opinion .:-

    “Perry Ellis came along with his broom, And his … silk …And he … he erected a beautiful city … A city full of stars.”

    That bit to me is clearly Kurt having bit of a pop of how the whole grunge thing had gotten in mainstream and even fashion world by then. Designer plaid shirts and designer mock-thrift store clothes at fashion shows.

  2. Jess says:

    hmmm
    not sure if was meant as graphic as that!

    But ‘Drain You’ is one of the few straightforward love songs Kurt wrote . The line “i LIKE you” is cute though. or maybe bit more cynically telling or revealing even? almost half sarcastic ? or just cute?Seems to me the song was about Tobi Vail although i think he said it wasn’t (?) or think i read that somewhere . so its possible that maybe it wasn’t but it more than likely very much was.
    Either way ; it is clearly about a real relationship . Its definately a personal song and unlike most songs on Nevermind is not that ‘cryptic’ lyrically despite some metaphors . its a fairly straightforward song about a relationship.
    And seems was a song that Kurt himself was very fond of. think Kurt said it was one of his favourite songs on Nevermind. you only have to remember how often they played it as well. it was an ever present in their sets after was written till the end.

  3. Jojo says:

    Henry Rollins made some great comments about this very point, of how he wished music could go back to that. He quotes jerry lee lewis a wop bop a loo lop a wop vam boo as being utterly sexual expression
    Henry is so on point when he is discussing music

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