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.
14 thoughts on “Serve the Servants: What I did in my Summer Holidays by Kurt Cobain (aged 25 and a ½)”
Serve The Servants is a great album opening track .
i also think it is one of Cobain’s best songs lyrically . there’s not a line wasted.
Serve The Servants just sounded very fresh for Nirvana at the time when record came out.
agree the lyrics were very good also.
the “As my bones grew they did hurt , they hurt really bad / i tried hard to have a father but instead i had a ‘dad’ ” really really did relate to me at the time. it actually made me laugh but completely got and understood it.
lyrically Kurt was improving a lot IMO depsite not writing much.
Bob Dylan years back played Frances Farmer Will Have Revenege on one his radio shows. And whilst musically never been a particular favourite Nirvana song of mine i can guess why Bob Dylan picked it. Lyrically it is also strong.
Serve The Servants was great song – it was sort of annoucenment of sorts , had that broken arpeggios style playing , and that great scratchy guitar solo.
Given how strong a song it is I’m still so surprised that it’s the only In Utero track that hadn’t received a previous studio rehearsal – must have been some serious practice on it behind the scenes…
Its directness is what stands out for me, there’s no guesswork needed at all. In Dark Slivers I posited a certain number of forms Kurt Cobain used in his writing and then showed how they shifted over time. I think maybe I should have inserted a final spell encompassing Serve the Servants, Frances Farmer, You Know You’re Right which had moved beyond the impressionistic spell into pure autobiography.
I have much respect for your personal connection into the lyrics. I guess my life has been a bit placid, there are few lyrics that have ever tied directly to an experience of mine though many that I’ve adopted for whatever purpose, even “its proven in fact it takes a nation of millions to keep us back” when I need a boost…
Playing Serve the Servants on an acoustic guitar, in my opinion, reveals the nature of the song; perhaps a folky Led-Bellyesque meandering turned into rock n’ roll.
they weren’t playing much in utero stuff before the albums debut (though with some exceptions) for fear of bootleggers. serve the servants was the first song they went through with steve, in pretty much one take which suggests to me that it was pretty well rehearsed by the time they recorded in utero. Thats one thing that kinda bugs me with this blog, bands jam songs all the time that arent played live and are never recorded, so its pretty hard to say when a song first emerged for them. Cobain also frequently makes changes to lyrics pretty late into recording so thats not ever really a strong indicator as to when it was written. Im just saying that a documented performance of a song only indicates that its in their repetoir by at least that point but it doesnt tell us how long they jammed it before that point. I would love to hear all the songs that went nowhere.
Also im not saying you’re necessarily wrong about this song, but we have no idea how many songs cobain had worked on post in utero. Or possibly during in utero ,that he never bothered showing krist or dave because they were either unfinished or he simply just didnt like them. Or stuff he did show them and they jammed on, but simply never played live or recorded. Have you ever been in a band? Do you know how much crap gets jammed on and never goes anywhere or is forgotten? I dont mean that to sound condescending at all im just saying we know nirvana wasnt really functioning anymore by 94 but have zero idea how creative kurt was during this time.
Evening fella! More than a fair opinion – on the other hand, with Cobain, the historical record of live performances and studio renditions actually does support the point that new material was fairly rapidly worked up and played live as a test even if further honing had to occur. The situation did change once fame struck but there’s still – through things like his proposed song title lists – indications of what was in existence at what sort of point in time. There’s very little time for Kurt to be creative post-February 1993. Does that mean nothing? Nope, does it mean loads of neat stuff…I’d be as delighted as you are to find out that’s true! But I’d stick cash on it being untrue. The ‘vault of unheard treasures’ was just a rumour of the late Nineties – early Noughties sustained by misnamings on bootlegs and rumours.
Being fair, plenty of exceptions – Tourette’s, Rape Me, All Apologies, Heart Shaped Box, Scentless Apprentice, Pennyroyal Tea – half of the album appears live so it’s fair to say that despite the fear of bootleggers the live record is a pretty fair representation of a lot of Cobain’s output. As far as ‘songs that went nowhere’ – so far we’ve heard? The Unknown Tune on the In Utero Deluxe. There’s no evidence at all that Nirvana had vast amounts of sketches, or that they ‘jammed’ songs together much. The majority of the time Cobain wrote pieces, sketched out what he wanted and brought it in for the band to work around. Sad to say – and understandable that my negativity must be a touch grating – but Novoselic seems right in saying that NIRVANA have nothing much left hidden…Cobain’s home demos? Maybe.
Novoselic also said there would have been a lot more music had the band had something to record their practices with. When they were rehearsing at that barn prior to nevermind, krist and kurt said in interviews from that time that they worked on innumerable tunes that they would “forget” by next practice. Given that kurt workshopped songs then braught them in for the band to jam on, I think “forgetting” here is a politer way of saying discarded. Songs that may have sounded fine solo, but when jammed by the band just for whatever reason didnt sound that good. These are what im referring to as songs that went nowhere. Songs that were jammed a couple times and just “forgotten”, never to be played live or recorded. Its possible sketches of these songs exist in cobains archive, not played with the band but solo boombox stuff so he could remember the riffs before “forgetting” them.
I mean they didnt just come out on stage and play a new song kurt wrote earlier that day. They practiced relentlessly. Im sure a lot of what they practiced sucked and didnt get the chance to be demo’d live or honed to studio perfection. its hard to tell someone you dont like the song they wrote, its easier to just pretend like you forgot it. Sometimes you dont even end up liking a song you wrote, but maybe the drummer was really into it- so its easy to say ah I forgot it so you dont have to have a discussion about it. there are definately unheard nirvana songs, and I think its also pretty definite that these songs are undocumented and never made it out of band practice. However its possible in the alleged 200 hours of unreleased cobain audio archive, that cobain had made notes of these songs for himself. It might be unreleasable as in he simply plays a verse riff once and a chorus riff once for his own personal reference, but theres just gotta be stuff like that in there but we’ll probably never hear it…
oh also though I would agree with you that this vault is hardly of unheard treasures. its probably mostly unlistenable to anyone other than diehard cobain fans. Noise experiments, one or two guitar riffs, random plodding solo jams etc.
Oh one final thing, nothing about this blog “bugs me” I have no idea why I used those words, its thoroughly facinating and well researched!
Nice analysis. Anyone ever note the similarity of the intro chord changes to the intro of Overdose by AC/DC?