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…?