Archive for May, 2013

A pleasantly whimsical post today, a piece from an Irish website discussing Kurt Cobain’s statements about bonding with Cork.

It’s hard for any individual to feel unmoved or uninterested when their past threads are brought to light — it’s slightly more unusual in the case of Kurt Cobain. The reason I say that is simply that, outwardly at least, Kurt Cobain’s most immediate roots, his mother and father, were a cause of significant pain and dismay. For a man who deliberately seems to have avoided all contact with the latter (barring one well-known encounter in 1992) and who limited contact with the former, to feel tears at discovering the Irish roots behind his name seems over-elaborate.

Except there he is saying it. It’s significant because, despite Nirvana’s extensive travelling, Kurt Cobain’s affections for other countries seems to have been limited — there are no tour diary tunes, the only physical locations in his songs are either fictitious or are firmly State of Washington, he seemed thoroughly unhappy in South America, has lashed the British, was barely awake or undrugged enough to notice Australasia. It’s also remarkable for the fact that his memorialisation of Seattle/Olympia/home in song wasn’t nostalgic or happy — images of poison and revenge were the primary links. But he had love for Ireland…

My take is that the answer lies in blood. Kurt Cobain’s view, expressed in his suicide note, expressed in his repeated linkage of sex, love, enslavement and family through his songs, seems to have been that genetics essentially dictated the resulting human being. The theme of biology ranks as probably the most significant core within his music and, while significantly conflicted over his parents, their importance (though malevolent) in his eyes was undeniable. Ireland was, therefore, something more than a tourist experience, more than just another gig stopover. Instead of being a journey out into the world, it was a journey into himself.

I despise it when people talk about travel broadening the mind. Most people I know come home precisely as ignorant or ignorable as they were when they went out — most come back with a pretty photo collection and some knickknacks to show for it — it’s rare that brief work breaks in a foreign culture for two-three weeks blossoms into a true insight into international togetherness or cultural difference. Travel alone doesn’t do much for the mind; it’s meaningful journeys, one’s that mean something to the person involved, that make the difference. This means setting out with a purpose, something to be reinforced, discovered, made flesh. In the case of Kurt Cobain, journeys all over the world led him no closer to comfort either with home or away.

Kurt Cobain’s words are remarkable, “I walked around in a daze…I’d never felt more spiritual in my life…I was almost in tears the whole day…Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I’ve had a sense that I was from Ireland.” He’s determined as well to emphasise the reality of what seems like hyperbole; “I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this…”

A tour guide in Egypt complained that each time a cluster of tourists joined him he was beset by “half a dozen Cleopatras and a good few pharaohs.” Essentially statements about one’s ancestors are as much a present-day gesture of identity as they are a record of truth — that’s why so many adherents of reincarnation are beset by grandiose visions of past glory (a similar phenomena is the British love of period costume dramas about the upper classes — when times are hard the British like to forget that most of their ancestors were poverty stricken miners choking on coal dust, itinerant labourers dying in their forties, or part of the many thousands of women who took to prostitution either as a trade or a temporary measure.)

In the case of Kurt Cobain, the Irish connection provides him with an alternative root — one located thousands of miles from the U.S. working class and from the alcoholism and depression that seems to have haunted the roots of Cobain’s immediate family. By looking beyond his immediate circumstance, toward a past that he could base on his sanitised modern tourist experience of Cork, he was able to remove himself from the current circumstance of his family. It’s a repeat of his desire, as a child, to imagine he was an alien baby from outer space, or images of being adopted. Visiting Cork, Ireland gave him a way of alienating himself from his real life.

It also didn’t require him to get in touch with the earthy reality of what life in Ireland, during the period his forbearers left Cork, was like. He wasn’t imagining ‘being’ his ancestors, he was imagining being himself, in the present-day, simultaneously a thousand miles from his real life and a hundred and something years after his closest Irish heritage. He didn’t have to acknowledge the squalor or misery of nineteenth century Ireland because it’s not what he was yearning for, he was just imagining being a young man who might have grown up differently. It’s the same trick pulled by those who wish to imagine a past as Cleopatra — they’re not asking to experience the dirt, dust and relative (compared to modern day) poverty of even royal life in Ancient Egypt, they’re just after a talisman of power to ward off the demons around them today. There’s a constant underestimation of how much behaviour and activity in the here and now is nothing more than a statement of “here I am and this is who I am”; the past is present as a way for people to declare their chosen alternative and mythical identities.

This’ll be round everyone imminently I’m sure but R.I.P. Leland Cobain, an apparently decent man, someone his grandson trusted and seems to have held onto as a connection within his family despite the breaking of links to his father. He’s been a warm and open presence for Nirvana fans in the decades since. It’s nice to see people embracing the world in that way and these simple courtesies deserve remembrance in a world where they sometimes don’t get enough credit.

Hands down the balance in Nirvana’s relationship was toward the latter by virtue of simple poverty. Books make much of Jack Endino’s shrugged remarks over the song Sappy and Nirvana’s lengthy time spent with it in January 1990 because it was such an exceptional event.

How exceptional? Well, Sappy received four takes, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter three takes, twenty-nine songs received two shots (list? Floyd the Barber, Spank Thru, Sifting, Mr. Moustache, Blew, Paper Cuts, Hairspray Queen, Dive, Polly, In Bloom, Lithium, Stay Away, On a Plain, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, the whole of In Utero barring the aforementioned RFUS plus Serve the Servants, M.V. and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.) In other words, Sappy is double the norm for a Nirvana song — one of only two songs Nirvana ever took more than two visits to pin down.

At first I did also think that, of the songs requiring two takes, songs that Nirvana ultimately used as b-sides (Spank Thru, Dive, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, Sappy, M.V. and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die) were actually over-represented, that maybe there was a correlation between dissatisfaction with a piece and the number of tries the band had at it. That could be reinforced, as an argument, by suggesting that dissatisfaction with All Apologies and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter in January 1991 leads to them being ignored until long after the Nevermind sessions that spring/summer. It would suggest that Kurt Cobain’s preference was for songs that felt right in the moment, that having been honed in rehearsal came together rapidly in studio. Alternatively it would suggest that less practised songs were glued onto sessions as b-side fodder but often lead to frustrating underwhelming tracks needing a second shot regardless. Overall, however, I don’t think there’s enough to that as a suggestion.

What is visible is how few of Nirvana’s studio efforts required significant alteration or honing to give them their final shape. There are differences in attack and approach to pieces, lyrics shift lightly, some songs move tone but of those twenty-nine songs we’re looking at a bare handful that merit mention as substantially different takes.

The core are the shots at Sifting, Mr Moustache and Blew — all three were laid down in summer 1988 simply because the opportunity presented itself to whip up first shots at work in progress. Those three songs are radically different in lyrical approach as formulated on Bleach, Sifting moves from an extended instrumental to curtailed focused grunge song. Dive’s first take stands out for the video footage existing of the song being honed in studio, the band facing one another to take their cues as they’d not practised it so well it was yet together. The difference, however, is basically a minute of extra instrumental work partially accounted for by a slower approach. Lithium lost its acoustic vibe, Token Eastern Song gained added flourishes and jangly guitar in January 1991 while All Apologies was similarly buried in K Records pop territory. Is there much more to say about the duplicate takes? Not unless something revolutionary shows up on the In Utero Deluxe Edition this Autumn.

Again, look to Sappy for the big shifts in muscle and mood across Nirvana’s active years, it tracks the band’s motion so well. And, in terms of ‘missing material’, I think it suggests it’s the non-studio rehearsal sessions and the band’s ‘home work’ that hides any significant redevelopments and growth from first sketch to final piece.

Phew…A nice quotation from Madame Love putting to rest the talk of Nirvana musicals and also pointing out a desire to prevent the wholesale exploitation of Kurt Cobain’s compositions. As usual, there’s a tendency to attribute exploitative ideas to Courtney Love — not helped by the tinge of self-righteousness in most comments from her regarding Nirvana — which seems untrue and unfair. The storm around the musical idea blew up during a court action last year and was solidly knocked on the head. A similar wave took place a few years back with Courtney Love apparently unhappy at discovering the use of Cobain’s music on the Guitar Hero; she was fairly vociferous; “this is necrophilic, this is vile…for the record I did not approve Kurt’s avatar for Guitar Hero 5…I think Kurt would despise this game alone let alone this avatar.”

Of course, in each case, there’s a counter-argument in the ever muddy waters around Mrs Love. In the case of Guitar Hero 5, Activision were pretty plain-spoken; ““Guitar Hero secured the necessary licensing rights from the Cobain estate in a written agreement signed by Courtney Love to use Kurt Cobain’s likeness as a fully playable character in Guitar Hero 5.” Similarly, in the case of the musical, it was Courtney’s manager who mentioned the idea. Certainly, despite any anti-corporate vibes people might want to chuck around (and that I do on occasion), I can believe a corporation buying rights far more than I can buy the idea of them acting illicitly and opening themselves up to a law suit.

Which all leaves me in two minds about the entire business of the use of Kurt Cobain’s estate. It’s very true that full scale conversion of his works into commercial library music for product placement and enslavement hasn’t, as yet, taken place. There’s barely been more than an occasional glimpse of Nirvana’s sound let alone Kurt Cobain’s image near a major product and yet, without clearer records from the present custodians it’s hard to tally what has been turned down or refused, and therefore hard to see whether it’s a lack of demand or a lack of willingness to sell that is creating that scenario.

I have a suspicion that most brands aren’t entirely sure about wedding themselves to a man associated, in the popular mind, as much with heroin-fuelled self-destruction, as with potent distillations of youth energy. Still, least there’s no equivalent of Keith Richards schilling for Louis Vuitton — a move that sticks in my head so well that I twitch with disgust anytime I see anyone carrying something with their logo.

My Friends

Apparently, when I was about four years old and attended a first nursery school somewhere near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a teacher saw me stood alone on my first day looking around the playground at break. She asked me if I was OK, I replied “I’m deciding who are the good kids and who are the bad ones.” I’ve no idea if this is apocryphal or not but it’s just background.

Forty-fifty years ago, when modern communication networks weren’t in place and the modern economy wasn’t driving most people to crisscross the country (or indeed countries) in search of work, peoples’ primary connections were to family because one could live one’s whole life within a mere few miles, less than fifty miles from home forever. Accidental or temporary connections were rarer than they are today — which is neither a good nor a bad thing — fewer individuals were itinerant, organisations were smaller and more localised, one’s own contact with other regions was restricted. At that time, the circles above would change in size, the inner circles expanding, the outer circle contracting.

The diagram isn’t complex or stunning — I took the idea a lot of years ago from Geography lessons discussing core/periphery in terms of countries and the economic centralisation around a capital city that tends to occur; outer rings contribute ever less significant to the overall entity. This is how I visualise the human relationships around me. At the centre, the most solid block of colour, this is the core; in my case there’s a very strong family group there, reinforced by a very powerful group of friends. There’s research about the number of truly important relationships that human beings can maintain so this circle will always be the smallest, tightest unit; the people one has the deepest contact with, who are the strongest support, sometimes the biggest pain (depth isn’t just a source of the positive.)

The second circle is the wider grouping of intermediates; the quotation I’d use here is the one about “some people are here for a day, others a season, some for a lifetime”, the point being that one should appreciate, honour and love the experience of those people for whatever it’s allotted time is rather than despising or dishonouring those connections for not becoming more. The people here may once have been part of the core, they were those one shared each day with, past loves, all the people one meets through school, university, work, interests with whom one develops a deeper interest and association.

The final circle is the majority of everyday contacts; the work mates one will never know deeper, the friends of friends, the people at bus stop or shop counter one sees regularly and acknowledges, the passing complexions of life. My first manager, a man of 32 which at the time seemed so old, said to me, “Nick, you’ll get used to the fact that the people you met at school and university are the people you’ll have for life but you’ll start seeing less of them. You’ll fill the gap with the people you meet in work but a lot less of those people will cross the line into being true friends once you don’t have work to talk about. Just remember to be able to tell the difference.” So far, his statement remains true. Acquaintances is my word for people I wish the best to, I think well of, but won’t necessarily be sharing my deepest wishes and fears with, nor making extra effort to draw tight to my life.

The trick in life, I believe, is to hold on tight to those people in the core, work hard for them regardless of immediate rewards or otherwise, to give the friends a chance to become the core but appreciate them regardless whether or not the bond loosens as circumstance changes, and to welcome the acquaintances without ever mistaking them for friends or core with whom one should expose one’s secrets, give away too much ‘skin’, or blow too much of value.

So! After the massive preamble…A further preamble. I’m reading a book called Jimi Hendrix FAQ by Gary J. Jucha — a bloke who definitely and decisively knows his stuff. One tiny thing that irks me , however, is that several sections basically consist of calling out the damaging individuals in Hendrix’s life for various misdemeanours, whether business related or sexual. On the one hand, the validity of including comments on these people is absolute — they were and are a part of the story. On the other hand, my objection is that there’s a small tendency to devolve responsibility for the consequences of their presence from the individual who kept them close — Jimi Hendrix — to the agents of harm. It’s a difference of tone rather than a complaint; acknowledging the selfish and venal nature of this cluster of people is worthwhile, but a deeper criticism of Hendrix would be reasonable and right.

The nature of a professional musician’s life naturally expands the transient nature of human connection; the individuals with whom I, by necessity, must make contact with each day for work purposes is far larger than that of my forefathers (miners, dockworkers, etc.) but far smaller than that of a professional musician playing shows in multiple locations, with multiple bands, staying in multiple temporary residences night-by-night… The reaction of most musicians to this burgeoning number of contacts seems to be to build and lockdown a fresh core — the siege mentality many bands and musicians describe is a consequence, the ‘us against them’.

The problem is, however, that this rebuilding of community in the maelstrom of fame relies on a strong ability to distinguish friend, foe and one’s own self-indulgent self-destruction. Hendrix wrote song after song regarding his loosely tied nature and his perception of life as a series of transient connections — Crosstown Traffic, Highway Chile, Stone Free, Castles Made of Sand. His reaction to a damaged childhood was to retreat from closeness into an embrace of temporary warmth. He deliberately created the harem of groupies, the endless “good bye girls”, the invitations back to the studio for whole posses of club buddies — that this environment was wearing, dangerous and interfered with his more overt and less psychological desires in life was something he ultimately recognised. At the time of his death Hendrix was speaking of leaving New York and returning to his community of friends in London, of returning to his manager Chas Chandler, had brought Billy Cox a long-time friend on board — a core was being sought.

In the case of Cobain, a similarly (if not more) disrupted youth and family destroyed the core. Cobain, however, sought permanency in a small number of tight relationships — he was never the social butterfly nor the promiscuous presence that Hendrix was — whether the four years with his first real girlfriend, the regular presence of Melvins throughout his career, Krist Novoselic. Post-fame, he tried to reconstitute a core around Courtney Love, around family, something Hendrix rejected as a restriction. Cobain, however, suffered the same unwillingness to confront his own destructive elements that meant, while rejecting his band mates and other former friends, he retained drug buddies, struck up new drug connections and left the door open to them; the ultimate indication of the appalling nature of his connections is the tale in Charles Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven in which his new key associates drag an overdosing Kurt Cobain out into his car because they don’t want him found dead on their property, he isn’t even dead yet and already the commercial and parasitic nature of the connection is clear. Hendrix, for all his ‘safety moves’ always left the door open to sexual temps.

In Hendrix’s case there’s the, very common, inability to tell the difference between people who might be fun for a drink, for a single night out, but who will absorb energy, distract from one’s ambitions and desires, drag one into their business rather than helping you with yours — Hendrix seemed unable to recognise the need for a core and deserves criticism for it. Cobain, by contrast, was more in tune with a conservative desire to rebuild ‘home’ but, crucially, did so around people who were more attuned to his worst habit (drugs) than his best (creativity) — again, he deserves a touch of censure for it.

On a regular basis, I see people upset by people who should never have been more than casual acquaintances, sharing personal information or access with those who are great fun to be around but shouldn’t be trusted with the substance of life — heck, I’ve seen thefts, pregnancies, the odd act of violence, general tears and mayhem on this basis. It’s nothing special. But if you look at your life and can’t see the three tiers of contact then it’s very hard to let the right ones in or keep the wrong ones out…

…Addendum. This isn’t a manifesto for distrust or mistrust. It’s a suggestion that clear sight, a degree of actual thought about one’s connections, should enrich and reinforce one’s significant ties. Can one tell in advance which are which? I’d suggest it depends on one’s own intentions to some degree, but if you’re looking for people who are going to be good to you, yup, I’m pretty sure there are pointers — just always be ready to be surprised for good or ill.

Nick has disappeared off to the record shops today. Much like the lady in this photo…

…It’s Courtney Love browsing a single by the ever impressive and ever changing Dwarves. Check them over on bandcamp and enjoy your day – more posts, back to normal, from tomorrow.

Courtney Love wDwarves single

One of Kurt Cobain’s greatest apparent pleasures, one of the few he took from his fame, was to cast the torchlight over bands and musicians he adored. It’s possible to think of Cobain as a younger adherent to label-mate Sonic Youth’s dragging up of fellow artists – Shonen Knife, Meat Puppets, Greg Sage and the Wipers, Melvins, The Vaselines; all owe ongoing attention to their association with Cobain. Yet Cobain’s showcasing of his leftfield tastes managed, in one case, to bring an artist back from the dead.

Lead Belly was a virtually forgotten blues artist – rediscovered in the Sixties during the blues revival but as a very minor background figure by comparison to other proponents of the style such as Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. The key blues idol in the eyes of the 60s and 70s rock scene though was Robert Johnson, the man who sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical gifts, a man who left just 29 recorded songs (41 takes.) He was also an early entry to The 27 Club. He was the crucial figure in the blues rival of the late 60s – the central defining blues figure for Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Keith Richards; the guitar cream of the rock scene. In all five cases their focus was Johnson’s mastery of the blues as a vocal and instrumental art – this mattered to four men who prided themselves on their overall musical abilities.

Kurt Cobain’s inspiration took alternative roots and destination. It’s unclear where he first discovered Lead Belly, but Lead Belly is the only blues figure to feature on the well known Top 50 Albums list emphasising his centrality as a figure Cobain admired. With the performance of Where Did You Sleep Last Night – a relatively common Nirvana cover he performed on stage quite a number of times from 1989 onward as well as at The Jury cover sessions – at the MTV Unplugged performance he single-handedly made Lead Belly a name known among rock and pop audiences and gave the defining performance of one of his songs. What’s curious to me is why and how Lead Belly became a figure of significance for Kurt Cobain.

As a first port of call, one other key influence on Nirvana was always the Led Zeppelin connection. Led Zeppelin did in fact perform one of their regular retooling efforts on a Lead Belly song, Gallis Pole, turning into Gallows Pole on Led Zeppelin III. There’s no evidence but it’s an intriguing suggestion, that the name Lead Belly may have been familiar to Kurt Cobain via this route. It also suggests the change of direction; Kurt Cobain was never a bluesman, he was a child of rock, a teen punk, a maturing pop musician. He never shared the Clapton-Hendrix-Beck-Townsend worship of the blues. So, by tying the earliest historical root to his tastes to a musician who had more connection to the band that pushed guitar music away from the blues and toward a separate style, he reemphasised his adherence to that later era.

A further element he didn’t share with those four individuals was guitar worship. Kurt Cobain was endlessly disparaging about his own instrumental abilities and his use of the guitar was rarely about more than accompaniment to the sentiments he wished to express in words. Again, Lead Belly’s more rough style married better to the kind of impressionistic (and not necessarily clean or well tutored) work Kurt Cobain exhibited in the acoustic demos available of him working at home. Unlike Robert Johnson, Lead Belly also saw fit to move away from guitar at times if an alternative instrument suited the desired effect or direction. As a musical urge Lead Belly simply ‘fitted’ Kurt Cobain’s self-taught and punk orientated vision of musicianship. He was rejecting an entire component of the hard rock lineage, that leading back to the four key figures of the late sixties, in favour of the heavier sound of the Seventies. His music may have owed its roots to the blues but it wasn’t a reiteration of them.

Lead Belly also brings with him far greater baggage than Robert Johnson’s mythical demonic linkage. Lead Belly was a quintessential ‘bad man’, a regular jail house presence with one murder, one attempted homicide, one further stabbing all to his name across several decades. While Johnson’s personal biography is a misty affair, Lead Belly’s is fairly well-known and can be read a point around the redemptive power of music; that one can appreciate the work of an individual without loving the individual or their life. For a man like Kurt Cobain, one with serious self-esteem issues and feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame arising from a disturbed childhood and ongoing poverty into his mid-twenties, listening to an artist who made music that lifted him above the mess of his life… It may not share the poetry of the ’27’ but it has a deeper, and positive, fuel.

Sat listening to what will apparently be the last compilation of Jimi Hendrix studio outtakes; People, Hell and Angels. In terms of its coherence, it’s unity, it’s actually a fairly faultless posthumous compilation, the core of it is from recording sessions in March to December 1969 with two holdovers from March and June 1968 respectively. Of course, it’s immediately telling that there are twelve songs here drawn from eight studio sessions; Mar ’68, June ’68, Mar ’69, Apr ’69, May, June, a separate June session, Aug, December. It’s simply obvious that there’s no way the full resources remaining to the bearers of Nirvana’s archive could compete.

What a fresh Nirvana compilation could do best would be to simply give the fans what they’ve been wanting for a long time; essentially, not Nirvana, but Kurt Cobain. It’s unclear whether this presents issues around copyright or around who gets the cash — God knows what the legal front looks like — but it doesn’t feel insurmountable. So, what would it look like?

Disc one: Fecal Matter — what else? There’s a few versions of this material floating round online and the biggest surprise is always how decent the sound quality is. There’s no way, until an official source decides to kick this out, of knowing precisely how much material, how many alternative takes, how many versions of the track listing there were. A single compendium pulling it all together and closing the chapter on this one would be welcomed. Heck, while I’m in wish fulfilment mood, maybe there really is a copy of the 1982 Organised Confusion tape…

Disc two: Certain quantities of Kurt Cobain’s more experimental urges from the early years of Nirvana have long since made it out onto the bootleg market and trading circles. Again, an official survey of this neglected terrain would be welcomed. Cobain is essentially portrayed as a musician finding his way gropingly, over several years, toward pop-punk which utterly underrates the variety of his sonic experiments and less musically-inclined directions. The core of such a disc is well known; Montage of Heck, Escalator to Hell, perhaps whatever full source exists of The Landlord is a Piece of Shit from Hell. It’s hard to believe that the only addition to his avant-garde test runs was Beans or the minute or so acoustic Black and White Blues. If not then I’d be happy to take the full recording Cobain made to be edited down for the collaboration with William S. Burroughs — if the original still exists that is.

Disc three: What else could people possibly desire more than, firstly, the full Nirvana jams from January 1994, plus whatever practice take of You Know You’re Right exists, with the rumoured basement demos from March tacked on? The only way to make it better would be if there were further home demo efforts recorded post-In Utero. If not, well, Nirvana’s attempts from July 1993 at working up an acoustic set could yield interest. If Courtney Love was able to yield up the Nighty-Nite joke songs, perhaps a more developed version of Stinking of You, maybe a couple more duets, that’d feel complete.

After that, realistically, I’m not sure there’s a lot to say though the urge to hear everything continues to egg me on. Yes, the 1991 take of Sappy, the January 1991 studio session, and, if they don’t do it on the In Utero anniversary edition, that Lullaby shred from February 1993. The studio take of Seasons in the Sun from January 1993, would be nice to have also — maybe the alleged radio show duet with Calvin Johnson on D7. I’d love to hear more of the untidy rehearsal versions of tracks, the unhoned versions as they developed and of course the acoustic homework — but I can’t point to a specific track or era that would appeal most deeply.

The only issue I can see? If this lot got out I’m not sure anyone would believe there wasn’t something else hidden. Belief is a powerful thing.

Much gratitude to the individual who posted this video, two very listenable interviews with Dave Grohl in which he comments on having shared music with Kurt Cobain, then later mentions the state of estrangement within Nirvana. If you can tolerate the tedium.

Dealing with the latter first, he’s fairly plain-speaking about the division in the band; “I don’t do drugs…There was, like, the people who did the drugs, then the people who didn’t do the drugs. I didn’t do the drugs so I was just out of that world you know? And if you’re in it, you’re in it, if you’re not, you’re out.” He then moves onto say, in response to a direct question about whether the band was breaking up, “it was important that we take a break. I think everyone felt that way, it was time to take a break.”

Certainly no criticism of Dave Grohl, but I admit I see this last comment as rather a salve for the soul rather than a fair representation of the position of Nirvana in early 1994. Why so? Well, Nirvana had already staged their break — Nirvana played not a single show for five months of 1992, a total of sixteen shows June-October but most of that in the June-July spell in Europe. 1993 was even more barren; five shows in nine months, only three after the duo in Brazil in January. And it wasn’t like the band were studiously practising either, Kurt joined them for a maximum of 21 days in studio for the entire two and a half years after Nevermind — and remember, at best estimate, the band played for six days at most of the twelve days at Pachyderm. I’ve already commented numerous times on the trend in Kurt Cobain’s song-writing also, in each previous year of Nirvana’s existence he’d brought six-twelve songs forward to the band; in the final year…Well, you all know the answer there.

Given the broken state of the band long before April 1994, it’s hard to see how anything other than the total dissolution of Nirvana would have solved whatever issue Kurt Cobain had with being part of the band as a business entity, as a musical vehicle, let alone as a functioning community of creative companions. I’ll admit that Dave Grohl’s comments here do remind me to place more emphasis than I sometimes do on the influence of the drug factor as a divider between Kurt Cobain’s cocoon and his band mates. Note made.

With regard to the initial comments, Dave’s comments are very clear indeed; Kurt was aware of two songs — Alone+Easy Target and Exhausted. This conforms to the best sources (basically check LiveNirvana, it rocks) but what interests me is the nature of his reaction to the songs. He loves the music for Exhausted but wants to use the music while remaining in control of the lyrical aspect of Nirvana. While he’s the known voice of Nirvana, while he’s rightly recognised as the key creative force, it makes it clear how much the band was a vehicle for his self-expression and, within that, how much emphasis he placed upon the words. Even with his own writer’s block in latter years it seems that sharing writing duties simply wasn’t going to happen. As an aside, for Alone+Easy Target it seems he wanted to snatch the chorus though whether that refers to the chorus line or the backing riff it’s unclear.

Kurt Cobain’s literary nature is underrated. His lyrics were not ad-libbed live, he wasn’t an improviser. Dave Grohl explains “he’d stay up late at night, for hours, with a notebook just writing and writing and writing…He enjoyed writing a lot.” Cobain’s closest connection to the blues came from the way the guitar was a way of accompanying words, not a raison d’être all its own. Cobain was brutally critical of his own guitar-playing skills and he was increasingly disparaging of the limitations of the instrument and its clichéd nature by the early Nineties. On top of that, in all the years the band was in existence, all the time they shared with true innovators of the guitar, like Sonic Youth, there’s no indication he ever actively sought to expand or advance his guitar vocabulary or to learn more about his instrument. The guitar was a functional object serving the song form and, in turn, the words.

The switch in Kurt Cobain’s lyric-writing, from early story songs and character sketches, toward a more impressionistic grab-bag sourced from his Journals, can be seen as a reaction to the increasingly hectic schedule of Nirvana as the time to whittle away at a single piece of WRITING (not just a song, true writing) fell away. Its notable that his most extensive phase of writing — winter 1990 through spring 1991 — coincided with a long period of relative quiet for Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain’s songs did not become more autobiographical, they always were. What increased was how explicit they were about the subjects and objects of his writing. His particular writing style — in which the choruses rarely tied directly to the verses, in which one verse didn’t necessarily tie to the next, in which one lyrical couplet didn’t always ally to those either side of it — had increasingly been adopted in his later lyric writing and was almost completely dominant by 1990-1991. All of which makes Serve the Servants an unusual Cobain entry.

There’s no evidence of the song, instrumentally or otherwise, prior to the February 1993 Pachyderm Studio session, and for a variety of reasons it’s exceedingly hard to pin down. It’s the only song that featured on In Utero not to have been demoed already either in October 1992 at Word of Mouth Productions, or in January 1993 at BMG Ariola Ltda in Brazil. Given how thoroughly Nirvana prepared their other songs prior to the album session it does make it stand out as a very late Nirvana song. In fact, unless other evidence presents itself, it’s the third to last known Cobain original composition; after Serve the Servants the only other two songs are You Know You’re Right and Do Re Mi.

Lyrically, there’s clear evidence of its context and era. The focus within the first verse on images of witchcraft trials, of media pressure, of the pay-off from his life’s work align perfectly with very late 1992 when the worst attentions struck Cobain and his family. It was mid-to-late August 1992 that the “Rock Star’s Baby is Born a Junkie” article emerged, in those same weeks the local authorities took Frances Bean Cobain into custody two days after her birth, while the Vanity Fair article didn’t hit the stands until September. Verse two, meanwhile, focuses on Cobain’s father and ties to an incident that took place on September 11, 1992 when Cobain’s father turned up unannounced at the band’s benefit show in Seattle — the first time they’d spoken in around a decade. The chorus meanwhile, well, it’s a blunt statement of being fed up hearing, in media coverage, that his parents’ divorce messed him up. But everyone knows that simply because its stated so baldly, there’s no disguise, no intuition needed.

The lyrics, therefore, can’t have been commenced until the final two weeks of September, more likely on into October, November, December of 1992. The dates on the With the Lights Out box-set are, at times, a matter of debate — if the demo of Serve the Servants was indeed from 1993 as it suggests then it’d indicate Kurt Cobain wrote then completely rewrote the lyrics inside of the first eight weeks of the year. It’s possible, the live recordings from just prior to Bleach’s recording indicate some songs going through major revisions or being written from scratch in not much over a month.

The vitriol of the eventual finalised lyrics makes me suspect that the demo is from an earlier date, a first shot in 1992, with the lyrical revisions taking place somewhere between November 1992’s two shots at the Incesticide liner notes and February (Kurt was made to erase a personal rant against Lynn Hirschberg, author of the Vanity Fair article — who, for the record, doesn’t seem to have done much more than report honestly on what she was seeing as a 2011 Courtney Love quotation makes clear with provisos; “”yes, it’s true, I used heroin in the first three weeks of my pregnancy — but so f–king what!? I didn’t even know I was pregnant at the time! I also took a few puffs on a cigarette when my belly was out to here, but most of those nine months, I walked around with nicotine patches all over my body. When you have a baby inside you, you’re not going to do drugs or something stupid.”)

The song, therefore stands out for a range of reasons; the third-to-last complete Kurt Cobain composition, the last song readied for In Utero, the most focused and unified song lyrics he had ever created, and the most explicit reportage on his life experience he ever laid to tape; its virtually a State of the Union address covering the bad months concluding 1992.