There’s a kneejerk tendency among certain groups of Nirvana fans to cuss the name of Courtney Love. You’ve undoubtedly noticed that I don’t share that inclination. Why? Well, essentially, as someone wishing to hear more of the musical works of Kurt Cobain, as someone wishing to see more of his wider artistic efforts – Courtney Love is the keeper of the keys to the vault. I don’t feel she’s been any more or less a good custodian than Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, Universal – nor do I feel in a position to criticise given I don’t possess, nor do I know anyone who possesses, experience of the intricate process of managing the legacy of an individual across decades.
The involvement of Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain in Brett Morgen’s film should be a source of encouragement for those hoping for the chance to hear more of Cobain’s work. The crucial point is to differentiate between NIRVANA’s work and COBAIN’s work. Nirvana was a group entity that interpreted and enacted Cobain’s creative will. The data on record regarding their studio sessions indicates there’s a bare handful of songs as yet unreleased, entirely other takes of songs we’ve already heard. From a very early stage in the posthumous process they were forced to dig into non-studio rehearsal tapes and boombox work without emerging with many true revelations; a jam here, an unreleased instrumental there, sketch songs lightly buttered over the top. Krist Novoselic’s past comment on the paucity of unheard Nirvana material seems accurate to me – the group released the vast majority of what it recorded. Nirvana were deeply economical when in studio; it was rare they even laid down b-side material at the same session as their album. In the early years it was simply because they couldn’t afford extensive recording sessions, the later years, meanwhile, were such a rush that there was barely time to record. While there’s undoubtedly still a pool of other mixes, other versions, slightly tweaked efforts of known songs sitting around somewhere – there’s been nothing since 2004 to dispel the notion that the cupboard is bare of any fresh You Know You’re Right moment.
The next potential source of truly unheard material would be to head toward Cobain’s juvenilia. Sure, the Fecal Matter tapes have now secured a legendary status, but then there’s still whatever earlier teenage sketches remain buried, plus anything laid down on tape prior to the commencement of the first recognisable iteration of Nirvana in late 1986. The turnover of Nirvana songs in these early years was remarkable – Cobain was prolific, the Easter 1986 recording of Fecal Matter carried over barely a song and a half to the earliest known efforts of ‘Nirvana’, then the January 1988 sessions gave way to an almost entirely different selection of songs by December 1988 when Bleach was recorded. That’s rapid work, a dozen songs at a time introduced and dispensed with. Depending on whether that apparent pace was in effect prior to Easter 1986, there’s potentially more to be seen there. Depending on how many ideas didn’t make it to Nirvana sessions maybe there’s more from 1987-1988 too. After that I doubt there’s much going sketched but unrecorded.
This is where the Courtney Love factor comes into play. While Nirvana, as a group, barely created any new music between 1992-1994, it’s unclear the extent to which Kurt Cobain did or did not continue to prepare private material. It’s also uncertain to what extent he recorded privately with Courtney. These are the primary sources from whence unfamiliar and unknown material could conceivably emerge. During the two-and-a-half years of Cobain’s fame he spent barely thirty days in the studio with Novoselic and Grohl including the abandoned April 1992 sessions, abandoned October sessions, one week playing at Pachyderm Studios for In Utero then one week mixing, only turning up for one day in January 1994…And between February 1992 and October 1993 he was barely ever on a stage…This guy was at home (or wherever he happened to be living at the time) and it’s the home recordings that could potentially indicate whether those years were ones in which he continued expressing musically, or whether he moved away from music toward video, art, family and unconsciousness. I don’t know the answer. But I do feel I expect more ‘new’ to come from Courtney than from something like the rumoured ‘Bathtub is Real’ tape recorded with Tobi Vail. While I’d be intrigued to hear what’s there I suspect no more than sketches of Nevermind-era songs.
Does that mean I’m forecasting some weighty quantity of well-drawn acoustic pieces? Some kinda Nick Drake style reassessment of Cobain’s abilities with an acoustic guitar? Nope. Let’s be fair, Cobain was disinterested in, and dismissive of, sophisticated instrumental technique – I expect the endearing and appealing sloppiness he often exhibited live (or on the existing home demos from 2004’s With the Lights Out) to be to the fore. Similarly, do I expect him to be blowing his vocal cords out when playing at home in a closet? Nope, the pieces seen so far are far more restrained – but, again, that isn’t a bad thing, just different. I’d suspect much of what exists will be unstructured, not really worked up given how much of Nirvana’s In Utero work in Rio and Pachyderm stemmed from thin ideas around which the band ad-libbed and jammed up some real quality. As stated earlier, Nirvana were economical in studio and I believe that’s reflective of Cobain’s general approach – don’t polish and re-polish a piece in private unless it’s intended to go somewhere. Given how short on songs the band were by the end of 1992/start of 1993 I’d be surprised if he had much in his back pocket that he wasn’t placing on the table for Nirvana’s full band consideration. That draws the eye to the post-In Utero era, again, it’ll be curious to hear what occurred in that final year…But there’s not much time for miracles with October-December plus February spent on tour. Let’s see shall we? Courtney has the keys…She was there.