Clay Man/Sealed in Skin

Posted: February 13, 2013 in Analysing Nirvana Songs

Respect due to Michael Prodger writing in the Review section of The Mail on Sunday liberated from a local pub back at the weekend. I’d like to borrow his opening comparing Hamlet’s quotation “what a piece of work is a man”, to an earthy reality that “man is an amalgam of some 206 bones, 78 organs, about 640 muscles…assorted sinews, tendons and cartilages, all clothed in two square metres of skin…” This was in his review of Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Anatomies.

In one of my personal favourite chapters of Dark Slivers I dwelt on Kurt Cobain’s liking for disease metaphors and his translating of emotional pain into physical symptoms. One item I hadn’t considered though was the relative absence of the human body as a tangible presence within his work. The review points out that Shakespeare was relatively fixated on the body “ ‘flesh’ appears 142 times in his work while there are 1,047 hearts, 82 brains and 44 stomachs.”

Within a piece of work I’ve not yet taken the time to pare down to manageable size, I analysed the verbs within Kurt Cobain’s songs and concluded there was an absence of physical action within his songs. Initially when studying for this article I was expecting to see a similar absence of human flesh within the songs but this proved untrue. What is fair to say, instead, is that the body occurs mainly in glimpses, the songs lack physicality and a result it’s rare for the body to be at the he…Centre of a song:

Lyrics_Bodies

In the case of this subject, I believe it’s a situation where the form Kurt Cobain’s songs took impacted on the subject matter; it’s hard to write about bodies, limbs, organs when most of one’s lyrics are thoughts, opinions, feelings and observations. Bodies are more usually visible in Nirvana’s music as glimpses, lyrical ghosts — someone’s eyes, a face — that appear then disappear; the preceding line, the next line, the physical being rarely persists or has a role or consequence. It isn’t that the songs are merely impressionistic daubs, it’s more that the body is irrelevant to the broader themes and points of the song — the songs are of an interior lived experience not the container surrounding that experience.

An intriguing shift, however, is that the presence/absence of the human body within the work of Kurt Cobain forms a series of peaks and troughs. Kurt’s early story song, Floyd the Barber, is arguably the most physically active song he ever wrote yet it’s still one in which the narrator’s body sits bound and still, acted upon not acting. Again, another song that long preceded Bleach, Paper Cuts, involved a physical action placing it neatly alongside Beeswax’s penile dwelling or Pen Cap Chew’s more observational “skin under a fingernail.” Nevermind barely manages more than a single corporeal element in a song, Sliver, Dive, Stain, Been a Son, Sappy, Even in His Youth, Aneurysm — flesh barely appears. Aneurysm is a great example of what occurs; Aneurysm translates each action into a physical symptom but into sensation on or within a body, the body remains imaginary. In Utero, surprisingly, is relatively low in physical presence…Unless one notes a different dividing line and looks instead for the songs most likely to have been written tight around the Rio De Janeiro sessions (MV, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, Very Ape). The two outtakes/b-sides were the most focused physical musings Kurt Cobain had made in seven years and strangely that aspect simply vanished in his final recordings.

Mexican Seafood is the most perfect encapsulation of Kurt Cobain’s approach to the human body; it’s a song about being ill in which the body barely exists — what it recounts instead is the body’s ‘excretions’ not just in terms of the physical, but also primarily focused on the sensations. Think of the image of the transparent man gracing the front cover of the Dive/Sliver single (on the former song he appropriately sang “everyone is hollow”) , it’s a good metaphor for the body in Kurt’s lyrics — the body is a translucent object, it barely exists, what he’s sensitive to and most aware of is feelings.

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