Once music has become "historic", the temptation is to suspend it in amber, press it between Perspex, treat it with the kind of reverence usually reserved for papal edicts. While it's certainly difficult to think about Nirvana without taking a deep, portentous breath, they've never quite been subsumed into the world of the academic retrospective. Not only has this whole messy odyssey never reached "closure" - the lawsuit that brought this long-awaited compilation into existence proves that - but the music itself has remained a flourishing concern. You only have to look round any shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon to realise that Nirvana have not yet been caught on the inter-generational cattle-grid of fashion, that even music fans who were digging Big Bird in 1991 have learned to love 'Nevermind' and the associated merchandise.
Of course, this compilation alone can never fully explain their lasting success. Kurt Cobain has spent longer in the public eye as a frozen, kohl-eyed icon than a living breathing rock'n'roll star, while the grim soap-opera that surrounded him has never lost its prurient allure. Yet it's testament to the ferocious imperative of these songs that they should remain so complete, so undamaged. Purists might complain that this compilation sanitises Nirvana, scrapes off all the perverse sludge and punk-rock slime that fed their poppier moments and sure enough, there's no 'Territorial Pissings', no 'Scentless Apprentice', only one track from 'Bleach' (the relatively steady 'About A Girl'). This record very much represents "Nirvana the rock stars" as opposed to "Nirvana the underground band". But complaining about that is like claiming you preferred Neil Armstrong's early stuff: the reason Kurt, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic become stars was because they hit a universal nerve. Drearily, it's possible to put it down to timing - college rock hit an impasse, Morrissey was over, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies and Sonic Youth had reached cult critical mass - something had to boil over into the mainstream. Listen to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' though, and it seems far more fitting to put the subsequent explosion down to the glories of chaos theory than a miserable gap in the market.
This unique impetus is never more apparent than in the "new" song 'You Know You're Right'. Obviously, it sounds like Nirvana, yet even after all those years of imitators and marketing stupidity, all that time where familiarity should have bred contempt, this white-knuckle catharsis still sounds as strange and individual as it might have in 1994. The Vines or, God forbid, Puddle Of Mudd, might "sound like Nirvana", but they don't, not really, not any more than Oasis really sound like The Beatles.
Following 'You Know You're Right' is a chronological countdown; 'Sliver' and 'Been A Son' from 'Incesticide' are followed by most of side one of 'Nevermind'. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' should evoke nothing more than dancing goth cheerleaders and a surfeit of MTV flashbacks, but it's still the alt-rock nation's Star Spangled Banner, while 'Come As You Are', 'Lithium' and 'In Bloom' prove that the first side of 'Nevermind' could match the first side of any record in history. It's all here: the rejection of Wonderbread masculinity in 'In Bloom'; the classic rock alienation of 'Teen Spirit' and 'Lithium' cryptically recast for Generation X; 'Come As You Are' exemplifying Cobain's disembodied symbolism.
That's the past dealt with. Even more than 'You Know You're Right', however, it's the tracks from 'In Utero' that signpost a lost future. 'Rape Me' and 'Heart-Shaped Box' are fine songs but it's the crumpled beauty of 'All Apologies' that really stretches the dynamic, particularly when combined with the terrifying 'Unplugged' version of 'The Man Who Sold The World' buckling under Cobain's tortured double meanings. Whatever this was, it wasn't "grunge".
It's a fine compilation, a jolt of recognition and a touching affirmation that even something that has been sold and sold and sold again can endure. Sure, it's not closure, but nor should it be.
1-You Know Youre Right | 2-About A Girl | 3-Been A Son | 4-Sliver | 5-Smells Like Teen Spirit | 6-Come As You Are | 7-Lithium | 8-In Bloom | 9-Heart Shaped Box | 10-Pennyroyal Tea | 11-Rape Me | 12-Dumb | 13-All Apologies | 14-The Man Who Sold The World
1-You Know Youre Right | 2-About A Girl | 3-Been A Son | 4-Sliver | 5-Smells Like Teen Spirit | 6-Come As You Are | 7-Lithium | 8-In Bloom | 9-Heart Shaped Box | 10-Pennyroyal Tea | 11-Rape Me | 12-Dumb | 13-All Apologies | 14-The Man Who Sold The World | 15-Where Did You Sleep Last Night
1-You Know Youre Right | 2-About A Girl | 3-Been A Son | 4-Sliver | 5-Smells Like Teen Spirit | 6-Come As You Are | 7-Lithium | 8-In Bloom | 9-Heart Shaped Box | 10-Pennyroyal Tea | 11-Rape Me | 12-Dumb | 13-All Apologies | 14-The Man Who Sold The World | 15-Something In The Way | 16-Where Did You Sleep Last Night
YOU KNOW YOURE RIGHT
Audio (small) | Audio (big)
YOUVE GOT NO RIGHT
On Sunday, January 30, 1994, Kurt Cobain walked into Robert Lang Studios in northern Seattle and recorded the first song on this album. It would be Kurt’s final session with Nirvana, and he made it count. He was also late. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had been at Lang’s for two days: waiting for Kurt, using the time to fill the tape with some of Dave’s songs. But when Kurt finally rolled up on the third day, with no particular explanation, the real work was done in minutes.
Nirvana had already performed “You Know You’re Right” in concert - on October 23, 1993, at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago – and fired it around in soundchecks that fall, under different names (“Autopilot”, “On A Mountain”), with touring guitarist Pat Smear. Strangely, two nights after the Aragon show, Kurt practically denied even writing the song. “I don’t have any new songs right now”, he told me. “I have absolutely nothing left. I’m starting from scratch for the first time. I don’t know what we’re going to do.” That Sunday at Lang’s was Kurt’s first formal recording date with Nirvana in nearly a year, since the In Utero sessions with Steve Albini in February of ’93. The band played all day but finished only this one song.
It was enough, Kurt, Krist and Dave connected with a fierce telepathy, tearing through “You Know You’re Right” in one live take. Kurt then put down a few vocal tracks and a little extra guitar. There was no need for more. “You Know You’re Right” was a perfect storm, consummated with prophetic urgency and –although it seems crazy and cruel to say it now – something that sounds a lot like joy, the kind you get when a band has its whipped-raw back to the wall but plenty of fuck you left, ready to fly. You could drown in the black rains of distortion and sarcasm: “Things have never been so swell/And I have never been so well.” We know now that everything was wrong and getting worse. But you can live in this noise too: Kurt’s prayer-bell harmonics, plucked from behind the bridge of his guitar in monastery echo; in the spears of feedback and the saving blaze of the chorus, where Kurt belts and holds the single word pain in one long murderous breathe; in the brotherly lock of Krist’s marching bass and Dave’s fighting drums; and in the diamond-hard melodies that always cut through the chaos.
To Kurt, music was shelter, because he never enjoyed or truly knew any other kind as a child, raised in a broken home, and an isolated uprooted teenager. On Nirvana’s 1990 Sub Pop single “Sliver”, he turned a mundane slice of boyhood – getting dropped off with his grandparents for a night of mashed potatoes and television – into searing flashback, acute memories of desertion intensified by the mounting tensions in Kurt’s vocals: the grainy double harmonics; the way he jumps into a higher strained register. Even as a star, Kurt never made peace with the material rewards that hit him like a ton of bricks. “If there was a Rock Star 101 course, I would have liked to take it,” he said that night in Chicago, “It might have helped me.”
Kurt recognized the power of myth, of a juicy twisted truth: He long claimed that he really lived for a time under the bridge in the first line of “Something In The Way” on Nevermind. But Kurt slept in abandoned buildings and on a long line of couches, in Aberdeen and Olympia, Washington, on his way to Nirvana. “His thing was, build your own world,” Krist once said of Kurt. “Whenever he lived, he’d have all this stuff on the walls, drawings or music he had collected.” The floods of impulse – lyrics, letters, artwork – that he poured into his journals; the songs he wrote to put on records; the shows and tour-van rides; those three-and-a-half minutes of “You Know You’re Right” at the end of January, 1994 – for Kurt, that was home.
The absolute magic and democracy of rock & roll is that anyone with a good hook and a fighting heart can change the world overnight. Kurt did it twice: on September 24, 1991, the day Nevermind, Nirvana’s second album, went on sale and loudly announced that Michael Jackson was toast and rock was a weapon again; and on April 8, 1994, when Kurt’s body was found, dead by his own hand, in a room over his garage in Seattle. The gaping hole he left in the belief the rock & roll saves lives is still there. So is the fear of going all the way that has paralyzed so much of the music ever since.
But this record is about what happened before, and between, the turning points. It tells us how Kurt was reborn, and bloomed, inside his writing and singing. And it makes brutally, brilliantly clear how Kurt and Krist – bounded since high school in Aberdeen – and Ohio-born Dave, a D.C.-hardcore veteran who joined on the eve on Nevermind, made the music a living thing, along with those who passed through the early bedlam: guitarist Jason Everman; drummers, Aaron Burckhard, Chad Channing, Dale Crover of the Melvins and Mudhoney’s Dan Peters. “All the albums I ever liked,” Kurt said, “were albums that delivered a great song, one after another: Aerosmith’s ROCKS, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks …, Led Zeppelin II, Back In Black by AC/DC.” That’s exactly what you get on Nirvana.
Rightly, the last great song Kurt wrote is followed here by the first. “About A Girl,” track three on Nirvana’s 1989 debut album, Bleach, is a conflicted love song draped in spidery jangle and hung on a bewitching see-saw melody, invented one night after Kurt spent hours listening nonstop to Meet The Beatles! Kurt later complained that Nirvana had not done enough with the power of quiet, that he’d waited too long – until “Dumb” and “All Apologies” on In Utero – to show how much he loved and learned from the Beatles and R.E.M.. But in the Clean swing of “About A Girl” and the Gregorian-garage spell of Kurt’s double-tracked singing, with that extra haunted vocal floating just over his shoulder, Nirvana proved that punk and grunge were very small words for the pop in Kurt’s head. The amazing thing about these songs, and the recordings, is the force of subversive detail, especially on Nevermind: the tidal crash of Dave’s tom-tom roll at the front of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the literal sound of a revolution at birth: Krist’s watery bass intro to “Come As You Are” and the way Kurt reconfigures the word memory with a long Spanish sigh at the end, as if hypnotized by need; the whiplash contrast in “Lithium” between Dave’s jazzy restraint in the verses (tingling cymbal, the one-two doorknock of the kick drum) and the power-trio avalanche in the chorus. Kurt transcribed the uproar of his life into words and music with care, often over time. Song titles changed; the meat of an arrangement could turn from one rehearsal to the next. Krist remembered first playing “In Bloom” at practices, “like a Bad Brains song. But Kurt went home and he hammered it.” When Kurt was done, he called Krist and played the song over the phone. The nuclear sugar inside had come out.
Success made Kurt distrust that gift. He responded with In Utero: made at breakneck speed with Albini, the king of live fuzz-box verite. Nirvana cut the album in two weeks; Kurt sang most of his vocals in a day, in one seven-hour stretch. But the haste bothered him. “Heart-Shaped Box” was given to R.E.M. producer Scott Litt for a remix. Even after the album was released in September 1993, as Nirvana played the new songs on tour, Kurt openly spoke of his disappointment: “Definitely “Pennyroyal Tea” – that was not recorded right… I know that’s a strong song, a hit single.” Litt remixed “Pennyroyal Tea” for a 1994 release, but Kurt’s death ended all promotion for the album, and the single was cancelled. Eight years later, Litt’s treatment is finally on record, and we can hear “Pennyroyal Tea” the way Kurt wanted to hear it.
Kurt also felt that, with In Utero, he had worn out the soft/loud dynamic in his writing, gutting it of all worth and fun. He was wrong. “Heart-Shaped Box” is an explosive tangle of devotion and exhaustion: the heart and worry jammed into the sharp sudden shout, “hey! Wait!”; the raw hopeful arc of Kurt’s guitar break. In “Rape Me,” the jolt from droning surrender in the verses to the full-throttle violation in the chorus comes with a cleansing defiance. And it’s worth noting that “Dumb” was first recorded as an electric-trio whisper for the BBC in the fall of ’91 before Nirvana-mania. Here, with the combined melancholy of cello and Kurt’s vocal harmonies, the song carries the added weight of those two years with a cracked-leather- grace. “I think I’m dumb, maybe just happy”: Kurt was never the former, still aching for the latter.
A confession: I did not watch the original broadcast of Nirvana’s performance on MTV Unplugged. I have never seen it on video. I don’t need to. I was there, at the Sony Studios in New York on November 18, 1993, and I keep that hour in my head, with a clarity unspoiled by jumping camera angles and commercial breaks: the garlands and candlelight, the hushed strength of Krist, Dave, Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldstein; the hint of dare in the way Kurt opened the show with “About A Girl” (“This is off our first album. Most people don’t own it.”) and how “All Apologies,” near the end, affirmed that early promise. And I recall my own gasp of recognition when I heard the slithering-cobra guitar of “The Man Who Sold The World,” David Bowie’s 1970 reverie on power, celebrity and death. “I guarantee you, I will screw this up,” Kurt said. But he slipped into Bowie’s silken ambiguity – and the unmistakable parallels to his own life - like second skin. Kurt did not sound bummed or bitter, just painfully wise, willing to laugh at himself and comfortable in a good song.
“It’s easy to remember him being sad,” Dave told me last year. “But the things that I like to think about are his happiness, and how much he loved music, whether is was sitting in a living room and playing an acoustic guitar, or playing at the Off Ramp in Seattle. He really, really loved creating music.”
This is the world Kurt built for himself, when the real world was not enough. Listen again if you think you know it; listen loud if you don’t know it yet.
Then build you own.
New York City
Smells Like Teen Spirit
You Know Youre Right