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.