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:
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.
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!
To be very fair, this is far more listenable than one would expect – instrumentally the change in tone is pretty intriguing, the bridge into the chorus benefits from the clock-like approach of the multiple ukuleles and the harmonised vocals….Anyways, thought it’d lend something different to your day. Enjoy.
In other thoughts of the day, I find the process of creation intriguing. Inspiration isn’t ‘magic’, it isn’t necessarily so beyond exploration or regular human experience that threads of thinking can’t be identified. In the case of Mr. Cobain, there’s been a debate over on LiveNirvana the past couple days about a YouTube clip called ‘Excuse’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q45a0m0MZ_U), go read the thread, it’s entertaining and I don’t wish to repeat it.
What it’s reminded me of though is the level of ambition Cobain exhibited with regard to his vocal performances. Focusing purely on his acoustic efforts, there’s significant variety in the performances ranging from the wonderful double-tracking effect on Clean Up Before She Comes, to the gothic vocalising on Don’t Want it All, the narcotised story-telling/scene description on Polly accompanying the background effects and thudding ‘suitcase’ drums, the way each line peaks on Opinion prior to the humming chorus lines, the solemnity giving way to the beautiful chorus of Something in the Way…His willingness to test his own voice, to rarely settle for monotony across an entire song.
It isn’t a huge revelation but one element I’ve been musing on recently is the visible connections between songs performed at certain times of his career. Essentially if an idea or approach was on his mind there tended to be more than one song in a certain mode or utilising a certain style or technique. At its most direct there’s Cobain’s admission that Dumb was written as an extrapolation from Polly, the punchy pop of Been a Son and Stain – or the lyrical unities between certain songs like Been a Son, Stain and Even in his Youth all of which arose around the same era.
Which brings me to the slimmest glimmer of a connection. I simply wondered whether I should think of the humming in Opinion and Something in the Way, two songs that arose in the same spell of song-writing in summer-autumn 1990, as two examples of a single brief vocal experiment. All i’d be suggesting is that these two songs happened to fit a particular mode he worked with briefly in which ending the chorus line, the song’s title line, by humming was something he was toying with. It also impresses me that he would put so much into such a tiny element of a song – the low/high humming on Opinion or the double-tracked harmonies that conclude Something in the Way…Cobain may unfortunately have come to bear the mantle of the ‘slacker’ generation but there was nothing slack at all about how much work he clearly put into testing and experimenting with even the smallest things he could do with his voice.
I’m fascinated by the song Big Long Now. Ignoring questions of good/bad (given those are personal opinions of no relevance to anyone other than oneself) and ignoring queries about the audio quality of the recording (given such factors are technological issues of neutral import and no relevance to whether a track is good/bad/indifferent), what interests me is its unique status. It’s the only original outtake from the Bleach sessions – the Chad version of Hairspray Queen simply being an unseen alternative to the January 1988 version. That singular status makes it intriguing to me. In the interview for the Dark Slivers book, Jack Endino stated that there were no additional takes of Big Long Now “one take, bam!” which means there’s that version on Incesticide, the rehearsal video on With the Lights Out…And that’s it. That fact that it’s the only song on the album-length releases during Cobain’s lifetime to not end up on a live bootleg, to never make it onto a live recording – it gives it an air of mystery.
In passing, while touring Tacoma, I was spending the afternoon with John Purkey and he pointed out that the song was featured on the demo tape Kurt Cobain personally handed to him – the raw tape of the Bleach sessions. I commented on how unique it is, that there are no live versions and no one knows when it was played…John casually replied “that’s not strictly true – I saw it twice…” And he remembers one of the venues too.
In the book I mentioned that Chad remembers playing the song – as does Jason Everman. Actually, heck, I don’t do this often but I’m going to quote my own work – the next two paragraphs are from Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide –
Chad Channing was drummer from sometime following a May 21, 1988 show, until his last show with the band on May 17, 1990. Chad has claimed the song was played during his time with the band. It has also been claimed that it was a favorite of Jason Everman—Nirvana’s second guitarist from February to July 1989. Also, in Portland, Oregon on June 10, 1989 a fanatical fan requested the song. Krist Novoselic then replied “we don’t play that one anymore.” The phrasing suggests there was a time when they did. Likewise, the fact the fan asked the question implies the song was played given he was asking for a song that was less than six months old and unreleased at that point. Unless the individual concerned had attended a home rehearsal he must have seen it live.
Furthermore, the timing is right. From April-October 1988 only eleven songs are known from sixteen shows and between January-July 1989 only three full and three partial set-lists are known from twenty-seven shows. This is the biggest gap in the Nirvana records. Tightening the noose; three of five set-lists are known for October-December 1988 so it makes it unlikely the song was unveiled until 1989. Yet the song is declared long dead on June 10,1989 and absent from the complete set-list of the band’s only show in May. This makes it possible to say that if, as the witnesses indicate, Big Long Now was played live, we can surmise it happened during at least one of the ten shows that took place between January and April 1989.
SO! Where does Jon’s information fit within that…? Well, what he said – without any further prompting – was “I saw Nirvana play it at a Dorm show at the Evergreen State College…” The first show he’s referring to is Jason Everman’s first show with Nirvana where they played Dorm K208 sometime in February. There’s a partial set-list available from the K208 show, just six songs. In other words, the claimed sighting of Big Long Now, as a live song, take place precisely where the evidence says it should be. Now there’s a show it’d be beautiful to see surface…
It also makes Big Long Now one of the songs Jason was drilled in upon entry to the band and prior to taking the stage with Nirvana – sometime in January he was made to learn this track so there’ll be rehearsal tapes around that time too, if we’re lucky and the band preserved them. It also clear that the song was one of the small number of songs created from scratch probably only just in time for the Bleach sessions alongside Sifting – early December is that first sighting…
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.
One of Kurt Cobain’s greatest apparent pleasures, one of the few he took from his fame, was to cast the torchlight over bands and musicians he adored. It’s possible to think of Cobain as a younger adherent to label-mate Sonic Youth’s dragging up of fellow artists – Shonen Knife, Meat Puppets, Greg Sage and the Wipers, Melvins, The Vaselines; all owe ongoing attention to their association with Cobain. Yet Cobain’s showcasing of his leftfield tastes managed, in one case, to bring an artist back from the dead.
Lead Belly was a virtually forgotten blues artist – rediscovered in the Sixties during the blues revival but as a very minor background figure by comparison to other proponents of the style such as Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. The key blues idol in the eyes of the 60s and 70s rock scene though was Robert Johnson, the man who sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical gifts, a man who left just 29 recorded songs (41 takes.) He was also an early entry to The 27 Club. He was the crucial figure in the blues rival of the late 60s – the central defining blues figure for Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Keith Richards; the guitar cream of the rock scene. In all five cases their focus was Johnson’s mastery of the blues as a vocal and instrumental art – this mattered to four men who prided themselves on their overall musical abilities.
Kurt Cobain’s inspiration took alternative roots and destination. It’s unclear where he first discovered Lead Belly, but Lead Belly is the only blues figure to feature on the well known Top 50 Albums list emphasising his centrality as a figure Cobain admired. With the performance of Where Did You Sleep Last Night – a relatively common Nirvana cover he performed on stage quite a number of times from 1989 onward as well as at The Jury cover sessions – at the MTV Unplugged performance he single-handedly made Lead Belly a name known among rock and pop audiences and gave the defining performance of one of his songs. What’s curious to me is why and how Lead Belly became a figure of significance for Kurt Cobain.
As a first port of call, one other key influence on Nirvana was always the Led Zeppelin connection. Led Zeppelin did in fact perform one of their regular retooling efforts on a Lead Belly song, Gallis Pole, turning into Gallows Pole on Led Zeppelin III. There’s no evidence but it’s an intriguing suggestion, that the name Lead Belly may have been familiar to Kurt Cobain via this route. It also suggests the change of direction; Kurt Cobain was never a bluesman, he was a child of rock, a teen punk, a maturing pop musician. He never shared the Clapton-Hendrix-Beck-Townsend worship of the blues. So, by tying the earliest historical root to his tastes to a musician who had more connection to the band that pushed guitar music away from the blues and toward a separate style, he reemphasised his adherence to that later era.
A further element he didn’t share with those four individuals was guitar worship. Kurt Cobain was endlessly disparaging about his own instrumental abilities and his use of the guitar was rarely about more than accompaniment to the sentiments he wished to express in words. Again, Lead Belly’s more rough style married better to the kind of impressionistic (and not necessarily clean or well tutored) work Kurt Cobain exhibited in the acoustic demos available of him working at home. Unlike Robert Johnson, Lead Belly also saw fit to move away from guitar at times if an alternative instrument suited the desired effect or direction. As a musical urge Lead Belly simply ‘fitted’ Kurt Cobain’s self-taught and punk orientated vision of musicianship. He was rejecting an entire component of the hard rock lineage, that leading back to the four key figures of the late sixties, in favour of the heavier sound of the Seventies. His music may have owed its roots to the blues but it wasn’t a reiteration of them.
Lead Belly also brings with him far greater baggage than Robert Johnson’s mythical demonic linkage. Lead Belly was a quintessential ‘bad man’, a regular jail house presence with one murder, one attempted homicide, one further stabbing all to his name across several decades. While Johnson’s personal biography is a misty affair, Lead Belly’s is fairly well-known and can be read a point around the redemptive power of music; that one can appreciate the work of an individual without loving the individual or their life. For a man like Kurt Cobain, one with serious self-esteem issues and feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame arising from a disturbed childhood and ongoing poverty into his mid-twenties, listening to an artist who made music that lifted him above the mess of his life… It may not share the poetry of the ’27’ but it has a deeper, and positive, fuel.
Kurt Cobain’s songs did not become more autobiographical, they always were. What increased was how explicit they were about the subjects and objects of his writing. His particular writing style — in which the choruses rarely tied directly to the verses, in which one verse didn’t necessarily tie to the next, in which one lyrical couplet didn’t always ally to those either side of it — had increasingly been adopted in his later lyric writing and was almost completely dominant by 1990-1991. All of which makes Serve the Servants an unusual Cobain entry.
There’s no evidence of the song, instrumentally or otherwise, prior to the February 1993 Pachyderm Studio session, and for a variety of reasons it’s exceedingly hard to pin down. It’s the only song that featured on In Utero not to have been demoed already either in October 1992 at Word of Mouth Productions, or in January 1993 at BMG Ariola Ltda in Brazil. Given how thoroughly Nirvana prepared their other songs prior to the album session it does make it stand out as a very late Nirvana song. In fact, unless other evidence presents itself, it’s the third to last known Cobain original composition; after Serve the Servants the only other two songs are You Know You’re Right and Do Re Mi.
Lyrically, there’s clear evidence of its context and era. The focus within the first verse on images of witchcraft trials, of media pressure, of the pay-off from his life’s work align perfectly with very late 1992 when the worst attentions struck Cobain and his family. It was mid-to-late August 1992 that the “Rock Star’s Baby is Born a Junkie” article emerged, in those same weeks the local authorities took Frances Bean Cobain into custody two days after her birth, while the Vanity Fair article didn’t hit the stands until September. Verse two, meanwhile, focuses on Cobain’s father and ties to an incident that took place on September 11, 1992 when Cobain’s father turned up unannounced at the band’s benefit show in Seattle — the first time they’d spoken in around a decade. The chorus meanwhile, well, it’s a blunt statement of being fed up hearing, in media coverage, that his parents’ divorce messed him up. But everyone knows that simply because its stated so baldly, there’s no disguise, no intuition needed.
The lyrics, therefore, can’t have been commenced until the final two weeks of September, more likely on into October, November, December of 1992. The dates on the With the Lights Out box-set are, at times, a matter of debate — if the demo of Serve the Servants was indeed from 1993 as it suggests then it’d indicate Kurt Cobain wrote then completely rewrote the lyrics inside of the first eight weeks of the year. It’s possible, the live recordings from just prior to Bleach’s recording indicate some songs going through major revisions or being written from scratch in not much over a month.
The vitriol of the eventual finalised lyrics makes me suspect that the demo is from an earlier date, a first shot in 1992, with the lyrical revisions taking place somewhere between November 1992’s two shots at the Incesticide liner notes and February (Kurt was made to erase a personal rant against Lynn Hirschberg, author of the Vanity Fair article — who, for the record, doesn’t seem to have done much more than report honestly on what she was seeing as a 2011 Courtney Love quotation makes clear with provisos; “”yes, it’s true, I used heroin in the first three weeks of my pregnancy — but so f–king what!? I didn’t even know I was pregnant at the time! I also took a few puffs on a cigarette when my belly was out to here, but most of those nine months, I walked around with nicotine patches all over my body. When you have a baby inside you, you’re not going to do drugs or something stupid.”)
The song, therefore stands out for a range of reasons; the third-to-last complete Kurt Cobain composition, the last song readied for In Utero, the most focused and unified song lyrics he had ever created, and the most explicit reportage on his life experience he ever laid to tape; its virtually a State of the Union address covering the bad months concluding 1992.
Apologies, was a public holiday in UK yesterday and I was at my grandfather’s… Now! Awful lot written about the Cobain roar, his particular skill for being able to hold a single note while screaming, to be able to twist a scream up, down, wherever he wished it — that’s a genuine technical ability on display, not just an unpractised gut talent. And that’s what has made the various vocal-only/acapella versions of Nirvana’s songs so interested. None have been officially released (as far as I know) and I can’t imagine they ever will be although voice only versions of hip hop albums are not an uncommon phenomenon given the desire of remix artists to get working with individual voices. Given the rather unlovely nature of a hip hop vocal, those releases are usually best for the appreciation of lyrics, for the dexterity with which an individual plays with syllables and their control over speed and breathing.
In the case of Kurt Cobain’s voice, isolated from the instruments, there’s a wide range of material to choose from stretching from early efforts — the very gruff, paint-stripping growl on Negative Creep or thick tone of Blew — to the frailty that has crept in on a song like Very Ape or All Apologies. Of course I’m sure that what we’re hearing is not necessarily the development of a voice but deliberate decisions regarding what to emphasise or discard — we’re hearing control, an expanding and experienced talent.
One major contrast is being able to hear so clearly the work done to the vocals on Nevermind. The slight echo on a track like Drain You softens the edges; check the almost syrupy effect added to In Bloom alongside the more extreme doubling of Kurt’s voice on the chorus; the demo like quality of Something in the Way is a welcome release with the visibility of each vocal tic and slur now starkly present. There are plenty of sources and certainly their availability is well-known across the fan community:
The additional touches aren’t as visible on the other albums, they’re there, of course, but the nakedness of the voice is plainer. This is my particular favourite. The gulf between the downbeat verses, the ability to let the voice break over a note — I’m very sure it’s deliberate, he did it so perfectly during Where Did You Sleep Last Night from MTV Unplugged — the building snarl of the bridge then the sustained chorus…And yes, there’s plenty of doubling going on at the end there but still…What a song and what a voice.
MV (*cough*) is also available in this form showing him stretching his voice from the initial croak to the dredged up choruses…Another late era experiment with the voice.
You may have noticed, but I have a particular fascination with using information to show that certain views and approaches may not be as cut-and-dried as they initially appear. To some extent we are all what we are trained to be and, in my case, I was taught to sift information, present a hypothesis then to test; then, at work, I saw increasingly that getting things moving effectively relied upon, firstly, having the information to back-up a course of action and, secondly, being able to present it in such a way that it could be readily digested. What has always stunned me, however, is the extent to which entire realms of decision-making were based on statements that had never truly been tested, could be shown to be untrue, and led to large-scale activity that ultimately was to no purpose.
As an example, one organisation I worked with argued that delegates tended to come to a conference every two years rather than annually, so we should be trying to persuade them to alternate with colleagues, then deploy sales and marketing contact with the former delegate when the second year arrived. The answer? Like Hell were they. Sitting down with the data from all the events going back five years meant it was possible to show annual attendance vastly outweighed the one percent or so who would skip years. The entire approach was wrong yet it governed almost a year of organisational activity and was very hard to batter down.
That’s where my approach to Nirvana coincides with my professional and my academic past; I enjoy finding the ‘chinks’ in the existing tale whether that means showing that Nirvana’s live shows are remarkably predictable entities, or that maybe there’s more to a particular statement or event than acknowledged, for example, that MTV Unplugged in New York wasn’t just a triumphant and beautiful and wondrous show.
In the case of Smells Like Teen Spirit, Kurt Cobain was certainly irritated by the feeling that a single song was expected of him and that he couldn’t take a stage without parading it. What I was curious about was whether that annoyance translated into any actual action. That Nirvana did react against the expectations that came with fame is clear from the refusal to play any Nevermind songs at their final radio session (The Netherlands in November 1991), the fact they had to be persuaded to play anything from Nevermind in the one before that (my discussion with BBC producer Miti Adhikari: “…they didn’t want to play anything from Nevermind, but they were persuaded by either their management or by me to do different versions of Nevermind tracks …”) and their attempts to avoid Smells Like Teen Spirit at TV performances. What happened on stage between 1991 and 1994?
The answer, in a broad-brush way, is “nothing.” Reusing the spreadsheets of complete set-lists (from Nirvana Live Guide) that I used for the Side A/Side B analysis its visible that Smells Like Teen Spirit was played 141 times out of 150 occasions available for us to observe from its debut on April 17, 1991 until the band’s denouement on March 1, 1994. I hadn’t expected any change to occur at first because the song hadn’t yet become the albatross hanging around Cobain’s neck. But there’s never, essentially, a spell when the song is ignored or neglected. The band skip it once on August 25, 1991; they skip it once in 1992 at the notorious October 30 show in Buenos Aires; they skip it five times out of 37 set-lists for 1993; then twice in 1994. That’s it.
What that immediately suggested was that Kurt Cobain’s protestations regarding the song never spilt over into refusing to generally please the crowds, play the hits and do what was expected. The degree to which is distain for doing so was a pose or a deeply held sadness and annoyance is a matter of debate — make your own minds up — but the song was rarely sliced.
If you look at the figure below you’ll note that the song goes from being part of the build-up of the set, to being part of the close, to being a mid-set number, but it switches positions so many times what it actually says to me is that though the song was certainly not despised by its creator, it didn’t build up the usefulness of say Drain You or Aneurysm (consistent and persistent components of the set opening) or of Blew (an equally persistent part of closing.) All it says is the song wasn’t cared about so much that it had to belong anywhere while others were.
Looking closely, however, at the occasions on which Nirvana didn’t play the song, there were occasions which seem deliberate. October 30, 1992 in Buenos Aires is the best known example. The sexist treatment of the opening band Calamity Jane led to Nirvana devoting an entire show to frustrating and being combative to the audience — but in a particular way. The band did so through music; they teased the audience with the Smells Like Teen Spirit introduction but never played it, Kurt fluffed the intros to most songs to burn stage time, he barely bothered with the lyrics to Come as you Are, he abandoned the stage leaving Krist and Dave to jam for spells. It was a quiet guerrilla war on an audience that didn’t deserve catharsis.
Strangely, there are two shows that coincide; Nirvana weren’t meant to be the opener for the August 25, 1991 Pukkelpop Festival, they were just a fill-in, meanwhile, the August 6, 1993 show was the Mia Zapata benefit event with Nirvana as unannounced special guests. With the pressure off in each case there’s a case to be made that maybe Nirvana felt less expectation. Supporting this, partially, Nirvana were unannounced guests at two shows in October 1992, a far more heavily weighted time in the band’s life, and in each case the parts of the set-lists that are known suggest Smells Like Teen Spirit wasn’t played. If people hadn’t come specifically to see them it seems Nirvana potentially weren’t as bothered about ‘pleasing’ the ticket-holders.
December 13, 1993 was akin to the two radio shows, wrecking Top of the Pops, switching on Jonathan Ross, refusing to play Teen Spirit then faking out MTV producers with the opening to Rape Me at the MTV Video Music Awards and the refusal to play more known hits for MTV Unplugged in New York. As described the other month (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/02/07/final-resistance-mtv-live-n-loud-december-1993/) Nirvana’s MTV Live n’ Loud appearance set-list was entirely revamped for one night only. As part of that revamping it stands out quite strongly that Smells Like Teen Spirit was eliminated; Nirvana simply wouldn’t play it to please the MTV administration.
And the other three occasions in 1993? My hypothesis was that perhaps Nirvana eliminated Smells Like Teen Spirit as a way to punish audiences — a continuation of the Buenos Aires approach and the antagonism toward MTV. Certainly the Halloween show on October 31, 1993 has a potential echo of it given an exchange involving someone throwing a shoe at Kurt into which he then urinated in retaliation — but it’s only a suggestion not proven. The November 4 and November 7 shows are united by one event which was that on November 5, the intervening show, the rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit involved dragging the support bands on to help trash it, a clip of it is found here:
It’s hard to tell if it was just coincidental that for those three shows, the conclusion of the tour phase during which The Boredoms and The Meat Puppets were on board, Smells Like Teen Spirit either didn’t appear or wasn’t fully realised; it’s just a short spell. One consideration is that the agreement to book Nirvana for MTV Unplugged in New York took place sometime in late October-early November and coincides with the October 27-November 5 spell during which Nirvana were accompanied by The Meat Puppets. What I’m suggesting is that being in conversation with MTV again provoked a small outburst and therefore Smells Like Teen Spirit’s elimination. An alternative is the way that Kurt retreated to drums on November 4, sometimes a sign of his annoyance or desire to escape the front-man role and also, at the same show, the fact the NLG lists him as ‘playing’ the In Bloom solo with his foot with the guitar dumped on the floor.
Again, it maybe points to a burst of annoyance and a resultant sarcastic response. Anyways, here’s the full show if you feel like analysing the performance:
Anyways, it’s clear that, of the nine shows at which Smells Like Teen Spirit wasn’t played, two were definite acts of aggression (Oct 30 and Live n’ Loud); two were because the band didn’t have to please an audience (Aug’ 25, 1991 an Aug’ 5, 1993); two took place within a single week of November with an intervening show at which the song also suffered chaotic attention even though the interpretation of what was afoot at that point is hard to figure out. This all lands us in 1994, the finale. And, in one of those coincidences that look absolutely wonderful in literary writing or media pieces looking for ominous conclusions, the two shows where Smells Like Teen Spirit was not played, were the final two shows of the tour when Kurt Cobain was tired, getting sick, was inquiring about cancelling. There wasn’t much spirit left in him, mirrored in the absence of Spirit on stage. Looks great ending these graphics with a double red underlining…
You’ve undoubtedly heard this; it’s a shred of a home demo Kurt Cobain recorded, it’s assumed, sometime in 1992. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, sweetly brief, and also enjoyable to hear Kurt seeming to have a little fun in music — akin to the chuckled adlibs in Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip. Kurt Cobain’s percussive abilities are likewise a nice touch — that’s some effective hand drumming going on. The other significance that can be attached to this song is that while between 1987-1989 there is substantial evidence of Kurt experimenting with music at home, after that date the only visible home demos simply show him running through ‘shovel-ready’ Nirvana songs in standard pop format. This 25 second clip is the only hint that he was doing anything out of the ordinary, anything way out to leftfield of Nirvana.
Referring back to the musical vibe of the piece, for contrast, here’s the deeply cool original:
Note the Caribbean drums, the funk styling, the jazzy finale — this is one musically expansive track. Kurt Cobain is mimicking the final twenty seconds or so of the track “take a lil’ trip, take a lil’ trip with me…” Low Rider’s significance isn’t just that it’s a giggle, it is that it’s pretty well the only evidence of Kurt Cobain reaching out to musical heritages beyond an extremely narrow continuum. This is not a criticism; it’s simply a factual comment — what I’m not seeking to do is criticise Kurt Cobain’s music for being something it never set out to be.
Yet, as fame enveloped him, Kurt Cobain increasingly dwelt on the perceived limitations of the guitar as an instrument (“12 notes 6 strings and 30 years”); on his own frustration with what he began claiming was a repetitive structure and style to Nirvana’s music (“I don’t want to keep rewriting this style of music”). In his suicide note he even took the time to claim that music had become boring to him (“I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now.”) What we’re examining here, in detail, is the nature of Kurt Cobain’s writer’s block.
He took it further. He identified this not just as a personal crisis, but as a fundamental collapse in rock music as an entity (“it’s already so rehashed and so plagiarized that it’s barely alive now. It’s disgusting.”) But hold on — let’s question that. This is the early Nineties. Sonic Youth have just rejuvenated the guitar. My Bloody Valentine have kicked out Loveless. Swans had torn ground-shaking tones from it. His own friends in Earth were about to create an entire new sub-genre based around the drone. It’s disingenuous that a guy saturated in the new angles that had been ripped from the guitar in the Eighties should claim the death of rock.
The wider context of the rock world makes clear that this was another case of Kurt Cobain defending himself from pain by going on the attack, the same way he publically denigrated his own music so no one could say anything hurtful that he hadn’t said first. At the root of what was occurring, beyond the drugs n’ drama, was a difficult combination of (I’ve used this compliment before) a highly talented musical magpie, running headlong into an deeply restless and easily bored musical spirit. Kurt Cobain had run through rock styles at a furious pace; Fecal Matter’s proto-grunge, January 1988’s new wave, Bleach’s straight up grunge, the garage pop/lo-fi spell of 1989-1990, electric blues with The Jury covering, a smattering of acoustic pop songs, on into the Pixies-tinged dynamics that met mainstream rock on Nevermind — he devoured them all. He needed something new to retain the avid enthusiasm he had felt for learning punk rock.
The musical universe in which Nirvana played was, unfortunately, extremely limited. Essentially the band regurgitated styles prevalent within a very specific scene; they were a Seattle band not just in root, but in the vocabulary with which they played. What the band didn’t do was reach beyond that specific background, the one they’d grown up with, to explore other sources; there wasn’t even the vestigial beginnings of a Johnny Rotten-esque shift from Sex Pistols to dub reggae infused Public Image Limited; there wasn’t anything like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir wearing their world-walking on its sleeve; there was no toying with jazz, with funk, with any other genre; even Nirvana’s alternative tuning on Blew was an accident; Nirvana’s live playfulness with noise and feedback didn’t make it too far in studio (The Priest They Called Him stands out.)
Love Buzz is a good comparative; an Eastern-tinged track recorded by a Dutch band during the late Sixties’ flirtation with Indian musical styles…Which Nirvana sliced the quirk out of in order to turn it into a straight forward grunge/punk/rock song (this is not to say I don’t love it! It’s a specific point about the musical expansiveness of Kurt Cobain.) A further case in point would be the conversion of Lead Belly’s African-American segregation era blues and folk into unaccented, uninflected acoustic pop — there’s not an ounce of original colour left in the tune even if Kurt, while performing solo at Castaic Lake in California in September 1992 did announce “this is a song by Huddie Ledbetter — he was a slave in the South.” Kurt Cobain’s music was quintessentially drawn from a highly specific American rock tradition in which the diversions artists like Jimi Hendrix had made into funk and soul; or Led Zeppelin made into whatever they could find; were left to artists like Prince while Nirvana — and Metallica too as an aside — honed the music down to an unfunky, straight ahead suburban white boy rock; no Clash style reggae moments, no Bad Brains styling, no Minutemen style jazz chords. Nirvana were indeed an all-American phenomenon, but musically speaking (I fully acknowledge the band’s support for equal rights and racial harmony) they were only one part of America.
In Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, the only real-world geographic locations that were ever mentioned were all in the State of Washington, all within a couple of hundred kilometres of his birthplace (Puget Sound; Seattle). Essentially, as we’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of his music was already written by mid-1991, by the time he was 24 years old. It’s not a surprise in a lot of ways that his lyrical inspiration never moved far from the area that was his home for most of his life. Similarly, in the seven-plus years of Nirvana’s existence, his instrumental inclinations never strayed from the punk/rock/pop sounds that gave him his initial impulses and enthusiasms back as a teenager.
I respect Kurt Cobain even more for having such a sharp eye that he recognised that his writer’s block was a combination of an instrument he didn’t have the time to find new worlds for; of musical approaches he’d run-through so fast (and mastered so thoroughly) he hadn’t left himself new turf to explore; and for recognising that, for his own enjoyment, he needed to start moving further than the narrow confines of the corner of the rock world he had picked clean for over ten years. Low Rider, recorded in 1991-1992, is a too-brief time-capsule showing a man stepping ever so briefly out of his comfort zone, trying ever so tentatively to find something fresh that could perhaps give him the long run of inspiration he’d wrenched from punk a decade before.
Plus…It’s fun. Twenty seconds well spent on a tape machine somewhere in the maelstrom.
This is pseudo-psychology based on nothing more than life observations then applied to your (and my) favourite subject; Nirvana. With that proviso, what I’ve noted is that an average day can be divided down into a relatively limited range of human interactions. Firstly, there’s functional communication — the generic greeting of those in service functions designed to set a positive context for the transaction required and rarely extending further than “good morning/hi/how are you? Have a nice day, thank you.” The next level up is the associate/colleague category in which, whether in a personal or professional situation, one is talking to an individual with whom one shares only a limited range of subject reference points. The result is conversations that stick to a socially approved set of topics; “how’s work?” “How’s has the week been?” “How is *insert name of family member/location of property/holiday reference, etc.*?” Then, beyond that, there are the higher level interactions that can be anchored either by a deeper awareness of someone else, their awareness of you, or simply by a liking or interest related to a specific topic.
OK, so far, so good, so what? Well, moving from simply reiterating that the majority of conversation is taken up with social pleasantries most people will develop a series of pre-fabricated conversational elements, the things they use by default. Lengthier and more varied divergences can evolve from any of these points but both an introductory and core component of any individual’s conversations across an average week will have a surprising quantity of repetition and redundancy built in — uniqueness is rare. It’s a natural consequence of reporting our experience and interests that a certain solidity occurs — no different from a band’s set-list:
Kurt Cobain used and recognised at least two of his own regular short-hand responses. Firstly, he claimed he used “here we are now entertain us”, the famous line from Smells Like Teen Spirit, as a way to introduce himself at parties in the late Eighties. It’s a neat, goofy, context-specific reaction to get over the initial discomfort and force a response from the target audience. Secondly, in 1992 he grew used to answering inquiries with the line “I hate myself and I want to die.” In each case there’s a deliberate short-circuiting of social niceties. The intriguing point is that these conversational strategies were matched by his desire within certain songs to wed socially acceptable scenarios or points to unacceptable or unsavoury elements whether scatological, violent, medical, emotional. Floyd the Barber remains the perfect example of this kind of juxtaposition — Kurt’s lyrics were so pure an expression of his life and gut feelings that the same approaches are present in each. The whole requirement to issue social niceties was something he acknowledged, and resented, so deeply that two songs, Blew and Come as you Are, were written wholly around it.
As an aside, Kurt extended this distain for social pleasantry into other realms. The work of artist Gerhard Richter was based around a belief that photographs and artworks contain a fundamental lie — the model doesn’t feel anything, they simply portray, forever more, the emotion the artist chooses to draw for them. The same thing happens in photos, people smile as a reflex or because they’re told to — it doesn’t necessarily link to what they’re thinking or feeling. Kurt Cobain made a point of the unsmiling photo, in official photo sessions the occasions on which he smiles are rare, and often (frankly) they look deliberately faked — he wanted the viewer to know the smile was meaningless. The difficulty was that the unsmiling image reinforced the idea that he was a sad individual when in fact it wasn’t so much that he didn’t smile because he was sad; his usual expression is blank, expressionless, there’s no particular emotion present. The photographic record of Kurt Cobain simply shows that a camera in his face made him indifferent, that he wasn’t willing to cooperate just to please a photographer — it doesn’t visually record him being sad at all, that’s a projection made by onlookers not something inherent in the image. The ‘model’ in this case isn’t showing us anything — his war on social pleasantry extended from words into his image. His unwillingness to show anything of what he felt inside in photographs was part of his desire to defend his privacy to a fanatical degree.
There’s nothing unhealthy or unreasonable about the move to rote responses and reactions — it saves energy, it fills people in as rapidly as possible on your most important matters, it sets up the successful fulfillment of a request. The element of disquiet, in my opinion, is when one no longer notices repetition and no longer fits the selected ‘short-hand’ to an appropriate situation. The result is that one’s joke reaction, one’s standard script, becomes an expectation or imposition; essentially you use it so often it’s who/what people think of when they think of you.
As personal examples, I once trained myself out of answering “how are you?” with “fine” — I began to think about my answer in each case and be honest and/or diverting. I’d also think about repetition — avoiding it. Yet there are always short-hands creeping in; I now receive joke comments about Starbucks on a regular basis. What’s happened is I’ve used my addiction to Starbucks (*deep breath* “tall mocha frappuccino with peppermint syrup and no cream, skinny milk, an extra shot of chocolate, less milk — domed lid if it’s alright”) as a self-parody so often I probably can’t protest that it’s part of people’s image of me. The reality of whether I am going to Starbucks every day (I’m not, swear to God!) is irrelevant because the verbal strategy has, through my own fault, become substituted for the reality. Similarly, I need to be more careful about mentioning I’m in control of my workload because increasingly people really do think I do no work and just sort Nirvana stuff all day…
Jokes are lethal in that respect; a joke used too often becomes simply what one is. Two examples from my friendship group — used with love and respect in each case — are that one friend used to joke about being a Star Trek fan but eventually wrapped himself in so many components of the ‘Trekkie’ identity that he had to admit openly after a number of years that it simply was ‘what he was’. Another friend spent so long playing the role of the bluff, right-wing traditional conservative that after a few years it was hard to tell the space between the joke and the reality — it had become the default reaction to any conversation or situation which might match that reaction and any humour contained therein had dried up completely.
In the case of Kurt Cobain, “I hate myself and I want to die” became a particular bugbear. The quotation apparently started as a sarcastic response to the negative media coverage regarding his state of mind and apparent nihilism. Having been quoted over and over again being dour, self-critical, unhappy with success — that’s what people expected of him. Kurt’s response was to parody what people seemed to expect of him. The problem was that while ostensibly a joke, the chosen line was bathed in precisely the negative qualities associated with him — sarcasm, verbal passive-aggression — so it failed in its intent, it was too close to reality. Kurt’s conversational defensive approach, wrapping himself in dissatisfaction so that people would try to buoy him up and tell him his work was good or at least so they couldn’t say he hadn’t said it first, simply was who he was — unless there was some magic difference between his feelings as expressed versus his feelings as contained somewhere inside.
Anyways, if you want some fun, in your interactions tomorrow, try to see if you can tell where you’ve responded by rote and when/where/how often you’re reacting with something fresh. It’s kinda fun trying to break free of it, or to at least establish control over the words one uses in the world to represent who and what one is.