Song Dissected : Do Re Mi

Posted: July 19, 2013 in After In Utero - The Final Year 1993-1994, Analysing Nirvana Songs

Someone in the comments at one point asked my thoughts on Do Re Mi – and certainly as the last known Cobain original it’s impossible to look at the song without considering the background circumstance of the time and what would come next…

In terms of the apparent facts about the song, it’s a wonderful end to the Cobain saga simply because so little is known about it. What’s it really called? It might be Do Re Mi (a fair guess given Cobain’s liking for children’s TV if its an echo of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical number from the sound of music) or it might be Dough Ray Me (referring to a comic book series as described here; http://shutuplittleman.com/history.php?idd=19) or it might be Me & My IV (apparently scribbled on a napkin according to Courtney Love)…Basically there’s no definitive name so call it whatever you like.

Likewise, there’s no facts about what it was intended for; the rumoured Lollapalooza EP release is the only official upcoming outlet for it but there’s no information whatsoever if there was ever substance to that idea. That would leave Do Re Mi as one of those Nirvana’s that drifted until a purpose was found for them. Alternatively, there’s the rumours of intended collaboration with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and some people point to the overall mellow style of the song and the deviation in vocal style to push that possibility. Again, it’s a moot point – there’s no answer.

Furthermore, arguments about Cobain’s next musical direction can continue uninterrupted forevermore given there’s no indication that Do Re Mi’s acoustic approach was the way the song was intended to stay. There’s plentiful evidence by now that even the most raucuous Cobain compositions (Sliver, Very Ape for example) often began life as muted sounding home acoustica. His own comments revealed a desire to go in a variety of direction and on the last known (but still unheard and unreleased) version of the song Cobain played drums instead of guitar which neatly keeps everyone guessing.

What is known is that as well as the bedroom demo found on With the Lights Out (and therefore recorded sometime in the twenty-two days in January 1994 during which Nirvana was not out on tour or Cobain was not definitely occupied) there’s a later version recorded during the fifteen unoccupied days in March with Pat Smear and Eric Erlandson. It’s a possibility that a third version may exist recorded during a March 25, 1994 basement jam with Pat Smear. It’s also clear that, given the comprehensiveness of With the Lights Out, Do Re Mi is one of only two songs Cobain definitely wrote between the end of the In Utero recording sessions and his demise a full year later.

That’s what I love the most about this song as a concluding entry in the Cobain catalogue; it’s an open-end, an uncertainty.

Vocally though, I’d argue its a disquieting support for the idea that there wasn’t much life left in Mr. Cobain. Many people like his falsetto vocal – I would agree with them – yet I’d also point to the broken and strained voice displayed, there’s very little power displayed, held notes break all over the place, it sounds like his voice isn’t warmed up or that he’s a man just risen from his bed. This has a charm all its own but there’s a sense of exhaustion carried in his voice. I’m not declaring that he was a vanquished force, I’m more a believer that this was a man who wasn’t doing much with his private time beyond shooting up and sleeping. It’s still a beautiful vocal performance and truly a different approach to the use of his beautiful voice – I can’t tell if that’s a reaction against yet another element of his musical persona that had devolved into a stereotype or a brief experiment. Again, the fact that this is the only identified or even claimed Cobain original mentioned in discussion of the March jams, and that he did choose to practice it, suggests to me that he wasn’t hiding material from Pat or Eric, this was simply all he had left to work out.

Musically, the song has some attractive melodies delivered with a forceful thwacking of the strings that makes me think there was already an electric ideal in mind – he’s really driving the strings and its aggressive build is disguised by the skeletal recording style and high-pitched vocals. Again and again there are lashed chords that crash through the song, whether on the bridge just before the 3 minute mark (and again in the outro) or in the lead into the chorus. It doesn’t, however, support the idea that he was able to pull away from the verse-chorus-verse mode of song-writing he took such issue with. He placed great emphasis on the tiredness of that song-writing model and on guitar music in general yet here he is still playing it out toward the end of his career. It had become his default setting for how he thought about songs and their structure.

Finally, lyrically, I’m going to cut here from one of the final chapters of the Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide book which you can find under the About tab of this blog:

Listening to You Know You’re Right (acoustic) or Do Re Mi what’s striking are the prominent lyrics that focus on sleeping and dreaming; Kurt’s lyrical inspiration barely got these two songs out of bed. When it does though his themes went no further than opiates, medication, an emotional state that’s either numb or cold as ice next to a series of blanket refusals; “I will never,” “I could never,” “I won’t.” This isn’t a man with many ties left to a world outside his head or one looking forward positively.

That’s what strikes me most forcefully about what are, in each case, beautiful lyrics. In neither one is there a world existing outside the head of the narrator. This wasn’t uncommon in Kurt Cobain’s work, many of his lyrics were opinions or views rather than external features or landscapes, but usually in his prior work there are plentiful links to events that were occuring around him even if they were suitably veiled. I see no reason to believe that Cobain had deviated from the writing practice that had come to dominate since around 1990 (again, I talk about the three main modes in which he wrote – my theory – in the Dark Slivers book so I won’t recap) and therefore no reason to believe that these two songs aren’t showing what he saw around him in which case its one cold and barren landscape peppered with negatives, with resistance or (in the case of the full Nirvana version of You Know You’re Right) submission…It doesn’t lead me to believe there was more to the life of Kurt Cobain in 1994 than cocooned hiding. Do Re Mi is beautiful, a gorgeous song that wears it rough edges like a backwoods’ princess, but hardly a celebration of the joys of spring or a life filled with either humanity, fellowship or a lust for more.

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Comments
  1. Jim says:

    Wow beautifully put . Thank you so much ! .
    I also wanna add about his voice , I think he was using at the moment of this recording ?. Cause heroin makes youre voice instantly raspy , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqzn9F0GI1o . In this video he sounds like the random user.

    Although I know I just read to much into lyrics we all do it and have our own version , I like youre scientific way of using data etc it makes youre opinion more valid then all the hundreds of youtube versions of songs, ( some which are all way off) . His lyrics are as always contradicting and some written in 5 minutes or so I heard
    Having said that one thing that is clear (for me) is that he sings ‘got a gun to bleed me ‘ ‘cremate me’ If I may If I might <– Kill himself? . Do re mi which he then changes to dont rape me with is the hallmark of Kurt Cobain from one of his first seaside suicide to hello how low etc it's truley wonderful and shows that he was a lyrical genius up to the end. For me personally this Lyric is up there with alot of other good nirvana songs. I wish there was just one more CD , that would tie me over. I first thought he did this song alone but I read on here about Pat Smear beeing there and at the end of songs you hear multiple voices . Take care .

  2. Eastcoastfella says:

    I’ve been thinking about this song a lot lately. I haven’t listened to it in forever. I always get excited to listen to it but it’s always a bit of a downer…. well cuz of the obvious. The reason I guess I’ve been thinking about it is, this year marks 20 years since Cobain’s death and the Nirvana camp seems to be big on 20th anniversaries. I’m wondering if there will be a Cobain release in April. Probably rehashing the already released home acoustic demos and maybe some of the unheard ’94 demos. But isn’t that in bad taste? Capitalizing on a mans death? If they did I know I would buy it and that saddens me.

    • nsoulsby says:

      It’s the ultimate catch-22 and the answer varies person-by-person. No one needs to hear anyone’s music – simple reality, it’s a nice to have not a need to have. No one has a right to hear anyone’s music – fans have no right at all to demand or expect to receive someone’s music. No one has a right to declare that someone else’s labour should be provided for free or that their property should be given up without profit – that’s slavery and serfdom. Then on the subject of occasion, well, on the one hand, yes, releasing something on an anniversary is done because it provides a reason for people to remember at that particular time.

      I think focusing on the reality that there is no better time, that the result is something that most people want to hear – then criticising or praising the way it is executed is maybe the best route? Otherwise it’s a case of criticising people in a situation where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t?

      • Eastcoastfella says:

        Oh I didn’t mean they should provide us with those songs free of charge or that they have to release them. I want to hear them badly. I guess what I ultimately meant was it just saddens me this is what’s left and his 20th anniversary will possibly be when we get these songs that we’ve all dreamed of hearing.

        When I hear this particular song, I always feel like a fly on the wall. Like I shouldn’t be hearing it. I’m guessing I’ll have the same feeling to anything else that’s similar.

  3. Portia Smith says:

    This song was inspired by the “Shut Up! Little Man!!” series of recordings. Kurt was a fan of them and that is what inspired this song. Look up the website for “Shut Up! Little Man!!” It is explained there. This song was originally titled “Dough, Ray & Me” but for some reason it was changed when it was released in the boxset.

    • nsoulsby says:

      I think i’ve included the link to that website somewhere on this site. 🙂

      It’s certainly one story about where inspiration came from, but only for the title – it makes no claim about the content of the song. Thanks for the reminder note though! All the best Portia!

      • Portia Smith says:

        LOL Actually, I just went straight to the comments when I found this page, since I was curious to see what other people had to say about the song. I didn’t see the mention of the “Shut up! Little man!!” website until I scrolled up later.

  4. tad says:

    I would say the song was certainly meant to be electric and I sincerely doubt this vocal delivery is how the song was intended to be heard. screaming your guts out in a closet to an accoustic can be kind of embarassing- I know kurt did this on some radio shows, but he was probably pretty high agreeing to that (im referring to opinion and lithium on that radio show he did) but he knew people were listening then, so he still at least tried. Im pretty sure this recording is simply a reference point so that he can recall the riffs and the melody and hes not really giving it all here because it really wasnt meant to be heard by anyone other than himself and some bandmembers. Ive read some interviews with vig and endino where they mentioened that kurt really didnt like singing and if you imagine how intense his delivery ordinarily is you can undersatnd why it probably gave him a headche. So anyway id guess that a lot of his song sketches sound frail like this, but am pretty confident if fully realized with a band hed put that chorus all in his throat.

    • nsoulsby says:

      Intriguing – cheers for the recommendation!! 🙂 That stuff about Cobain wrecking his voice in studios reinforces what you’re saying too – he even claimed that his stomach hurt partly because of his singing style.

  5. Abigail says:

    The chorus (do re mi, don’t rape me) is really interesting to me. I think don’t rape me means don’t profit off of my songs. It could either be kind of a message to courtney love/the rest of the band or like he was teasing his record company.

    • nsoulsby says:

      It’s sometimes hard to tell isn’t it with Kurt’s early drafts, sometimes its just words or sounds that fit, a guide, while other times its full fledged sentiments.

  6. jim says:

    Obviously its just speculation , but I think he saw do re mi as it’s a popular “saying” in music business. and saw how it can be transformed to don’t rape me and still almost sound the same and thought that would be funny , don’t think it means anything

  7. Phil says:

    It actually makes sense to think that “don’t rape me” could be aimed at the record company, since Kurt also talks about “chains from his owner in my tea” and “chains from the knowing lifelong dream”. He might have felt entangled in the label’s interferences and seen everything around him as the product of the money he made as a prisoner of the business.

    • Phil says:

      I don’t think that’s all, though. I guess he’s also complaining about fame and the media again.

      • Phil says:

        I mean, he pursued his dream and ended up being a victim of the industry and everything that comes along with it, but he didn’t sign up for a lot of those things. He hated the strings that were attached and everything around him reminded him of that. All that he wanted was to play his music, but everything he touched turned into gold (sometimes against his will) and entangled him increasingly in the chains of the system. He despised the money he made because it was making him become something he stood against, and he couldn’t fight it or control it because it wasn’t him who was changing, it was the label and stardom that were putting him in that position. It wasn’t something he could live with, and this song is a statement that he lacked the strength to struggle and was giving up. He couldn’t live his life on his own terms and was deciding to end it.

  8. Phil says:

    Call me crazy but 1995 Brazilian song “I saw you saying”, by a band called Raimundos, is weirdly similar to Do Re Mi. Just listen to the rythm in the background: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofgpbPQT-xA

  9. jim says:

    meh he wanted to be on top he aimed for it in purpose

  10. Fanged Desire says:

    On “Montage of Heck,” it’s great to find an earlier 10-minute demo of this song – not as finished as the released demo, he’s working out parts of the song, and his voice is more shaky. I think parts of it he hadn’t come up with yet – the bridge isn’t there, he just repeats a syllable in that spot. In fact the “do re mi” chorus isn’t there yet either, until 6 minutes in when he starts singing a new, spooky section (recorded separately) and comes up with the repeated “do re mi”. Sounds like originally they were two separate song ideas.
    But what’s really worth hearing is, at 2:30, he sings a new two-line section with a different, gentle melody we hadn’t heard before, and it sounds like he’s channeling Michael Stipe and doing an R.E.M. song. The moment only lasts for 15 seconds, but it’s incredible to hear even briefly the direction he didn’t go in.

    Anyway, a couple small comments on your post:
    – It’s remarkable how upbeat the melody of this song sounds, compared to most Nirvana songs, and considering it was his last song. It may be an exhausted, morose kind of “upbeat,” but it’s still catchy, singalong pop music.
    – It’s also not just “verse-chorus-verse,” but actually “verse-bridge-chorus;” it’s not that common in Nirvana songs to have the extra section. Which doesn’t go against your comment that this is a conventional song structure; but the longer demo makes it clear that he had a few variant melodies floating around and could actually have made a couple separate songs out of them. Which is surprising from a songwriter who otherwise seemed burnt-out by ’94 – there’s real enthusiasm here.
    – I wouldn’t place too much importance on the weak vocal in the demos. Of all the Cobain home demos we have now, there are few where he really “performs” – he tends to use a low voice, and screaming or stylizing is rare – he was just putting basic song ideas down, not “singing” the way he intended to. The Do Re Mi demo on WTLO sounds more like a real performance than most of his solo demos. Fragile, perhaps, but he seems to have been going for a different kind of voice here.

    • nsoulsby says:

      Some REALLY good points here – totally agree about not reading too much into it beyond the potential for Cobain, no matter how tired or exhausted, to go in many directions, find new avenues, keep going…A shame he never did in the end.

    • russ c says:

      Oh man, it’s awesome to hear someone else mention their appreciation for that brief but BEAUTIFUL melody he sings twice at 2:30 – I have been fascinated by this song since the demo came out in 2004, but I think I like the medley version even more. No words…

  11. BOLSO 1899 CNdeF says:

    These (IMO) are the lyrics: I think the song is about dreaming as dying and life as a dream. Being at the mercy of a god. Being the height of his socks, completely insignificant just begging for rest in the after life. Life’s merciless nature. Feeling abused. Needing support or care that scarce in real life. I think this song is about reality and hope slipping away like grains of sand through your fingers…

    If I may
    If I might
    Lay me down weeping.
    If I say
    What is life
    I migh be
    Dreaming.

    If I may
    What is right
    Summer time, see me,
    heal.

    Those years in his vomit
    A phrase from his pocket
    Chains mowing life from trees.

    Do re mi
    Do re mi

    If i may
    If i might
    Wake me up, see me
    If i do and if i lie
    Find me how to see me
    If i may, cold as ice
    I may have to see me
    heal.

    Just raised in his socket
    It fades from his moment.
    The chains from his socket
    rubbing me

    Ray mee
    Dough, Dough ray and me.

    Do re mi.
    Do re mi.

    Wish me good
    Wish me light
    Find me how, decieve
    It in your ways, just be quiet,
    Follow hate dreaming
    yell away, if I sigh
    Take me home, protective
    If i may
    and If i might
    Gona gone in bleeding.

    A Praise from his pocket
    A phrase from his moment
    a chase from his soul
    ravaging

    Ray, Ray me
    Dream
    Don’t
    Don’t
    Rape Me
    Don’t rape me
    Do re mi
    Do re mi
    Don’t rape me
    Do re mi

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