Archive for the ‘Incesticide’ Category

Hands down the balance in Nirvana’s relationship was toward the latter by virtue of simple poverty. Books make much of Jack Endino’s shrugged remarks over the song Sappy and Nirvana’s lengthy time spent with it in January 1990 because it was such an exceptional event.

How exceptional? Well, Sappy received four takes, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter three takes, twenty-nine songs received two shots (list? Floyd the Barber, Spank Thru, Sifting, Mr. Moustache, Blew, Paper Cuts, Hairspray Queen, Dive, Polly, In Bloom, Lithium, Stay Away, On a Plain, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, the whole of In Utero barring the aforementioned RFUS plus Serve the Servants, M.V. and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.) In other words, Sappy is double the norm for a Nirvana song — one of only two songs Nirvana ever took more than two visits to pin down.

At first I did also think that, of the songs requiring two takes, songs that Nirvana ultimately used as b-sides (Spank Thru, Dive, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, Sappy, M.V. and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die) were actually over-represented, that maybe there was a correlation between dissatisfaction with a piece and the number of tries the band had at it. That could be reinforced, as an argument, by suggesting that dissatisfaction with All Apologies and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter in January 1991 leads to them being ignored until long after the Nevermind sessions that spring/summer. It would suggest that Kurt Cobain’s preference was for songs that felt right in the moment, that having been honed in rehearsal came together rapidly in studio. Alternatively it would suggest that less practised songs were glued onto sessions as b-side fodder but often lead to frustrating underwhelming tracks needing a second shot regardless. Overall, however, I don’t think there’s enough to that as a suggestion.

What is visible is how few of Nirvana’s studio efforts required significant alteration or honing to give them their final shape. There are differences in attack and approach to pieces, lyrics shift lightly, some songs move tone but of those twenty-nine songs we’re looking at a bare handful that merit mention as substantially different takes.

The core are the shots at Sifting, Mr Moustache and Blew — all three were laid down in summer 1988 simply because the opportunity presented itself to whip up first shots at work in progress. Those three songs are radically different in lyrical approach as formulated on Bleach, Sifting moves from an extended instrumental to curtailed focused grunge song. Dive’s first take stands out for the video footage existing of the song being honed in studio, the band facing one another to take their cues as they’d not practised it so well it was yet together. The difference, however, is basically a minute of extra instrumental work partially accounted for by a slower approach. Lithium lost its acoustic vibe, Token Eastern Song gained added flourishes and jangly guitar in January 1991 while All Apologies was similarly buried in K Records pop territory. Is there much more to say about the duplicate takes? Not unless something revolutionary shows up on the In Utero Deluxe Edition this Autumn.

Again, look to Sappy for the big shifts in muscle and mood across Nirvana’s active years, it tracks the band’s motion so well. And, in terms of ‘missing material’, I think it suggests it’s the non-studio rehearsal sessions and the band’s ‘home work’ that hides any significant redevelopments and growth from first sketch to final piece.

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Credit where it’s due, the Nirvana Live Guide is the most remarkable website. I’ve hunted high and low and there isn’t another band’s fans who have organised such a detailed and impressive reservoir of information on the set-lists, locations and movement of a band.

The early years of Nirvana weren’t exactly awash with money. As late as September 1991 Kurt Cobain appears to have been sleeping in his car for certain periods of time; the Sub Pop contract from 1989 was only going to have offered the band a pittance to split between them, doubling each year but still to a less than liveable wage. The deals put in place in 1991 finally bestowed a decent advance, publication rights and so forth but until that money started to flow this was a hand to mouth existence.

I should qualify, however, that there’s a clear line dividing Nirvana’s career:

House-Dorm Parties 1987-1994

In 1987-1988 a third and then a quarter of Nirvana’s shows were house parties or in college dorms; this proportion may tail off significantly but as late as 1991 the band, on the verge of worldwide triumph, still plays a local dorm party. Imagine that, Nirvana in your living room.

The early high percentage of shows taking place in peoples’ homes and college facilities simply shows a band, just starting out, needing to take whatever they can get. This wasn’t a band who could refuse shows, it wasn’t a band making vast money performing. This was subsistence musicianship, a band scrabbling for beer money, for any kind of audience. The glory years of Nirvana’s career were 1990-1991 but even then, paying a few dues, getting some casual stage time seems to have appealed. Post-1992 they left it all behind and became what most would think of as a purely professional outfit.

There’s an undeniable appeal of the underdogs, the underrated, the overlooked — when everyone is saying “its brilliant” then joining in may be an aid to social bonding, may make one feel part of the ‘pack’, but it doesn’t salve the desire to separate and distinguish oneself. Certainly I’ll admit that played a part in my curiosity regarding Incesticide — everyone knows Bleach, knows Nevermind, knows In Utero pretty darn well. Talking about what was less spoken of seemed more interesting and valuable to me, as a fan and as someone who prefers not to regurgitate others’ work.

The result of writing Dark Slivers has been that an awful lot of very cool people have been in touch sharing stories, songs, new materials — it’s been a really good experience. One part of what they share has been unusual pieces of Incesticide memorabilia, my favourite two here:

Incesticide_poster

The poster above came up for sale on eBay, an original 1992 promo poster for the album — there can’t be many of them about. It’s crucial feature is of course the enhanced detail of the image, the lower flower I’ve rarely paid much eye to, the withered hand with the seaweed tendril fingers…Oh, and see that in the bottom corner? Kurt Cobain’s signature on the original artwork. That’s a feature not present on the album cover, cut out — this is the only time I’ve seen it restored to place and emphasises to me, once again, that Kurt Cobain took a personal interest in the ‘wrapping’ of the compilation.

The second piece is yet another promo poster, this time with a different angle:

Incesticide_ad

It’s hilarious that Kurt Cobain’s comments on these songs, often sarcastic, self-depreciating and rude about his own creations was chosen for an advertisement in support of the album. How many adverts do you see with the word “masturbatory” featured?

A month or so back Brett R. raised a point of which I confess I’d been utterly unaware; that the same year that Nirvana released Incesticide, JG Thirwell (A.K.A. Foetus) had curated a compilation called Mesomorph Enduros and contributed a song called…Incesticide.

Naturally, having written a book wrapped around the Incesticide album it was a jolt, in the most pleasant sense, to receive a question I hadn’t even known existed; did Kurt Cobain invent the title of Incesticide or was it a phrase fortuitously delivered into his hands? It’s a tricky question to find certainty on given Mr. Cobain’s absence, so I thought I’d take the direct path and simply try and ask Mr. Thirwell his thoughts. He very kindly responded:

JG Thirwell_7 Feb 2013_Incesticide

Sure you can read it but the core piece reads “I already had the title Incesticide before the Nirvana album came out — I just thought it up, but I think it isn’t so strange that two people would think of that play on the word. I didn’t assume that he stole it from me, I just thought it was a coincidence (despite the fact that our mutual pals the Melvins and Jesus Lizard are on the Mesomorph Enduros compilation, which I curated.) I don’t remember what month that album came out.” To summarise further therefore, yes, JG Thirwell had the word already…But though an intriguing coincidence there’s still no clue whether Kurt Cobain, or someone associated with the Nirvana release, appropriated the title or not.
Let’s make the case for it being Kurt Cobain’s own invention then argue the counter-factual. Firstly, the title is a very Cobainesque phrase, whimsical word play was a fairly regular amusement for the man concerned, check his Journals (i.e., “Billbored…Bowling Stoned…”) for other examples. Similarly hygiene/disinfectant imagery wasn’t uncommon (Bleach, Incesticide/Insecticide, “kept his body clean”, Stain, Beeswax) while the dysfunctional family vibe had a recurrent presence. On top of that, the title fitted perfectly as the title of Nirvana’s family of orphaned songs and as his sarcastic Christmas gift to the masses (See https://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/11/13/incesticide-kurt-cobain-gives-a-christmas-present/.) All these points support JG Thirwell’s surmising that it’s just one of life’s coincidences.

On the other hand, it’s an unusual coincidence, a very specific one too — two releases both given an obscure pun on Insecticide in the same six month period. JG Thirwell’s song was certainly out prior to the Nirvana release as he states clearly. Similarly, the fact that both Melvins and The Jesus Lizard were involved, at precisely the time that Nirvana were conversing with The Jesus Lizard about doing a split single, has a nagging quality yet, again, it doesn’t come with anything approaching proof of a connection. In some ways I’m pleased if Kurt Cobain did actively think “yes! That title is what I need here,” rather than just splurging something down onto paper on a whim one evening in a hotel suite. It would indicate a moment of inspiration, a word he deemed perfect and appealing for what he had in mind.

What makes it all most tricky is that Mesomorph Enduros was a U.K. release at the time — despite Nirvana’s brief visitation to the U.K. in August there’s no indication if record shopping played much part in the trip, there’s no indication at all Kurt had a copy. Similarly, tightening the noose, the compilation was dedicated in memory of Charlie Ondras, founder of and drummer with the band Unsane, who died on June 22, 1992 of a heroin overdose meaning the compilation couldn’t have been released until July/August at the earliest. Nirvana meanwhile sent out the initial press copies of Incesticide around November 11, 1992 (according to Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna’s rather excellent Kurt Cobain: The Nirvana Years) but there’s no indication if the release was still under its working titles (Filler, Throwaways.)
Plus, I get stuck on the point about open theft. Melody Maker’s report dated August 15, 1992 is readily available explaining Killing Joke had just decided to sue Nirvana for, allegedly, stealing part of their song Eighties for Come as you Are. Borrowing a name isn’t in the same category but I could still probably accept a subconscious theft more than a deliberate one; unless there was an element of tribute about it, a tipping of the hat in the same way as “daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more” is so blatant it seems more a cheeky wink than a steal from Mudhoney.

So, yes, I’ll stop speculating. Where we remain is that though Nirvana were looking up songs for what became Incesticide from summer 1992, there’s no way of knowing when they chose the title unless Dave or Krist are forthcoming on the subject. Similarly, there’s no way of seeing what made that title the final selection, or when. Isn’t it nice not have the world locked down and filed away neatly…?

Kurt Cobain's Homes_1967-1994

A pause to give credit where it’s due, http://www.shapedbox.blogspot.co.uk featured an excellent range of photos of the houses and I have used a number of them for the collage above. Credit for the Pear Street photo must go to Diamond Brooke and her Flickr feed – again, worth a look for Nirvana fans.

Over the past two days we’ve been dividing Kurt Cobain’s life down into time spent in specific ‘homes’. Naturally I accept that a lot of what I do on this site is simply aggregate existing data but I’m often stunned by the picture that results simply by loading data into a single view.

My reasons for compiling the data, initially, was that I wanted to attempt (as best as possible) to correlate Kurt Cobain’s song-writing to where he was while writing. In the kind of coincidence to gladden the heart of any data chimp (a friend once bought me a t-shirt reading “I love data” repeated over and over — thanks Shane!) the picture that emerges is remarkably clear.

To the best of my ability, in the Over the Edge chapter of Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide, I’ve tried to pin down, to periods of six months, roughly when Kurt Cobain wrote various songs. The approximate result is as follows:

Songs by Half Year

I’ve not included the Fecal Matter songs (e.g., Spank Thru or Downer), nor have I included Kurt Cobain’s solo experiments (i.e., Montage of Heck) simply because it’s hard to pin down when they were made with any degree of guesswork. The only changes I’ve made since the book are to include Opinion in 1H 1990 and shift Tourette’s to 2H 1989. When compared to Kurt Cobain’s living arrangements, however the results are emphatic:

Songs by Home_Figure

While money may still have been hard to come by during the years Kurt Cobain spent in Olympia, it truly was his artistic home. Given how long he spent in that location it’s no surprise that he wrote more songs there but the sheer quantity is overwhelming:

Songs by Home_%

Dividing the figures by time spent in the location doesn’t alter that picture of dominance:

Songs by Home_Per Month

While making clear that Kurt Cobain’s peak occurred in Olympia, there is some fudging involved that I can only acknowledge but do not have sufficient information to fix. If I could untangle Kurt Cobain’s living arrangements from January 1992 until January 1994, it wouldn’t erase the overall picture but it would make clearer whether, for example, the Carnation house permitted a real focus on writing or whether most of the work was done while running around hotels and temporary accommodation with Courtney. Similarly, the two songs written in the second half of 1992, I’ve noted as Curmudgeon and Talk to Me (based on live data) but Curmudgeon at least might more properly belong earlier in 1991, I can’t prove it. The dominance of the Olympia spell may be even more pronounced given Kurt moved there in April 1987 so my estimates, based on six month periods, don’t correspond perfectly — 114 ½ Pear Street may filch a song or two from the previous eight months spent in the Melvins’ practice space and at 1000 ½ E. Second Street.

The first spell of relative stability Kurt Cobain had enjoyed since he was a child seemed to allow him the space and time to write and create. Tracy’s willingness to support him also meant he didn’t have to divide his time quite so much between work and music — though she, very reasonably, came to resent him sponging off her it did have a beneficial effect on his core pursuit. Similarly it can’t be underestimated that Krist Novoselic provided Kurt a steady and dependable musical collaborator reducing the impact of changing drummers so often and ensuring ideas could be turned into full work relatively swiftly. Kurt was surrounded by beneficial circumstances thanks in large part to the individuals he could now rely on.

My ultimate thought on the ‘meaning’ of all this information is that the place of greatest veneration for any Nirvana fan shouldn’t be the house at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East. The place where the majority of Nirvana’s music was created, where Kurt Cobain truly lived as a creative soul, was at the unassuming and unglamorous property at 114 ½ Pear Street, Olympia between April 1987 and July 1991. To my mind, celebrating the place that gave the safe cocoon needed to build something is of far more importance and significance than the barely lived in site where he chose to tear everything down.

Yesterday we examined the record of Kurt Cobain’s childhood wanderings, how he was shunted from home to home throughout his teens. Finally relative stability arrived in the form of his first long-term relationship with Tracy Marander and a resulting departure from Aberdeen. That single residence on Pear Street in Olympia ended up being his home for just over four years, the longest he’d been in one place since he was nine years old though the couple did change flats within that building and Tracy did move out to be replaced as flatmate by Dave Grohl.

Returning home in the aftermath of the recording of Nevermind, the move to a major label, standing on the cusp of his true fame Kurt managed to get himself thrown out for not paying the rent. That was the end of the stable spell of life. It’s genuinely fascinating realising that the rock star who ruled planet Earth for that spell in the early nineties didn’t have a home from July 1991 until January 1992; imagine it, the biggest rock star on the planet as living in his car.

Even after that, there was still nothing close to a home. Kurt Cobain — now with wife in tow — bounced between rented apartments, tour hotels and hotels in LA and Seattle right through until spring of 1993. Even with all the money now floating around him, it doesn’t cease being the case that he was essentially homeless. At least this time there were comprehensible reasons, the Cobains were trying to purchase a home but there was little time in between tours, festivals, recording, battles with the authorities over custody of their child and major drug problems. In the chart below I haven’t calculated the spells spent in a number of rehab facilities:

KC_Homes_1987-1994

It’s curious, having arbitrarily made the start of Nirvana and of Kurt’s relationship with Tracy the dividing line between his youth and adulthood, that the pattern is much the same as his childhood with the stable period being superseded by yet another spell, this time of three years from age twenty four until his death, during which he lived in six definite locations and a slew of temporary accommodation.

One link (www.city-data.com/king-county/N/NE-78th-Street-1.html) has conveniently placed the sales record and other details of the Carnation home online:

Carnation

It’s an intriguing property because, despite the understandable attention paid to the site of Kurt Cobain’s death, it was the Carnation property that was the first home he owned and that was retained throughout the maelstrom of mid-1992 through 1993. It’s also mysterious because it’s impossible to tell how much time Kurt Cobain actually spent living at the house or why it seemed to be less than wholly beloved. For whatever reason retreating to a country village, one with a population of just 1,243 in the 1990 census, where Wikipedia lists the local activities available as “Harvold Berry Farm where you can pick your own berries in the summer”, doesn’t seem to have worked regardless of whether the idea was to evade drugs or intrusion in general. There is a rumour Kurt returned to the home sometime in early April having fled rehab.

Working out the estimated dates of accommodation also throw Cobain’s relationship with his place of death into the spotlight. The Cobains moved into the Lake Washington house in January 1994. Nirvana toured until January 8. Kurt joined the band for their final studio session on Jan 30 then they left on tour two days later. He was in Europe until March 12 when he was definitely home given the Police were called to a domestic incident that night and again on March 18. He headed into rehab on March 30 returned home around April 3. At most Kurt Cobain lived in that house for three weeks in January, then just over two weeks in March.

Observing his entire life, ranking locations, what emerges is as follows:

KC_Top Living Locations_1967-1994

Of the 25 ‘phases’ identified, only five added up to more than a single year. Worse, of the years spent in solid locations, 13 ½ of those years took place from the age of less than one to only just fifteen years old. The remaining half of Kurt Cobain’s life, his entire rise to young adulthood, involved only the briefest of respites in which he had something that could be called a home.

Twenty five years ago today, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dale Crover entered the studio with Jack Endino and recorded five of the songs that would end up on Incesticide.

Back last year I asked Jack Endino if, when listening to the songs he worked on that made it onto Incesticide, whether there were any moments that gave him a particular pride and he replied: “No. None of them were recorded or mixed with any time spent (due to budget), plus I had only been working as a recording engineer for three years at that point. The songs with Dale drumming were all mixed in a total of two hours… ten songs on the original 1/23/88 demo, do the math. It would have been nice to remix them with some care taken.” It’s interesting to me that I’ve listened to these songs for some eighteen years now and never had any complaint regarding the sound quality or its features, yet, to the ear of a trained recording engineer, it felt less satisfactory – maybe sometimes less sonic knowledge is aural bliss.

The stories regarding this first studio session are well known; Nirvana recorded at speed, just six hours or so of work, instrumental versions done first, then Kurt’s vocals, mixing done within two hours, out the door. The session was paid for from Kurt’s wages as a janitor hence the fade-ending to the song Pen Cap Chew because “the multitrack master tape ran out just at the start of the second chorus, and the band didn’t want to buy another reel, so more correctly the song is “permanently incomplete”, not “unfinished”. You can’t finish it when a third of the song is missing. I did the fade ending for the hell of it, just so they could listen to what was there less jarringly.” That same night the band played all the songs from the studio session in the precise same order with two more songs tacked on the end.

This is what intrigues me, the guesses that can be made based on the band’s behaviour. LiveNirvana contains a ‘set-list’ for one practice session prior to the January 23, 1988 studio visit and suggests there were two more preparatory sessions. The band knew before they arrived in studio that they needed to move quick; the banged through the instrumentals then Kurt did his vocals one after the other in just one take; that evening, having driven umpteen miles to a performance, they then ran through all the songs in precisely the same order. It suggests to me that between the January 3 practice and the January 23 session, the band actually planned out a clear order of what they were going to play and practiced it ensuring they could act smoothly in studio and explaining why they duplicated the studio running order that evening. The extrapolation that can be made from this is that one of the preceding practice sessions, if a recording ever turns up, should have the same (or a close) order. As a touch of support to this, in March when Dave Foster joins the band, the set list has curious similarities:

Set Lists Jan-Mar 1988

The top line is the January 23, 1988 performance – the bottom line and a bit is March 19, 1988. Note immediately that despite a change of drummer and a gap of three months the only changes to the opening five songs are Love Buzz has supplanted If You Must as the opener and Papercuts and Spank Thru swap fourth and fifth place. The next disconnect is interesting too; the next song in March was Hairspray Queen. On January 23, though the next full song played was Aero Zeppelin, in fact Nirvana attempted Hairspray Queen and stopped due to a broken string – if not for that accident of fate, the same song would have been in sixth place both nights. The next point of comparison is to look at Beeswax, Mexican Seafood, Aero Zeppelin and Pen Cap Chew as a unit – in January the broken string meant the band shunted that unit up by one song, in March they play those same four songs together, with Hairspray Queen back in place, with If You Must dropped in beforehand having been shoved out of its starting position. The only other change is that Beeswax and Aero Zeppelin have swapped positions. Now the band bring in the new songs; Big Cheese replaces Annorexorcist, Blew is squeezed into the longer set…But the ending is still pre-determined; Erectum is the big set closer with whatever jams and covers the band feel like shoved on the end (the band play Bad Moon Rising at the end in March.)

From the coincidences surrounding January 23, 1988 it’s therefore possible to extrapolate the decisions taken by the band before that date; to suggest a likely set-list for at least one practice prior to the session; to suggest that Kurt and Krist taught Dave Foster this specific set-list in practice after that date; and to suggest a likely set-list for the only other show the band played between January 23 and March 19.

As my tribute to Nirvana’s first studio session I thought I’d simply show how an event taking place so long ago could still inspire thought and consideration today. Happy twenty-fifth!