On a regular basis the lyrics and titles of Kurt Cobain’s songs often had only a loose connection – sometimes it was just a way of getting out phrases he liked at the time. Liked is perhaps an understatement; in the period from 1992 onwards he seemed to pay very specific attention to titles and to use them with weighty intent and as very direct commentaries on his circumstances and his particular grievances at the time.
The examples are well known; Nine Month Media Blackout references the birth of his child and the cutting off of contact with what he deemed to be intrusive press — Radio Friendly Unit Shifter referring to commercially appealing single material (used for a song that was anything but — the inoffensive Sappy, a title with a five year heritage, being stripped and having Verse Chorus Verse grafted onto it making a point about the supposedly repetitious and tedious cookie-cutter music format he was trapped within — the In Utero album itself going through a few switches whether he wanted to reference sarcastic inquiries as to his state of mind (I Hate Myself and I Want to Die) or to reiterate the love of a particular title and the boredom motif (Verse Chorus Verse again) before settling on In Utero; back to baby references. This focus on the ‘in-your-face’ significance of titles, that these would be the repeated memes appearing in reviews and magazine articles, that these would be the first things seen and commented on even prior to the music and lyrics, was extensive. I’d also argue it was significant; the titles on Bleach and Nevermind were not devoid of meaning or connection to their subjects but they were not the jagged blades being deployed and aimed at enemies and irritations on In Utero and its surrounding single/compilation releases.
That stand-out messaging within titles continued with a number of other titles being equally literal and direct; Frances Farmer will Have her Revenge on Seattle linking to the much abused fallen star placed in an asylum by her mother and the court system — Serve the Servants referencing the Cobain family’s running around and subservience to court systems and parentage — Pennyroyal Tea’s abortion motif… What is less considered is how early, during this spell of fraught discontent, that the naming focus commences. I argued the significance of Incesticide in the Dark Slivers book (Christmastime jibe at happy family propaganda; reference to the discarded and neglected songs; killing the practice of damaging families…) but, beyond this, and preceding the In Utero sessions spell, there was a further outpouring; the April 1992 recording sessions.
The Journals make very clear that the two titles chosen and plastered onto Nirvana’s first post-Nevermind original recordings were related to one another. On page 185 a page long rant references, sarcastically, how he, Kurt Cobain, had betrayed the punk aesthetic with “oh the success! The guilt!” being a key half-smiling wail while “oh the guilt the guilt” forms the title. The same rant uses the word Curmudgeon to refer to rock critics in another phrase that would clearly stick with him mashing together “the self-appointed rock judge curmudgeon.” It’s a curious piece in that it also shows Kurt using the “I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townsend” line that he’s recording saying after a rendition of Baba O’Riley in Rennes, France on December 7, 1991; his retention of information is incredible, or alternatively the piece in the Journals dates to the December-January spell in which he was catapulted to worldwide, and unexpected, renown — to imagine him reacting against the press so early seems unusual, however, but still, possible.
The Journals take us further; page 260 shows both phrases being popular mantras he was using at the time — yet another dual reference to “pissy little self appointed judge curmudgeon oh the guilt! The guilt! The fame, the lights, the flash, the glitter, the guilt.” Again, Kurt Cobain seems to either read back his own diaries and hook out favoured expressions, or holds onto certain formulations. The latter suggestion is present in Cobain’s argument that he used “I hate myself and I want to die” as his standard rote answer to any inquiries about how he felt in late 1992 but whether that extends to this very precise Oh the Guilt/Curmudgeon expression it’s unclear. What is clear is that both expressions were clung to and were elements he wanted to broadcast to the world, slipping them out in Autumn of 1992 (Lithium single) and early 1993 (joint single with The Jesus Lizard) grafted onto the first new originals from Nirvana. The songs have been seen, traditionally, as an opening salvo prior to In Utero’s bile; this is indeed an accurate assessment. What is less appreciated is that they were revealing of a fresh approach to naming songs in which targeting his own annoyances and branding his enemies as directly as possible would be a priority.
These two songs are also a fair reminder that the traditional game of relating songs’ titles to the meaning of the song on which they are pasted, doesn’t always apply when it comes to Nirvana. Especially on b-side material, and particularly in this late phase, the words used to brand his songs didn’t bare much relation to the lyrical content of the songs even if it’s hard to think of them separately once the merging has been made.