Songs Dissected: Low Rider — Circling Part One

You’ve undoubtedly heard this; it’s a shred of a home demo Kurt Cobain recorded, it’s assumed, sometime in 1992. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, sweetly brief, and also enjoyable to hear Kurt seeming to have a little fun in music — akin to the chuckled adlibs in Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip. Kurt Cobain’s percussive abilities are likewise a nice touch — that’s some effective hand drumming going on. The other significance that can be attached to this song is that while between 1987-1989 there is substantial evidence of Kurt experimenting with music at home, after that date the only visible home demos simply show him running through ‘shovel-ready’ Nirvana songs in standard pop format. This 25 second clip is the only hint that he was doing anything out of the ordinary, anything way out to leftfield of Nirvana.

Referring back to the musical vibe of the piece, for contrast, here’s the deeply cool original:

Note the Caribbean drums, the funk styling, the jazzy finale — this is one musically expansive track. Kurt Cobain is mimicking the final twenty seconds or so of the track “take a lil’ trip, take a lil’ trip with me…” Low Rider’s significance isn’t just that it’s a giggle, it is that it’s pretty well the only evidence of Kurt Cobain reaching out to musical heritages beyond an extremely narrow continuum. This is not a criticism; it’s simply a factual comment — what I’m not seeking to do is criticise Kurt Cobain’s music for being something it never set out to be.

Yet, as fame enveloped him, Kurt Cobain increasingly dwelt on the perceived limitations of the guitar as an instrument (“12 notes 6 strings and 30 years”); on his own frustration with what he began claiming was a repetitive structure and style to Nirvana’s music (“I don’t want to keep rewriting this style of music”). In his suicide note he even took the time to claim that music had become boring to him (“I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now.”) What we’re examining here, in detail, is the nature of Kurt Cobain’s writer’s block.

He took it further. He identified this not just as a personal crisis, but as a fundamental collapse in rock music as an entity (“it’s already so rehashed and so plagiarized that it’s barely alive now. It’s disgusting.”) But hold on — let’s question that. This is the early Nineties. Sonic Youth have just rejuvenated the guitar. My Bloody Valentine have kicked out Loveless. Swans had torn ground-shaking tones from it. His own friends in Earth were about to create an entire new sub-genre based around the drone. It’s disingenuous that a guy saturated in the new angles that had been ripped from the guitar in the Eighties should claim the death of rock.

The wider context of the rock world makes clear that this was another case of Kurt Cobain defending himself from pain by going on the attack, the same way he publically denigrated his own music so no one could say anything hurtful that he hadn’t said first. At the root of what was occurring, beyond the drugs n’ drama, was a difficult combination of (I’ve used this compliment before) a highly talented musical magpie, running headlong into an deeply restless and easily bored musical spirit. Kurt Cobain had run through rock styles at a furious pace; Fecal Matter’s proto-grunge, January 1988’s new wave, Bleach’s straight up grunge, the garage pop/lo-fi spell of 1989-1990, electric blues with The Jury covering, a smattering of acoustic pop songs, on into the Pixies-tinged dynamics that met mainstream rock on Nevermind — he devoured them all. He needed something new to retain the avid enthusiasm he had felt for learning punk rock.

The musical universe in which Nirvana played was, unfortunately, extremely limited. Essentially the band regurgitated styles prevalent within a very specific scene; they were a Seattle band not just in root, but in the vocabulary with which they played. What the band didn’t do was reach beyond that specific background, the one they’d grown up with, to explore other sources; there wasn’t even the vestigial beginnings of a Johnny Rotten-esque shift from Sex Pistols to dub reggae infused Public Image Limited; there wasn’t anything like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir wearing their world-walking on its sleeve; there was no toying with jazz, with funk, with any other genre; even Nirvana’s alternative tuning on Blew was an accident; Nirvana’s live playfulness with noise and feedback didn’t make it too far in studio (The Priest They Called Him stands out.)

Love Buzz is a good comparative; an Eastern-tinged track recorded by a Dutch band during the late Sixties’ flirtation with Indian musical styles…Which Nirvana sliced the quirk out of in order to turn it into a straight forward grunge/punk/rock song (this is not to say I don’t love it! It’s a specific point about the musical expansiveness of Kurt Cobain.) A further case in point would be the conversion of Lead Belly’s African-American segregation era blues and folk into unaccented, uninflected acoustic pop — there’s not an ounce of original colour left in the tune even if Kurt, while performing solo at Castaic Lake in California in September 1992 did announce “this is a song by Huddie Ledbetter — he was a slave in the South.” Kurt Cobain’s music was quintessentially drawn from a highly specific American rock tradition in which the diversions artists like Jimi Hendrix had made into funk and soul; or Led Zeppelin made into whatever they could find; were left to artists like Prince while Nirvana — and Metallica too as an aside — honed the music down to an unfunky, straight ahead suburban white boy rock; no Clash style reggae moments, no Bad Brains styling, no Minutemen style jazz chords. Nirvana were indeed an all-American phenomenon, but musically speaking (I fully acknowledge the band’s support for equal rights and racial harmony) they were only one part of America.

In Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, the only real-world geographic locations that were ever mentioned were all in the State of Washington, all within a couple of hundred kilometres of his birthplace (Puget Sound; Seattle). Essentially, as we’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of his music was already written by mid-1991, by the time he was 24 years old. It’s not a surprise in a lot of ways that his lyrical inspiration never moved far from the area that was his home for most of his life. Similarly, in the seven-plus years of Nirvana’s existence, his instrumental inclinations never strayed from the punk/rock/pop sounds that gave him his initial impulses and enthusiasms back as a teenager.

I respect Kurt Cobain even more for having such a sharp eye that he recognised that his writer’s block was a combination of an instrument he didn’t have the time to find new worlds for; of musical approaches he’d run-through so fast (and mastered so thoroughly) he hadn’t left himself new turf to explore; and for recognising that, for his own enjoyment, he needed to start moving further than the narrow confines of the corner of the rock world he had picked clean for over ten years. Low Rider, recorded in 1991-1992, is a too-brief time-capsule showing a man stepping ever so briefly out of his comfort zone, trying ever so tentatively to find something fresh that could perhaps give him the long run of inspiration he’d wrenched from punk a decade before.

Plus…It’s fun. Twenty seconds well spent on a tape machine somewhere in the maelstrom.


5 thoughts on “Songs Dissected: Low Rider — Circling Part One”

  1. ‘unfunky’?
    Seriously re-litsten to Lounge Act bassline or something .
    and then try to tell me Nirvana didn’t have a ‘groove’.
    i think this article does a diservice to Nirvana as an actual band. Nirvana were a “rock & roll ” band. They had that “roll” .
    Krist & Dave were a very good rhythm section on any level and could play whatever you wanted them to but Kurt didnt appreciate it because he was smacked off his face late on which seems the big elephant in room you seem reluctant to talk about.
    Heroin . it sapped everything from him and rather cruelly did fuck all creatively unlike many others.
    Kurt mubling a few seconds of War (great band BTW) is literally irrelvant.

  2. You’re entirely right that Dave/Krist’s abilities would have allowed them to play whatever style was required…But Nirvana never left a certain ‘range’, they weren’t used to the full extent of their abilities – while Lounge Act is a fun bassline, it isn’t funky, nor does one song make an argument. That’s fine, this isn’t an accusation or a criticism, I don’t particularly enjoy funk or jazz! 🙂

    I simply enjoyed using Low Rider as a jumping off point. Just as there were no diversions into electronica, or hip hop, neither were there Clash/Bad Brains-style reggae moves, nor Minutemen jazz, nor Meat Puppets country, Big Black industrial, nor even the kind of flourishes Guns n’ Roses poured (rather too heavily) over Use Your Illusion. Nirvana did one thing brilliantly.

    On the heroin point, it gets used too often as a ‘cover all’ apologia for whatever criticisms might be legitimately made of Nirvana – if you head back to the early days of this blog you’ll note the pieces showing the crucial decline in Kurt Cobain’s productivity; that fall is the undercurrent to anything I might say on the topic.

  3. Not sure I agree. Sonic Youth wasn’t “recent” to a just-barely-27 year old man/boy who had gone to a Sammy Hagar concert only a shade over a decade before. Sonic Youth was the interesting stuff in music that was happening 6 or 7 years earlier. Think of how compressed rock and roll history was the younger it was, and indeed, the younger the individual is as a person. Try it, think of it in terms of 2016. Pretend you are Kurt today and that the world of punk rock began, for you, in 2006. Only 2006! Think of his musical evolution over those years, the various styles he got into, abandoned, etc. Early-mid ’80s SST, Touch & Go, throw in some Stooges, late ’80s Sub Pop, Olympia and Scottish jangle pop, and then it was ’90s alternative rock and then it was over. By 1994 guitar-noise rock could well have seemed exhausted, especially to someone who was mentally exhausted, true, but it’s not hard to see why he didn’t see rock as still vital, even if on paper and with the long view the evidence is there that it was.

    1. Fred, that’s a REALLY good point! I totally admit that I often write stuff saying “remember where music history was at” but in this instance have forgotten in some ways where Cobain was at in his development and where rock was at in its development. Totally agree. And thank you!! I confess I really like being reminded to think again – and so eloquently too.

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