Songs Dissected: Laminated Effect

Posted: February 28, 2013 in A Young Kurt Cobain 1967-1987, Analysing Nirvana Songs

The songs on Fecal Matter were among the most overtly personal Kurt would ever write; the early songs ranged across the standard life of a teenager — masturbation, jibes at teenage girls who didn’t fancy him, poking fun at classmates and those who bullied him, TV inspirations, violent imagery. Then, suddenly, in amidst these songs, there’s the occasional burst of oddity. I’d be more surprised if there wasn’t anything unusual featured given Kurt Cobain’s later lyrics and also the reality of the life he was leading during his teenhood — this wasn’t a normal childhood, it was one with significant impediments to normal development.

There’s a ‘knot’ of unfortunate tendencies circulating round the Cobain family. To recount a small number, on his father’s side Kurt’s great uncle Burle committed suicide when Kurt was twelve and had supposedly been about to be charged with sexual molestation at the time of his death. Meanwhile his great-grandfather on his mother’s side not only stabbed himself but then proceeded to reopen his own wounds and bleed to death — Sheesh, it’s a bit much when Uncle Kenneth shooting himself and Uncle Ernest drinking himself into oblivion (despite medical warnings that he was killing himself) then dying of an aneurysm falling downstairs drunk are the more mellow tales. Most children don’t have four violent deaths among their immediate blood relations. The other week we talked about Kurt’s living arrangements (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/28/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-1/), another unusual circumstance, then we can still add on the legendary divorce and related inter-parent viciousness. I’d be more surprised if Fecal Matter wore no stains as a consequence.

Laminated Effect stands out in that respect. It’s the one song in Kurt Cobain’s history that stands out as uncharacteristically ‘nasty’. In the first verse the male homosexual character is raped by his father then catches AIDS; in the second verse the female homosexual is ‘cured’ by heterosexual penetration. It’s disturbing to hear someone who grew to be as enlightened as Kurt Cobain was in later years laying out the myth that homosexuality is some kind of pose and that those born homosexual can be ‘cured’. It’s the equivalent of Eminem’s unreleased track in which he directed racial taunts at a former African-American girlfriend; it’s not so comparable to Axl Rose’s famed One in a Million track which was a deliberate release taking on the persona of a dumb hick from the country arriving in Los Angeles (an, at least, semi-autobiographical tale.)

I’ve been dwelling on this song for a year now, it’s been hard to know what to make of something so jarringly out of sync. My belief now is that there is a case to be made that the song was significant and should be considered as something more than a side-note to the career of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Nirvana were very frugal with their songs, almost everything they recorded found relatively rapid release, not many songs were repeatedly toyed with — Sappy received the most studio efforts (1989 studio, 1990 studio, 1991 studio, 1993 studio), the next was three shots at Radio Friendly Unit Shifter — nothing else popped up more than twice. This is a point about how songs ‘lingered’ in Kurt Cobain’s mind — answer; they rarely did.

In the case of Laminated Effect though, he recorded it in early 1986 (see Gillian G. Gaar’s Entertain Us) which suggests a late 1985-early 1986 writing. The song vanishes, yet in late 1989, a very rare thing occurs and he cannibalises a single line of lyrics from it. Firstly, this tells us how low on serviceable material Kurt Cobain was in mid-to-late 1989; Even in his Youth was recorded in studio in September that year before it ever made it near a live stage which seems to indicate hurried work to build up pieces for potential future use. It’s such an odd act, stripping a single line, one that to an external observer seems to have no particular significance or poetic quality that would make it memorable, and choosing to give it ‘life’ three and a half years later.

It’s a mark of the song’s significance that it’s one of the only times Kurt Cobain borrowed lyrics from an old track to use in a new one — “kept his body clean” was a specific reference to the homosexual male, it’s an image derived from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth and also an image of guilt and shame — Lady Macbeth walks the castle attempting to wash imaginary spots of blood from her skin having murdered the king. It’s one of Kurt’s most articulate metaphors given he uses it, both in Laminated Effect and in Even in His Youth, in the original Shakespearian context (“told he was at fault, living life unhappy”/”Kept his body clean going nowhere/daddy was ashamed, he was nothing, smears the family name”). What’s also notable is that both songs share the issue of the father; in each case it’s the father who defines the context of the son’s entire existence; in one the rape is given as context to the later events of the son’s life, in the other the individual’s entire being is summarised by their father’s shame.

A second way in which this one song echoed on into the future is that the image of incestuous rape reoccurred in 1990 in the original demo of the song Rape Me. Again, the crucial point is that the person at the core of the event isn’t defined as a victim; they’re defined as being responsible with mention of “my embarrassment” and the invitational tone “rape me…Someone disgrace me.” That’s two further songs looped out of Laminated Effect.

It was easy, initially, to interpret all three songs as simply a recounting of Kurt Cobain’s own guilt, sense of male insecurity, the feeling that he’d embarrassed and disappointed his father. But the first song was on Fecal Matter which leads me, for once, to believe that there was a more literal source for the song — and there is a candidate.

In the book Heavier Than Heaven, Charles Cross recounts briefly the fate of one of Cobain’s relatives, his mum’s brother, Kurt’s uncle Patrick. Patrick died at age 46 of AIDS in the first days of January 1991. Patrick’s homosexuality was apparently a family secret, his parents refusing to believe he was gay, and likewise no one talking about Patrick’s insistence that he had been sexually abused by his own uncle Delbert. There are similarities in the tale being told on Laminated Effect. Kurt’s story focuses on rape by the father (not uncle), the parental shame associated with the son’s homosexuality which was indeed a crucial feature of the real-life case — Patrick’s parents initially refused to believe he was homosexual and Patrick was so furious about how he was ignored and shamed that he considered publically announcing what was happening to him. The next similarities are the move to the big city — Patrick indeed moved to California — and finally the catching of “a big disease”; the biggest disease of the Eighties, particularly in the gay community was AIDS. The fact the chief character is still alive at the end of the song again fits in that regard, Patrick was alive when Laminated Effect was written.

There is difficulty, of course, in establishing the timing (and there’s no extant statements from Kurt as to his intentions — sorry guys, I’m speculating again.) Patrick died on January 2, 1991, four and a half years after the Easter 1986 recording of Laminated Effect. A further intriguing coincidence, however, is that Kurt Cobain resurrected Even in his Youth, in its final released form, at a casual studio session on January 1, 1991. A song about incest, homosexuality, the man infected with the big disease — a memory of it inserted into a song that is then brought back to life one day before the family member who potentially suffered incest, who was homosexual, who was a victim of AIDS, who was a hushed family shame, before that man died. Another timing issue is that it is unknown if Patrick had still been living in State of Washington when he made his homosexuality known to his family, likewise it’s unknown when in the intervening years Patrick had made his accusation regarding Kurt’s great-uncle, or when AIDS was diagnosed.

In the context of ‘Illiteracy will Prevail’ a tape by a nineteen year old Kurt Cobain, on which personal circumstance and influences were worn on the sleeve, it would be more unusual if Laminated Effect was pure fantasy rather than an extrapolation from a known tale. Also, on that tape, there was a very rare feature which was Kurt made use of other voices and told stories through other people’s eyes (for example Buffy’s Pregnant). Rather than Laminated Effect being an unpleasant expression of Kurt’s own feelings, the song appears to be a recounting of the confused and intolerant reactions of his family to what was occurring; his family were genuinely unpleasant in their treatment of Patrick, unwilling to accept homosexuality as something natural. Kurt would go through these feelings again on Been a Son (written intriguingly at roughly the same time as Even in his Youth) which may have been discussing his parents’ response to Kurt’s sister’s lesbianism. Certainly I find it easier to believe that this wasn’t Kurt’s voice than that the sensitive teenager who already believed he was possibly gay, would write a song that was so spiteful toward homosexuals.

What’s a curious further thought leading from this is that Even in his Youth, potentially, may be a more sympathetic and introverted retelling of Patrick’s story; I’ll leave it here.

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Comments
  1. […] are three song analyses: my favourite is the work on Laminated Effect (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/02/28/songs-dissected-laminated-effect/), the most controversial was the piece on Low Rider where I did push pretty far – to […]

    • Adru Diaz says:

      you know the first time i listened to this song…….it made me think a lot, because kurt cobain hated homophobes, and these lyrics were kinda tough, u’ll never know what he was thinking or feeling when he was writing a song, his lyrics were like his secret place you know, some of them r easy to interpret, some others not, and thats why i love kurt writing, because it’s opened for interpretation. ”illiteracy will prevail” thats what kurt thought about his hometown, surrounded by ignorace all the time. my point of view : ”big disease” not necessarily needs to be AIDS in my opinion, a story comes to my mind (natgeo) when a person borns in the wrong body, a man becomes a woman, and a woman becomes a man, and they finally find love when they meet eachother.
      The chorus is own kurt’s voice, speaking to the outcasts like ” u r not alone”
      the homophobes r the ones who r wrong

  2. Christy says:

    I never interpreted this song as being homophobic at all but making FUN of what homophobic people thought of people who were LGBTQ. A lot like the song Buffy’s Pregnant where he imitated his class mates talking about a girl as an object and talking about “slipping her the hot beef injection” LOL! He didn’t actually mean he thought these things, he MEANT he found their ignorance and the way they talked about these girls really horrible to the extent of being funny and making fun of them. This song is NOT about him being homophobic but subversive. A lot like another band that he loved–The Frogs.

    • nsoulsby says:

      I entirely agree – I think that’s what I said too? That it’s a song spoken in the voice of other people…? That he, himself, is not making homophobic statements nor condoning them – he’s reporting the language and styles of the people he’s writing about…Definitely think that’s what I said in the piece! 😉

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