Archive for July, 2013

Thank you to Brutus the Barber for pointing out the absence of MV and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die from the list of officially released, but never performed live, Nirvana songs. Amendments duly made. Today I’m just looking at the data another way, I was curious whether certain songs were played irregularly but persisted across a substantial number of months, and/or whether certain songs were resurrected after substantial gaps.

Fewest Months Performed

The month-by-month list reiterates and reinforces the lack of attention given to, primarily, songs that Nirvana deemed either b-sides only or not ready for release at all. The focused nature of Nirvana’s live trialling of songs is also a notable point — they would work a song deeply over a short period of time then haul it out of public sight to either work on it and fashion it into something worthwhile or never to be seen again.

There are twelve songs on the list that either emerged on a single or compilation during Nirvana’s lifetime or didn’t come out until the With the Lights Out box-set; of those twelve songs only one can be shown being played in more than three months.

Now, it’s clear, given the majority of those songs belong to the early days of Nirvana, that we’re missing significant numbers of the set-lists that would reveal further cases when they were played — we only know complete set lists for two of six shows in 1987, five of 24 for 1988, 43 of 82 in 1989 with almost nothing for the first six months of the year. For some of these songs, however, I wouldn’t expect the pattern to change significantly:

Potential Showings

Strangely, it’s songs like Tourette’s where their throw-away nature is really clear; the majority of post-1991 set-lists are known but that song barely appears with few further opportunities for it to do so; the other In Utero era songs feature due to the curtailed nature of Nirvana’s touring in 1993-1994 but Tourette’s simply doesn’t seem to have been popular enough to bother with.

I’m personally conflicted by this news given my love of Scooby Doo is clearly now in conflict with my love of Nirvana and the works of Kurt Cobain. It’s typical of Kurt Cobain, however.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the film Blue Velvet (1986) in which the camera pans over an artificially pristine and drippingly gorgeous suburban scene before panning down into the grass, closer, closer, until eventually its buried in the dirt and scuttering bugs — a visual metaphor illustrating the film’s overall desire to show how much goes on behind the friendly stability and contented exteriors of both people and places. This is what I feel Cobain does a lot.

In his earlier story songs and his short sketches of character and place — primarily represented on Bleach and Incesticide — one element he dwells on is the discomfort dwelling beneath ordinary surfaces. He does this in two ways; either by warping comforting images by bonding them to uncomfortable elements, or by describing inner feeling buried. While his teenage doodles do contain a lot of simple gross-out imagery, something like the Mr. Moustache cartoon takes it a step further by wedging the simple desire of a parent to feel/hear the movements of their baby, to the emotional and violent vitriol of their wishes for what the child will be/not be, then the physical outcome of an internal forced ‘caesarean’ for want of a better word.

Floyd the Barber is the most famous example of this aesthetic, the most overt and vicious, but the duality is pulled repeatedly; Mrs Butterworth’s vision of advancement is undermined by “that piss stained mattress I’ve been sleeping on”;Montage of Heck welds cutesy samples to vomiting sounds and gushes of feedback or shredded metal; Swap Meet’s subsistence art-life goes hand in hand with frustrations held “close to the heart”; Scoff voices its accuser’s thoughts while denying them then undercuts the self-righteousness with the demand for alcohol; Sifting and Mr. Moustache undercut any positive vibes repeatedly; Sliver’s domesticity is spoilt by the narrator’s near hysterical distress; Sappy finds happiness in slavery…Most similarly to the film vision, Spank Thru surveys love, lights in the trees, happy birds…Then breaks into an ode to masturbation. Divergence between realities abound in these early songs of discontent.

Polly pulls the same stunt with a subtlety belying its relatively early writing (circa 1987.) The narrator’s attentiveness and soft-spoken calm is blown apart by the gradual hints that the object of his gaze is bound and abused. The change in Cobain’s writing style makes it one of the last clear-cut cases of this desire to undermine and show the lies in the ordinary and every-day. Aneurysm is the other with its merging of love song/rock n’ roll cliché to drugs and violence.

In terms of why there should be such an interest in things not being as they seem, there are several origins that could be theorised. For a start, Cobain’s own personality was one in which evading confrontation seems to have been a major element; the descriptions of him as a quiet and withdrawn presence suggest a defensiveness, a desire to figure out the environment before committing anything to it — there were far more thoughts, far more annoyances and aggravations that he let loose in music, in his journals, to other people. Secondly, and this may be related to the first point, the instability of Cobain’s own home-life, the fact that from age nine he went through numerous houses and, by his late teens, three spells of semi-homelessness, meant that the idea that a home might be a stable place, one of sanctuary, simply never occurred for him. Home was a place where he was welcomed in but in the background had to wonder if he was staying whether because the tension became too high for him or for those looking after him. Third, and finally, the fact that his relationship with the two people crucial to a child forming a feeling of trust in the world — his parents — had fractured, understandably damaged his ability to think of the world without seeing something ugly under the surface.

So, in the end, a juvenile doodling of Scooby Doo and Shaggy, nothing more than that — but a wrecking of a childhood image and a standard activity for Cobain expressed for years to come.

The straight history of the Hormoaning EP by Nirvana was that it was the second time Nirvana released an EP to support an international tour. The Blew EP of 1989 had been intended to support the band’s European tour but had been delayed — the Hormoaning EP landed right on time in February as Nirvana were criss-crossing Australia for 11 shows, prior to the one in New Zealand, the four in Japan and the pair in Hawaii.

In the case of Blew, Nirvana had been forced, because of a lack of serviceable leftovers, to retreat to the studio to prepare a few new songs; its notable that already, in mid-1989, Nirvana didn’t want to return to the songs of January 1988 nor to Big Long Now, the only leftover original from the Bleach sessions (barring the revised Hairspray Queen). By 1992 the band’s archive was more capacious, but it was still devoid of originals that were finished ready to be released, and so the result was a reliance on previously released B-sides and radio session recordings.

Unlike the later emptiness of mid-1993 when Nirvana really did have next to nothing left, it’s very clear how many relatively new songs Nirvana had in the back pocket in early 1992; Old Age, potentially Tourette’s, All Apologies, Dumb, Rape Me, Sappy, Verse Chorus Verse, Token Eastern Song — that’s without looking toward Opinion and others. What Nirvana lacked throughout winter 1991-spring 1992 was time. The success of Nevermind had taken everyone off-guard and so the band were out touring right through until just after New Year, then doing several days of TV appearances in New York until heading home on the 12th before a first show in Australia just 12 days later.

Similarly, Hormoaning wasn’t a priority — it was a ‘nice to have’ opportunity for added sales rather than a ‘need to have’ release. The official sum quoted on Wikipedia is an eventual complete run of 15,000 copies in Australia and an unknown number in Japan; it doesn’t state how many of these were pressed and ready to go by February 5, 1992 — far less undoubtedly. With an existing album flying off the shelves, unlike Bleach’s initially delayed and limited presence in Europe, there wasn’t the same impetus behind the release to be worth driving Nirvana back into the studio. The result is the cobbling together of the Smells Like Teen Spirit single B-Sides with the four BBC session tracks from October 1990 — a quick fix.

Today — given the ready availability of the SLTS single, given D7’s presence on With the Lights Out, given the Incesticide album — the Hormoaning EP is a bit of a nothing, I have it on my shelf but there’s no real reason ever to pick it off and load it up. What I’m interested in, however, is getting back to the mentality of the time; Incesticide wasn’t yet on the radar, it hadn’t been conceptualised let alone had a track-listing prepared — this release was the first time Cobain, Nirvana, and/or someone at Geffen had looked to this radio session of covers as a source, the December 1992 release simply reconfirmed a thought that someone came up with sometime in the last days of 1991. If you’ve read Dark Slivers you’ll know I point to various evidence that significant thought and effort went into the track listing of Incesticide — the transplanting of this previous effort into that compilation, rather than being an after-thought, is made to look ever more important to Kurt Cobain; sharing his good fortune with his favourite bands seemed so important to Cobain that he did it twice in one year.

Similarly, the Hormoaning EP, on import, was the only official way to get hold of those BBC songs for ten months, the best part of a year — for that brief spell it was a genuine rarity for Nirvana fanatics and their chief chance of hearing more ‘original’ Nirvana material barring the one fresh original on the Lithium single, the smattering of live tracks on the singles, the release of D7 on a special edition version of the Lithium single. For ten months the EP was genuinely something rare and fresh…Then it reached obsolescence, it’s vital life curtailed.

Someone on LiveNirvana ( kindly shared the reference from Rolling Stone magazine (June 16, 1994) stating:

Despite increased demand for Nirvana songs in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the band’s label, Geffen Records, recently chose propriety over profits. It scrapped two Nirvana projects in the works: a third single from In Utero, ‘Pennyroyal Tea,’ and a CD-5 to be released during this summer’s Lollapalooza tour, on which Nirvana were expected to perform. An album and a video documenting the band’s appearance on MTV Unplugged (the album reportedly including songs that never made the telecast) were under discussion, but Ray Farrell of Geffen’s sales department says it’s ‘too sensitive a time’ to consider releasing it. (A bootleg recording of the Unplugged telecast is already circulating.)”

The quotation confirms that there were indeed plans for Nirvana to capitalise on the Lollapalooza tour that was to take place that year from July 7 to September 5 with a new EP. The proposed tour EP would have been the third time Nirvana capitalised on a tour in such a way following the Blew EP of 1989 (intended for their first European tour) and the Hormoaning EP of 1992 (intended for their first Asia/Pacific tour).

The most significant difference, however, was that in 1994 the archive of potential songs for inclusion was threadbare. In 1989 the band had still had to return to the studio to kick-out a couple of new originals despite having a number of unreleased leftovers most of which would eventually appear on Incesticide in 1992. In 1992 meanwhile, for the Hormoaning EP, Nirvana had scraped together two previous released single tracks then appended material from a BBC radio session to flesh out the release. At the start of 1994, the band hadn’t been on radio since November 1991 and in terms of completely finished and polished originals had nothing that was less than a few years old.

The belief has, therefore, always been that the January 1994 sessions at Robert Lang Studios were about cobbling together a song or two ready for whatever further releases might be needed in 1994-1995 after the release of the Pennyroyal Tea single, with the EP the prime beneficiary. My issue, however, is that there’s never been any confirmation of that statement.

Examining the session leads to ambiguities. There was apparently no pressure at all in January to finish anything completely; You Know You’re Right being the only song to emerge in arguably complete form. An interview with Pat Smear found at the Nirvana Fan Club does feature Cobain telling Smear that he’d be able to overdub his guitar onto the recording but that still could suggest either that, yes, You Know You’re Right was finished and just needed mixing and the added track, or that Cobain was being polite to the new guitarist. The feeble results of the session are generally deemed to be a consequence of Cobain’s essential uncertainty whether to continue as part of Nirvana at all and that seems right but this session is still a rarity in that so little was accomplished; the equivalents would be the full session spent on Sappy in 1990 or the abandoned instrumental of Frances Farmer will have her Revenge on Seattle from 1992. Nirvana, if something was needed imminently, tended to turn up the goods.

Also, it’s unclear when Nirvana were first invited to perform at Lollapalooza and, therefore, when the EP idea started rolling around. Certainly it was on the agenda by March 1994 but were both the invitation and the EP idea mooted before the end of January? It’s unclear and, again, it seems a stretch to suggest that the Robert Lang Studios session, already booked in late 1993, was repurposed to prepare for a Lollapalooza EP so soon (potentially) after receiving the invite.

Instead, a more realistic view of the January 1994 studio session was that it was about getting the band playing again in a creative sense — actually trying new stuff rather than just repeating material on stage ad infinitum. In that case though, with no recent radio performances, with no more obvious and recent unreleased and complete original Nirvana songs, it would suggest that the Lollapalooza EP could only really be either a live CD or a rip from the MTV Unplugged show. Yet, on that last point, the Rolling Stone quotation seems to suggest the latter was under consideration as a totally separate project so what’s left that could have made up this EP?

The answer, I believe, lies in remembering the distribution of Nirvana’s singles. There had been no singles from In Utero released directly in the U.S. therefore only Verse Chorus Verse (Sappy) and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die on The Beavis and Butthead Experience had made it to U.S. audiences. Lollapalooza, as a U.S. only tour at that time was an opportunity to gather together the single tracks Marigold and M.V., plus I Hate Myself and I Want to Die (also a B-side on the Pennyroyal Tea single) and Verse Chorus Verse into a single release to an audience that had not previously had easy access to these songs. That would have annulled any pressure on Nirvana to re-enter the studio any time soon in 1994, would have meant they didn’t need to waste whatever new material they came up with (given they had so little and were doing so little together) on an EP and would have had a genuine value to a 1994 U.S. audience.