February 20: Have a Birthday the Cobain Way

Posted: February 20, 2014 in Analysing Nirvana Songs

All the best to the town of Aberdeen and all who attend the Kurt Cobain Day celebrations today, hope it goes really well! Gillian G. Gaar (who also has a cool new ebook on Smells Like Teen Spirit out — check it!) describes the events here:

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/2014/02/13/aberdeens-first-kurt-cobain-day-to-be-held-next-week/

So, was Kurt Cobain bothered by his birthdays? Certainly it’s noticeable that even if the week of his birthday found him on tour the band never played that day:

02/19/90 – The Mason Jar, Phoenix, AZ / 02/21/90 – Blue Max, Chico, CA
02/19/92 – Nakano Sunplaza, Tokyo, Japan / 02/21/92 – Pink’s Garage, Honolulu, HI
02/19/94 – Patinoires du Littoral, Neuchâtel, Switzerland / 02/21/94 – Palasport, Modena, Italy

It’s at least possible to say that in those three years Cobain spent his birthday either in one city or the other, or on the drive/flight between them. In 1993, the band had finished most of their playing for In Utero so actively took time out to celebrate Cobain’s birthday while in residence at the Cannon Falls, Minnesota studio of Steve Albini. Though four occasions do not make a trend, what can be said is that, even if by accident, Cobain never worked on his birthdays — maybe that’s a positive acknowledgement, taking a day off for it, maybe it’s a negative never wanting to associate a birthday with a creative act, that’s up for debate.

One way of considering the attitude toward birthdays is to expand the data pool a bit…What did the band do for Krist Novoselic’s birthday between 1987 and 1993? His birthday falls on May 16…Hmm…Again, they never play on his birthday, though they are somewhere in amidst the preparation for Nevermind on his birthday in 1991. The one time though that they’re actually touring around his birthday they do skip the date:

05/14/90 – The Garage, Denver, CO / 05/17/90 – The Zoo, Boise, ID

Nor did the band ever play a show, record or play a radio session on Dave Grohl’s January 14 birthday though, of course, for him we’re only looking at 1991 to 1994, four data points. For the record they don’t play on Chad Channing’s January 31 birthdays in 1989 or 1990 either. I think it’s all just coincidence given the limited number of data points and examining the three tours; February 1990, May 1990 and February 1994 doesn’t suggest a deviation from a trend either. So! It’s a glorious point of no answer today, but Cobain never played on his birthday.

Anyways, in terms of my own small marking of Kurt Cobain Day, I thought I’d simply give away my favourite chapter of the Dark Slivers book — it’s called Family Man. Click on the link, it’ll take you to a redundant new page where you can open the PDF and download.

Family Man

I’ve always found attempts to state a single uber-meaning for a Nirvana song fairly ludicrous given the disjointed writing methodology on display; most choruses have little relation to the verses around them, verses barely connect while the lines within a verse often flip focus. It doesn’t mean though that it was just impressionistic gibberish — compare it to Beck’s album Odelay where the lyrics consist of a gush of one-line/two-line images — Cobain’s work has a consistency of theme and image running across years if not necessarily within individual songs.

Rather than sinking into endlessly asking “what is In Bloom ABOUT, mannnnn?” I felt a better approach was to draw together the lyrics from Cobain’s three albums, plus Incesticide and the single/compilation tracks released during his lifetime and break them by theme to identify the way certain modes of expression persisted, how certain topics were tackled and how some subjects became more or less prevalent. Incidentally, as context, I believe Cobain wrote three types of song; story songs which declined and halted by 1990, character sketches which became ever more vague by the time of Oh the Guilt and Curmudgeon; leaving the mode he’s primarily known for which I call the abstract address, series after series of not intimately related points relayed to an unknown audience. I’ve hooked a few pages from the preceding chapter into it as well just to expand the number of funky tables.

Happy Kurt Cobain Day denizens of the musically obsessed world. Every best wish for your day!

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Comments
  1. keef says:

    While many nirvana songs are quite simply impressionist gibberish, cobain was quite gifted at writing abstract lyrics. Eddie Vedder tries to write abstract but it comes out like a little girl attempting abstraction in her 8th grade journal but coming out quite literal to an annoying degree. Songs like Frances farmer, dumb and all apologies ate abstract but the meaning is obvious. It’s not obvious in a literal sense but the subject is a feeling and he expressed those feelings quite well. In utero was filled with songs about things. Nearly every song was about something. Half of bleach was this way too, while the other half including some of his best songs like blew were just indecipherable. Nevermind had its obvious but still abstract songs like Polly, lithium, something in the way, drain you, lounge act, breed and stay away, but teen spirit, in bloom, come as you are, territorial pissings and on a plain are full of abstract contradictions and unrelated phrases. These songs are about a feeling, with some stories mixed in. In bloom has the chorus that tells a story while the verses are just things that meant something to the writer. The lyrics were never the most important thing to him, but some of them came out brilliant. Then you have tacky songs like rape me that are being too obvious, too earnest songs like pennyroyal tea that are doing that woe is me thing, ridiculous songs like Floyd and beeswax that come directly from his love of the butthole surfers. He said that his songs are buts of poetry and inside jokes. Looking at his journals this us quite obvious.

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