The Path to an Album Part Two

With only three sets of comparable data trying to state a definitive and rigid prediction is simply impossible. What yesterday’s post and today’s post are presenting aren’t in anyway scientific measures — it’s just as easy to say Nirvana had releases in 1989, 1991 and 1993 so they’d obviously pump an album out for late 1995. Reemphasizing the difficulty in such a clumsy rule as the gap between first and last song played live from an album, if Talk to Me was to feature on a mythical fourth Nirvana album then taking its Nov 1991 appearance as the start date, Nirvana were overdue for an album as early as July 1994 — that’s the problem with limited data…

Let’s try it another way. In Dark Slivers I tried to pin down Kurt Cobain’s writing to likely periods of six months, it’s impossible to go further and naturally a few songs will shift period if new information appears. This meant working from known demos, live dates, likely evidence (i.e., the news story Polly was based on.) While not as precise as the live appearance data it’s still possible to attempt to measure the first and last songs being developed prior to an album to show how a Nirvana album evolved over time. Let’s start with Bleach:

Bleach Development_v2

Gillian G. Gaar argues convincingly for Fecal Matter having been recorded around March 1986 but still it’s unclear if Downer’s origins were in late 1985 or early 1986. I’m also shy of placing Downer here simply because it wasn’t Kurt Cobain’s choice to include it on Bleach, it was Sub Pop’s. Now Nevermind:

Nevermind Development_v2

Some of the first half 1991 songs may have already been sketched out in 1990, hard to say but the overall pattern is still clear. Again, note the one ‘early riser’ then the clicking into place over the two years prior to an album. Finally, In Utero:

In Utero Development_v2

A far more ramshackle pattern and with a few provisos. Firstly, Krist Novoselic believes Tourette’s was first written in late 1989, but the earliest evidence for it is a ten second run-through of the main riff during soundcheck in November 1991 so either it stays where it is or it fills that gap between Rape Me and Heart Shaped Box. The consequence would be to shorten the album’s development down to three years.

As it stands, and compared to yesterday’s fairly sturdy pattern in the live performances, what we’re looking at is a greater span of potential. Eliminating Downer brings the development of Bleach down to a mere two years. Shifting Tourette’s into the 1991 slot makes In Utero a three year process. Nevermind, however, remains a four year project. Returning to the attempt to estimate when a fourth Nirvana studio album may have arrived, let’s take You Know You’re Right’s appearance in October 1993 as the de-facto starting point, seeing as we have so little else to work from. We’re hitting second half of 1995 all the way to first half of 1997 to finish writing meaning an album release anywhere between first half of 1996 to the last half of 1997.

There’s nothing unexpected here in predicting a wider gap between In Utero and the next Nirvana album. To get In Utero out just two years after Nevermind Kurt (and the record label) had needed a further year and a half, even leaning on the half-a-dozen songs already in place. By comparison, to create Nevermind, Nirvana had started from scratch with just one song dating before late 1989 and it had taken a full two years to get the rest done. Following In Utero we’re looking at a situation comparable to the latter example; there was next to nothing in the vault the band could kick off from, they were starting from scratch.

The only hope would have been scraping together Opinion, Talk to Me, Verse Chorus Verse, together with You Know You’re Right and Do Re Mi to make a bedrock of five songs up to first half 1994. Even then, however, staying true to form, Kurt Cobain would likely have needed a crucial year and a half to wring another seven songs out. He admitted himself he was never a prolific writer, he was neither a miracle worker, nor blessed with the equally divine ability to pull songs out of his ass — he would have needed free time and inspiration to get more out.

In conclusion, if we extrapolate from the gap between first and last song for an album to appear live, we’re talking an album sometime December 1995 to July 1996. If we look at the overall developmental path for Nirvana albums, the earliest date is still on track, first half 1996, but the potential late date is pushed out as far as second half 1997…

…But then again, it’s art, not science. Nirvana may have bucked the trends of their album development, and the trends of 1993-1994 in general. Rebirth and rejuvenation were possible. But there are quite a few ‘ifs’ involved. Either way, a longer wait was likely.


The Path to an Album Part One

While examining the live sets over the past month, arranging data and seeing how it fell, one noticeable element was how strangely regular the development pattern toward each album was if judged according to the live record. For comparison, here’s when the songs on Bleach first appeared at a live show:

Bleach Development

Ignoring the weird outlier of Swap Meet (it’s unlikely this was its first performance), the span from the time the first track for Bleach appeared live to the last is 27 months. Then again, to be fair, Downer was Sub Pop’s inclusion in 1992 not Kurt Cobain’s, so perhaps we could start in May 1987 with Floyd the Barber as the first song for Bleach; 25 months. Now Nevermind:

Nevermind Development

Nevermind is almost precisely the same, a grand total of 26 months from first song to last to appear in the live record. Finally, In Utero is a little different:

In Utero Development

A total of 33 months between the first live appearance of its first song and the last. The result is three albums, each whipped into shape over the course of two years, one month up to two years, nine months.
Prediction is the art of making oneself look a fool but at least it can act as a guide. In this case, if Nirvana had stuck to the norm, a new album would have been likely around two and a half years after its first song made a live appearance. The problem is, after each of Nirvana’s first two albums, the first songs attempted straight after were explicitly intended for stop-gap recordings and singles — it suggests perhaps You Know You’re Right would be for that same purpose.

On the other hand, as a counter-argument, during the Bleach sessions Nirvana didn’t record any leftovers for singles which is why there was the pressure around whacking songs out in 1989 (Do You Love Me, Dive, Been a Son, Stain). Similarly the Nevermind sessions didn’t yield any B-sides, Nirvana had to reach back and grab Aneurysm from the previous January, then further back to the BBC session that yielded Turnaround, Son of a Gun and Molly’s Lips, and then they ran out forcing them back into the studio to crank out some quick-fire material in April 1992. For In Utero the band, for the first time, deliberately made sure they had enough in reserve they wouldn’t need to come near a studio for a good length of time; February saw them record Sappy, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, Moist Vagina as full band compositions, then Marigold without Kurt. So, maybe, for the first time, the band wouldn’t have been putting together throw-aways, perhaps the gap to the next album would have been shorter and You Know You’re Right may have had a place in a greater piece of work.

Taking You Know You’re Right as performed in Chicago on October 23, 1993 as the first live rendition of a song for the next Nirvana album, even then the trend would suggest the last song for the album wouldn’t have made it on stage until some point between Nov 1995-Jun 1996. Of course, that last song, in the case of Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero, had only made it on stage one-two months before the release of the related album suggesting an album, at the earliest, in December 1995 to July 1996.

But, of course, the data is flawed…Let’s talk more tomorrow because the pattern is worse not better than the live data would suggest.

Disquiet: MTV Unplugged in New York

Earlier today we focused on the subject of Nirvana cover songs and pointed out that in 1993 there were two performances strongly dependent on cover songs; Sao Paolo and then MTV Unplugged in New York. The latter show is, of course, a triumph — it’s funny, beautifully performed, featuring some of the vocal performances for which Cobain will always be known. It also led to the CD release which is the Nirvana album that anyone who doesn’t really like rock music has in their collection. The quality of what took place on stage is undeniable and I have no wish to deny it, I love the performance same as anyone else.

…But. I don’t wish to be a killjoy but all the talk of how the band ‘wanted to do something different’, or how ‘most Nirvana songs don’t really sound good acoustically’ feels a little like press statements to put a positive gloss on what occurred. Six of fourteen songs performed were covers, there’s no reason at all why the band couldn’t have worked over their extensive catalogue and brought a few more originals to the blend. The With the Lights Out box-set indicated that a surprising number of the late era Nirvana songs started off as acoustic tracks, so did Sappy, while other songs had been attempted in acoustic format at one point or another (see LiveNirvana’s guide to Rehearsals to see the band trying to work out songs acoustically in July 1993.) With that in mind it wasn’t that the Nirvana catalogue couldn’t be adapted…It was that they weren’t willing to take the time required to do so.

Instead, Nirvana played every single acoustic, or at least QUIET, song they ever placed on an album; there was nothing left unless they wanted to do some more work — a handwritten set-list mentioned at states Marigold and Old Age were also under consideration just one day before the band were due on stage, apparently Been a Son was considered. The band went on stage nervous about a lack of practice and comments, for example by the Kirkwood brothers, indicate Kurt was hardly a meticulous attendee at the rehearsals, nor a sober one. The last-minute nature of their practicing doesn’t indicate an enthusiastic desire to engage with the performance.

The band clearly didn’t put deep thought into the shows. The Meat Puppets toured with Nirvana for seven shows in late October-early November so their inclusion seems to have been dreamt up on the spot during the negotiations with MTV, barely a few weeks before it took place. Their three songs in the Unplugged set are beautiful, and gorgeously performed, but there’s genuinely no reason to speak of them as anything more than rock star level karaoke on a batch of tracks Cobain had known for years and with guests handling the instruments. Likewise the claim that the acoustic format meant they couldn’t play most Nirvana songs is belied by the fact that Nirvana’s performance was quite clearly amplified (particularly on The Man Who Sold the World) so it’s not like they couldn’t airbrush some volume over their songs.

The band added precisely one new song — The Man Who Sold the World — during their preparation for the show. Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam and Where Did You Sleep Last Night had been honed and perfected years before. While a revelation for audiences who hadn’t witnessed those songs, for the band there was little fresh or new about what they did on stage. Though I’m happy to give credit to the band’s explanation that they wanted to ‘break the mould’ of the MTV Unplugged series, I’m still unsure that it truly explains why the band could barely pull eight originals, all predictable choices long practiced as acoustic or semi-acoustic renditions, together. Plus, the series had only commenced in November 1993 so why did it require ‘its mould’ breaking? Surely Springsteen’s all electric performance the next year was far more daring? If they’d been willing to practice they could have adapted a few more originals. Kurt’s refusal to play an encore, explained by how well he’d done on Where Did You Sleep Last Night, could just as readily be about the fact that there was nothing else that they had bothered trying.

Rather than seeing Unplugged as ‘the Phoenix rising from the ashes’ one last time, perhaps look at the show as very much apiece with the overall trajectory of Nirvana in 1993-1994. The concert featured no new originals — neither did any of the sixty shows from October onward. There was an unwillingness to practice or dedicate time to the band — precisely as Kurt exhibited at their studio visits from 1992 onward, he was going through the motions and doing the minimum required. The band only played one cover that wasn’t long perfected — just like their voracious appetite for on-stage covers collapsed after 1991. The band resisted playing their best songs — just as they tried to avoid Nevermind’s core songs in their final radio performances in 1991 or tried to insert Rape Me into the 1992 VMAs.

I think what we’re seeing is a far more curmudgeonly set of decisions taking place; firstly, to stubbornly refuse to give MTV even a sniff of a hit; secondly, a refusal to spend time working hard on music prior to the show; thirdly, a lack of desire to spend time on Nirvana or creating music as a band. The deliberately funereal stage decoration has been commented on before but I think it was a very stark and deliberate comment by Cobain, who had a tendency to incorporate art and other creative elements as self-expression. Nirvana really was dying by November 1993 and he knew it. MTV Unplugged in New York came wrapped in songs mentioning death, dressed as death, wreathed in bad vibes amongst the band itself…The show was a quiet death.

Nirvana in June 1994

The only person that would be… with Kurt as of June ‘94 … and would still be…Was Pat. They broke UP.” Quite a quotation from Courtney Love, never exactly short of words worth chewing over. Though her ungenerous attitude is sad to behold, I admit I really can’t doubt the truth of what she says — as usual, Courtney’s problem is being far too sharp and intemperate in her comments, not that she’s inaccurate, unintelligent or a liar (she’s rarely any of these things.)

In 1994 the only person Kurt invited to collaborate, while out on tour, was Pat Smear as described in an exclusive interview on The Internet Nirvana Fan Club from 2002. As an aside, the suggestion that Pat should add a guitar part to You Know You’re Right seems to indicate that the song might have been intended for release in that form and as a Nirvana song; but March 1994, the last collaborations, look like nothing usable or worthwhile being achieved.

The decision to simply ignore the deadline for deciding on Lollapalooza is a very consistent behavioural pattern of course. In past years, having decided to essentially sack people from the band, Kurt’s approach had been to avoid the conversation altogether unless it became essential. In 1994, the idea that he simply sat on his hands and waited for everyone to draw their own conclusions is an entirely normal way of behaving, for him. The fact he continued to invite Pat Smear to be present says everything — this was not a guy who continued to hang around with discarded band members or associates, when they were gone, they were gone.

The tense incidents within the band; absence of substantial collaboration 1992-1994, the falling-out between the Cobains and the Novoselics in early 1992, the argument over royalties in mid-1992, Krist’s disgust at Cobain’s low effort in Sao Paolo in January 1993… It doesn’t look like a functioning unit. Courtney is, sadly, right as far as the evidence shows.

Anyways, in the meantime, at least the surviving members of Nirvana remain on cordial terms though the chances of a more formal collaboration has been ruled out:

A Relic: Kurt Cobain Obituary April 9, 1994

Memory fades.

I can no longer recall if this obituary came from Saturday April 9, 1994 while I was still in the U.S. on a family holiday, or whether it was the following week upon return to the U.K. My memory tries to tell me that my dad somehow got hold of his regular copy of the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph while in Florida and I artlessly preserved then tore out the Kurt Cobain in memoria.

Either way this scrap of paper had accompanied me ever since, sandwiched in a May 1994 edition of Metal Hammer magazine which lost its cover a long while back (good Sonic Youth interview with Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore while Kim Gordon was at home awaiting the birth of Coco Hayley Gordon Moore on July 1.) I should preserve it better, it’s yellowing, faded. But still. It remains one of the few objects I hold genuinely dear.


This is the full text in case you’re interested:



Bringing Hope for ’94

Sometimes Nirvana’s rise to glory is looked at as an inevitability. Rather it’s safe to say that as late as mid-1990 there was no guarantee the band was going to win a major label deal. Certainly the release of Bleach didn’t lead irrevocably to the triumph of Nevermind. Other steps intervened to make Nirvana into the band the world knows.

Similarly, however, there’s no inevitability to Kurt Cobain’s grim demise or the dwindling life left in Nirvana across the period 1992 to 1994. There could have been a resurgence, a resurrection. This inability to know what might have been, or what might still exist in the archives, allows those who wish to believe, to keep faith that in 1994 Kurt laid down worthwhile demos for future releases of some sort. Take a look at the following graph:

I’ve deliberately not shown the actual figures for how many songs were written because what I’m interested in is the lulls not the activity itself. While 1993 and 1994 seem to have been even worse than 1992 in terms of the number of songs written, the overall pattern was at least in line with the norm for his working practices with lulls after each album.

The lull in early 1989, during which Dive was the only song definitely written, is followed by a quiet spell throughout late 1991 and early 1992 during which Tourette’s, Talk to Me, Curmudgeon and Heart Shaped Box come together. The gap in late 1993 through early 1994, when only You Know You’re Right and Do-Re-Mi can be proven, isn’t exceptional when seen in these terms. It gives rise to two conclusions; firstly, that there’s a chance Eric Erlandson’s comments in March 2012 about unknown 1994 demos may carry weight. Secondly, that Kurt Cobain’s decline need not have been permanent barring his decision to make it so.

In early 1993, Kurt relied on a bedrock of earlier material he could cherry-pick to bulk up In Utero to the twelve songs (plus bonus) he seems to have felt was ideal. He carried a full seven songs onto In Utero era releases. If he was willing to use Do Re Mi, You Know You’re Right, Talk to Me PLUS Verse Chorus Verse and Vendetagainst (Help Me, I’m Hungry), he would still have needed an exceptional second half 1994 to have an album ready to record in early 1995.

At my estimate, the most Kurt wrote in a six month period was eight-nine songs ranging down to a norm of four or five. To get as far as an album recording in 1995 he would have needed to exceed his finest ever spells of writing which had been late 1990 and early 1991 (first and second best with nine and eight songs respectively.) It seems unlikely. Unless something extraordinary happened, or he’d pumped out a ten track album (which in Nirvana terms would have meant just a half hour or so of music) we wouldn’t have seen a new Nirvana/Kurt Cobain album until 1996 at the earliest.

On the positive side, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Many bands lean heavily on material written prior to the heavy touring, TV and media engagements of fame in order to sustain them past a second major release. Likewise, it isn’t unusual for performing artists to drain the well of inspiration and need lengthy periods to recover some measure of creative flow. A drug-free Kurt Cobain looking toward the future could have had one…if he had wished. If he had, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about the lull in productivity 1993-1994, it would just be an irrelevant blip on the graph with no more significance than the ones after Bleach or Nevermind.

The Cupboard was Bare?

There have been ever thinner riches accompanying Nirvana releases since the 2004 With the Lights Out box set — fewer rarities, fewer alternative versions of interest. It’s possible now to understand what was left from Nirvana’s studio sessions thanks to the work done by The following list shows how little music hadn’t emerged by the time of Kurt Cobain’s death:

Anything in red has still not been made available on an official compilation. At this long remove it’s a surprise there’s anything at all that hasn’t seen release. There have been promises made of special releases in 2013 for the In Utero Twentieth Anniversary. If this follows the pattern set by the Nevermind releases then some considerable part of the April 1992-January 1993 material will emerge, perhaps even the January 1991 demos too.

Of course almost everything here has sneaked out into the realm of bootlegs (just go take a look at YouTube.) The exception, as far as I’m aware, may be the Bleach session attempt at Hairspray Queen. Depressing in a way, so few secrets to come unless…Unless there’s some truth in the rumors of substantial Kurt Cobain home demos.

Friday 16th Nov: Mia culpa! Its been pointed out that I skipped the 1991 edition of Sappy – true! Apologies. Similarly there’s a jam from the In Utero sessions known as Lullaby, the description over at LiveNirvana drawn from Gillian G. Gaar’s In Utero volume seems to be the only available information and it doesn’t seem to promise much beyond an instrumental free-for-all…Welcomed but…