In Utero and the Second Age of Experimentation

In Dark Slivers I wrote a whole chapter, Post-Mersh, entirely about the golden age of Kurt Cobain’s musical experimentation basically centred between 1987-1989. I feel I overlooked a similar flourish in 1993, one I hadn’t even considered before.

While the earlier period saw Kurt Cobain probing and testing what could be done with sound while on a budget of bare pennies, 1993 afforded him, and Nirvana, the chance to buy in new sounds. Kurt’s increasing distain for continuing with what he was doing, the way he was doing it, had one positive consequence which is that it led to more space for the band to try new things.

A first new direction came via the addition of Dave Grohl as an active contributor of musical ideas. This began with Dave playing Kurt a demo of Alone + Easy Target recorded in 1991. Kurt responded enthusiastically reportedly saying “oh, finally, now I don’t have to be the only songwriter in the band!” The first tangible collaboration was the arrival of Dave’s ideas that became Scentless Apprentice at rehearsals in late 1992. This was a genuinely new development; Chad Channing has stated that he felt openly discouraged from having pretensions toward creative participation in Nirvana’s music. Now, in 1992-1993, Kurt even said in interview how pleased he was that some of the burden would be off his shoulders.

Of course this new potential didn’t last long. Rio de Janeiro in January 1993 saw Kurt allegedly supplying some backing vocals to the demo’ed cover of song Onward into Countless Battles, so some forward motion was being maintained. Then Dave’s song Marigold was used on the Heart Shaped Box single. The only problem there, however, was that when Dave recorded the song at the Pachyderm Studios sessions in February 1993, Kurt didn’t perform on the song at all. Rather than a fresh collaborative approach it’s more like using his band members for convenient filler at a time when he had far less to offer.

After that it’s hard to disentangle the general spiral of Kurt Cobain’s life from the specific issue of band collaboration. It’s certainly true that after the PR-friendly statements about this fresh creative input to Nirvana’s music, there was barely any studio play or rehearsals whatsoever. It’s possible the public statements were a reflection of Kurt’s famed inability to openly confront many things he was unhappy with. That would make the long absence of collaboration with his comrades in Nirvana a way of giving a hint at how welcome he found their desire to participate as equals rather than as faithful supporters of his vision. Or maybe it was simply a relief to opt-out of the music and focus on making collages and art works at home with which to decorate the music that was emerging.

A common pattern with many bands, once they’re in possession of the money and fame to get away with it, is that they seek out a wider array of musical options to toss at their recordings. As examples, think of Guns n’ Roses with the grand pianos and string quartets, or Radiohead with the wholesale move into beats and keyboards. Nirvana never went that far; it was a vestigial opening in their sound that notably shied away from electronics or from a zeitgeist-hunting dive into the latest sounds.

Instead Nirvana reprised ideas they had briefly nodded to in the past — it’s a curiously circular path, part of a wider span of evidence that I’ve pointed to in the sample chapter I placed on here in the November 18, 2012 post. The addition of a second guitar seemed a genuinely desired option with Nirvana trying Big John Duncan (formerly and most famously of punk band The Exploited) before settling on Pat Smear (formerly and most famously of punk band The Germs.) It’s intriguing that just a year after Incesticide had tied Nirvana to various strains of the underground (to be followed by the link up with The Jesus Lizard), Nirvana attempted to add such solid punk era credentials to their line-up.

Pat Smear genuinely did seem to add creative options for Kurt Cobain as well as relieving live burdens. The final known recording work by Kurt Cobain involved Pat, similarly Pat has spoken about abortive requests from Kurt to work together in hotel rooms on tour. Again, though it didn’t add to a broadening of the instrumental palette, a second guitar could potentially have added something new to Nirvana’s sound.

The Pachyderm sessions apparently saw a brief jam attempted, now known as Lullaby, utilising an organ located at the site. The three instruments listed in Gillian G. Gaar’s description of the piece are “organ, bass and drums” suggesting that, once again, Kurt Cobain had discarded his guitar and had ended up on another instrument, an increasingly common feature. The dual role of vocalist and lead guitarist always automatically made Kurt Cobain the front man and figurehead. Having a second guitarist, or these periodic switches to drums (Sao Paolo concert in January, one song in the Rio sessions, here at Pachyderm, the 1994 home demos) appear to be a way to step back into the shadows to some extent, to abdicate the central role.

Lori Goldston’s addition on cello was another repeated preference. Originally band friend Kirk Canning had added the instrument to Something in the Way back in 1991; Kera Schaley then took over and applied touches to Dumb and All Apologies in 1993. To then add Lori Goldston as a full addition to the touring ensemble was a fresh step but not an unprecedented addition to Nirvana’s music. It’s interesting that, while a perfect fit for the MTV Unplugged in New York format, Lori’s inclusion had already been decided on and had taken place earlier — happy coincidence. It was at that show also that the final new instrument, Krist Novoselic’s accordion detour on Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam took place.

The acoustic direction has been suggested as one direction for Kurt Cobain; a few months back I suggested that the trend in his music seemed more toward the noisy with acoustic guitars remaining a feature for home practice only…Now there’s a new option, perhaps there could have been a fleshed out and fuller Nirvana, a more cluttered, yet also more orchestrated and mature sound. It’s a possibility.

…But I admit it. I’ve been trying to be positive yet the evidence amounts to scraps. The addition of such punk-originated second guitar options perhaps supports the idea that 1992-1994’s turn toward noisier songs would continue. Or the permanent concert residency for the cello may mean that the mooted acoustic direction could have also ushered in a wider arsenal of ‘organic’ instrumentation. Or in a continued Nirvana either Dave or Pat might have been the source of a dilution of the Cobain-centric band creating new directions for the music. 1993 deserves to be seen as a new age of experimentation for Nirvana, but one that simultaneously shows evidence of disinterest and/or a sense of confusion about what the future should be, or whether there was a future at all.


One thought on “In Utero and the Second Age of Experimentation”

  1. Interesting Nick!

    Kurt also liked ‘Exhausted’ apparently.
    Dave recorded a demo of it with Krist during the Nirvana Rob Lang session when Kurt wasn’t there.
    Dave was himself seemingly shy with his own material around Kurt. Dave has said so himself but has also said in the past that Kurt did like a few of his songs (that ended up on Pocketwatch and first Foo Fighters album) that he had heard and alleged asked if he could do his own lyrics to ‘Alone & Easy Target’ & ‘Exhausted’ .

    I think if things in the Nirvana camp hadn’t got so strained (mainly due to Kurts drug habbit and Dave not having one) they could have even ended up maybe writing together under different circumstances … well perhaps.

    As for ‘Marigold’ if Kurt hadn’t of liked it theres no way it would have ended up as a Nirvana B side IMO. As you rightly note Chad’s material was never entertained by Kurt but few of Dave’s songs actually were and thats despite there seemingly being a bit of conflict or uneasiness between Dave & Kurt in latter days.

    Things in the Nirvana camp had gotten a bit ‘weird’ even by Pat’s admission who has barely ever talked about any problems in Nirvana despite him spending a lot of time with Kurt . Incidentally it’s noticable how Pat has never been on the recieving end of any of Courtney’s jibes despite being in Foo Fighters etc.

    Someone mentioned in another post on how In Utero tour was less varied in terms of setlists i think that partly was because Nirvana had additional musicians in Pat as extra guitarist and the cello.

    More new ppl in a band ironically a bit less flexible live?

    But at same time as youve noted with the acoustic sections , cello on tour Nirvana were changing. Though the noisey side was still there in some of the jams etc.

    on sidenote Lori played on the last two Earth albums.

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