“School”

•July 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The fourth track on Bleach is “School,” a song well-loved by fans of the band.  In particular for its identity as a live performance piece, taking unique shape that is only suggested on Bleach.

In fact, for many used to hearing any live versions, traveling back to the original source material finds it joltingly… slow.  The song was initially presented as being more heavy than buoyant, and in this context is, like much of Bleach, a lost stoner-rock classic (which I’ll get to again later).  Simplicity, as always, carries the day, but especially so here, as Cobain shows truly staggering ability to boil his work down to such concise and potent statements.  There are fifteen words in the song.  The verse is a thumping alternation between two notes.

But of course, there’s more.  The verses are tight, snapping patterns of two big, fat distorted notes, with the rhythm section following in step.  This is where we hear the “Won’t you believe it?/ it’s just my luck” repeated.  By the time the break comes, the drums suddenly fall out of step, the guitar opens up into chords and follows suit and the song pings along until whipped back into march by the verse again.

The solo two-thirds of the way through is one of the quintessential Cobain noise-hives: over the verse part from the bass, liberal skronk and a similar approach nearly every time–they were finely tuned little machines.  Individual little “licks” that have beginnings and ends and consist of a framework from which he would mostly improvise with and create noise.  Pretty shockingly effective.

The solo on Bleach is, for instance, the cleanest, and largely the guidebook he’d work from in all other iterations.  It leads into a rhythm-only breakdown with Cobain chanting “you’re in high school again…” as a build-up of the type of quiet-loud dynamics that Nirvana came back to so often.

Of course, the dynamic used here and in conjunction with a title/ subject such as “School” sort of begs to be noticed.  Cobain’s affection for twee and the K Records/ Calvin Johnson/ Jad Fair aesthetic is well-documented.  He was fascinated by childhood, and the quietquietquietLOUD!! concept is, actually, a common trope of children’s music.  In many ways Cobain was capable of creating what seemed like solace for people by presenting what seems like a whirlwind of chaos, but maybe what was so alluring about the presentation is how he was able to present the whirling chaos of life in childlike ways.  Descriptors of his “voice”–direct, simple, concise, honest, authentic–are all ways we think of the perspective of children.  His juxtaposing the child-like elements of his word-choice, repetition and loud/quiet dynamics with the volume, distortion, speed and singing style, it makes for a very tense whole.

The tinge of sadness, of course, comes from his always acknowledging that he’s not living in both worlds, he’s in the chaotic one, resurrecting the loud/quiet one.  You’re in high school again.  No recess.

“School” has appeared, thus far, on four official Nirvana releases: Bleach, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, Live at Reading, Live at the Pine St. Theater.  This is where we mention the inevitable–Chad Channing was undeniably the wrong drummer for this band, and Dave Grohl was absolutely one of the major factors in Nirvana’s success.

The drumming on “School” as it appears on Bleach and Live at the Pine St. Theater (a show from 1990 featuring Chad on drums offered as a bonus disc on the 2009 Bleach reissue) is slower than it should be–one of the first things Grohl added to the performance of the song was moving it a tick faster–it brings the chorus down on your head much harder and brings the big payoff from bridge/ back to chorus a real adrenaline rush.  Chad’s work on Pine St., particularly on “School” is sloppy–coming back from the “You’re in high school again” part, he flubs the Big Moment: when Grohl does it we hear a perfectly executed drum fill where the beat is dialed back in a short frame of time.  Not hitting this part robs the shift in dynamic of its power; on Pine St. it’s painful, on Bleach it’s only imperfect–the rumble under the rhythm breakdown is too chaotic, and the drum roll is still stealing the dynamic’s thunder.  Grohl on Live at Reading is exactly how it’s supposed to be played: tight, clean, devastating.

Because really, that is a large part of the potion–the dynamics.  “School” marches along and succeeds on the precision of the rhythm in the verse set against the expansion in the chords and bouncier beat in the chorus.  When Grohl came aboard the band started humming along like a Swiss watch, which was the exact backdrop Cobain’s songs needed.  Grohl was the addition that took the efficiency of the songs and maximized them.

Which is why, I think, a lot of descriptions of Chad’s exit are vague–by all accounts a great guy, and obviously a talented drummer.  The problem was that he was the exact wrong drummer for that band and their sound.

Which, at the time, was hard to pin down.  They were every bit the band (and increasingly moreso in the months following Bleach‘s release) of “About a Girl,” but also of “Mexican Seafood”–both of which give credence to the idea that a lot of the sound on Bleach was Cobain writing to an audience.  I think it’s fair to say that Cobain held on to the songs he felt strongest about in live sets as the band moved on from the sound of Bleach–that “School” is one of them suggests that it represented something above and beyond the pirated grunge he saw in, say, “Sifting.”

Along with “Love Buzz,” “Blew,” and “Negative Creep,” “School” represents a very strong example of what bands like Kyuss, Sleep, High on Fire and even Queens of the Stone Age ended up with in stoner rock.  “Negative Creep” sounds a lot like Kyuss’ classic “Greenmachine” and “Love Buzz” is a cover of a band (Shocking Blue) ideal for stoner rock inspiration: heavy, melodic, garage rock with psychedelic rock type sound (by stoner rock I mean the “official” genre applied by rock critics, not anything that would feel like it could fall under such a generous umbrella, which Shocking Blue would).  Later in the year the band would create a video for “In Bloom” as a single for Sub Pop (never officially used, of course), which showcased what looks like weed-smoke flowing from Kurt’s mouth and performing a much “greener” version of the song.  Stoner rock never really took over the world or anything, but as a sort of micro-stage in Cobain’s output, it is worth mentioning.

There’s a lot of Nirvana packed into this song–it’s heavy, it’s simple, it’s catchy, it’s noisy, it’s fast, it’s slow, it’s quiet, it’s loud.  It survived through their live career at a great majority of their shows, and for a reason.  It kicks off From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah and is the easy standout on the album.

“About a Girl”

•May 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Think back to June of 1989.  Let’s say you’ve just picked up a copy of the new LP from this young band on Sub Pop.  It’s called Bleach, and apparently it’s coming out of that fuzzy growl starting to gather steam in the Pacific Northwest, which you read about in Melody Maker– and Mudhoney had that unbelievable single come out just last year.  You have few pre-conceived notions of this band, outside possibly a live show or two you’ve seen, and that weird single they’d released with the punky version of that old hippie song.  But let’s be honest- it’s going to be heavy, and these guys are probably big Stooges fans.  A lot of this is like a genre film- they’re fun, loose, heavy rock and roll songs, but what made it appealing was the immediacy and the very specific set of acknowledged common tastes.  My War.  Masters of Reality.  Vincebus Eruptum.  Reign in Blood.

The cover is a mess of black and white- greasy hair and sweat flying (taken at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ).  The first two songs are leaden, heavy, proto rock bits that are genuinely catchy, and very heavy in places.  This is a fun record.  Almost like Kill ‘Em All, but with more weed, you think.  Then, third song kicks on, and it’s this trebly jangle, an almost fey (at least relatively speaking) pop song rubbing elbows with the Sabbath/ MC5 hybrids coming before (and then after) it!  You double check the cover.  Wow, you think.  This is fucking incredible.  Maybe Nirvana will never have a song as perfect, but the band that recorded “Touch Me I’m Sick” would never, ever go here.

A lot of back-patting goes on, in retrsopect, when Nirvana biographers confront “About a Girl,” the third song from their debut album Bleach. I’m having a difficult time not doing the same.  This song is a legitimate pop masterpiece, a compelling mix of the Beatles, REM, the Pixies and even whiffs of Leadbelly (who we know he was beginning to listen to around this time).  What’s staggering about the song even after all these years is not just the jarring sonic direction it signals for such a young band set against the rest of their material and that of their peers, but also the remarkably mature and unique lyrical content present in the first love song written by this 22 year old guy right out of the gate.  At the end of the day, there are very few Nirvana songs this great, this visceral, this perfectly crafted.

There are a number of stories attached to this song, but the most significant one is the most famous.  The legend holds that Cobain stayed up all night listening to Meet the Beatles before writing the song in a furious rush (at the sly, hinting behest of his then-girlfriend, Tracy Marander).  It’s worth looking at MtB, then, with “About a Girl” in mind.  Like so many Nirvana stories, the chances that it happened like we’ve heard aren’t very good.  The one thing we know, however, is that the Beatles link was essential to Cobain as he recollected it’s creation.  I think it’s always worth noting that not much about Cobain’s persona emerged without his massaging it at least a bit first.  It was one of the under-appreciated gifts he had: legend- making, for lack of a better term.

Meet the Beatles was the second US Beatles release, and is, generally speaking, not considered canonical- most (if not all) the Beatles’ American-release single compilations are generally ignored in favor of the band-guided UK counterparts.  That being said, it is an unbelievable collection of early Beatles work.  To wit- the track list:

  1. I Want to Hold Your Hand
  2. I Saw Her Standing There
  3. This Boy
  4. It Won’t Be Long
  5. All I’ve Got to Do
  6. All My Loving
  7. Don’t Bother Me
  8. Little Child
  9. Till There Was You
  10. Hold Me Tight
  11. I Wanna Be Your Man
  12. Not a Second Time

Right off the bat, there are certain similarities between the chorus of “About a Girl” and the bridge of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  Both are minor key progressions with somewhat unique, ladder-like vocal phrasings.  There are rhythmic similarities between the verses of “AAG” and “This Boy.”  The most striking sonic similarity, to me, is between “AAG” and the beautiful “All My Loving.”  The way the verses progress, build on themselves melodically.  “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you/ tomorrow I’ll miss you” to “I need an easy friend (I do)/ with a hand to lend (I do).”  The verses have that same clipped two part internal rhythm, and both leading into a gear-changing chorus.  The “I do” gimmick- where it sort of floats in the wings, sometimes informing the couplet it’s assigned, sometimes not, but always repeated, throughout the song- is very Beatles-esque, especially the Beatles Meet the Beatles represented.

Of course, there’s no exact match, which is why the Beatles story can be told so reverentially- it is a wonderful homage in a way, but as it came to represent a building block of the band’s sound, Nirvana’s “voice” is there, in very clear fashion.  This was the sound of the band taking shape, a sound not often heard so clearly that early in a band’s career.

A major part of the song’s DNA, however, belongs to another band, an American one.  The obvious connection is that introductory, open-chord jangle (well, this is Nirvana, so it’s as close as they’ll get to “jangle”).  If the introductory phrase of each verse (“I need an easy friend”) was Meet the Beatles, the haunting accompanying latter half repeated throughout the song (“I do”) is definitively Reckoning era REM, a band Cobain held a strong affection for.  Of course, the song is moving it’s entire time toward a loud, dynamic climax, something Cobain identified with in the Pixies nearly immediately, and would use almost constantly himself.  One of the great elements of the structure of “About a Girl” is the fair amount of restraint shown in that big finale.  This is, after all, meant to be a Genuine and Very Heartfelt song.  That common Nirvana practice of going completely for broke in such a situation is sort of tempered- that’s giving credit where it’s due.  They completely ignored any pressure to compromise any part of the song despite a perfect opportunity to do so, and they did it through to the end.

It’s been mentioned many times Cobain’s avid interest in the blues starting around this time, in particular (and sometimes, it seems, perhaps solely) Leadbelly.  The connection here is worth noting- most of Cobain’s greatest work has the blues lurking in the background, maybe in structure, melody, topic, or tone.  It was a new-ish and likely subconscious interpretation of the blues trope in rock, and one that’s often gone unacknowledged in the band’s best work.  Of course here it takes shape larger due to it’s subject matter (he’s pretty blue, actually), but it is an early example of what would become an often major influence.

Another of the aforementioned stories associated with this song is it’s title.  Asking about the then-titleless song, drummer Chad Channing wondered- “what’s it about?”  “It’s about a girl” was the response.  This was the great haphazard nature of Nirvana- a tension between Kurt Cobain’s controlling, perfectionist nature, and his need for much of his art to appear and be presented as almost tossed off- a combination of that DIY kind of direct, fresh presentation of art (something he would profess love for in artists like the Vaselines and Daniel Johnston), and maybe a need for him to manage expectations.  He was consistently forward looking, often expressing frustration with past work, going so far as to disown some of it on occasion.  I’ve noted here earlier his insistence that much of Bleach was a sound pushed on them in some part by the local music groupthink and his label, Sub Pop.  We’ve also heard him claim that, in fact, most of the lyrics were made up virtually on the spot- last minute affairs that, as he told Spin magazine, he didn’t “give a flying fuck” about.

He never specifically mentions “About a Girl” in these criticisms, because he doesn’t have to- this song is so stridently brilliant that it’s exemption from such comments are implicit.  It would go without saying.  But even still- the song was one that was obviously very, very personal to him, and that nearly every discussion of it centered around not what it was about, but how it was written- in a fit of inspiration from The Greatest Band Ever- is a fairly revealing attempt to guard himself against that vulnerability.  Ultimately, much of what made Nirvana great was this constant, boiling tension.  Tension between life and death, soft and loud, the leader of the band and it’s other members, sincerity and sarcasm, pop and punk, credibility and giving up, bliss and boredom.  “About a Girl” presents such a tension even to it’s creator- his desire to be a sincere, honest songwriter in the vein of the Beatles and REM- while still maintaining his bitter, cynical punk roots, and existing in such a community.

This is also why, to me, the version of “About a Girl” on Bleach is the band’s greatest reading of the song, acknowledging that many, many live performances benefitted from the work of Dave Grohl in place of Chad Channing (present on the original, as on the majority of Bleach).  Here is that tension, writ large in Cobain’s favorite expression of it- the crashing dynamics of a song that moves from wounded affection to a growing anger.  Considering the song’s subject matter, that he’s able to allow dynamics to tell two interconnected stories with two similar sets of lyrics is a tribute to the power not only of the song, but of the entire band as a whole.  The version that exists on Unplugged is surely beautiful- especially the way the solo and bridge played out acoustically, and with Cobain letting the high open strings ring out on the verses.  But to me, the reading Cobain gives it there is, like much of the presentation of that concert, deathly.  His perspective there is that of a person clearly in a different place in life- looking back and recollecting an old girlfriend, instead of a confused person inside a living, breathing relationship.

Let’s take the first verse, excepting, for a moment, those haunting “I do”s.

I need an easy friend/ With an ear to lend/ Think you fit this shoe/ Won’t you have a clue

The first verse, like those opening chords, is a striking change from what the presentation of the record had been, at least to that point.  He is the seeker, she the seemingly unaware sought.  Not only is it an openly personal admission, it also represented something fairly unique for a heavy, hard male rock band writing about relationships (taken as part of the larger rock context instead of simply their Pac-West peers)- it wasn’t a statement of power or dominance, but of need.  In fact the song almost feels like it starts at the beginning of the relationship, with those “I do”s sounding like a very portentous (in the best way) background vocal.  Evoking marriage rites to state a certain level of commitment.  As Cobain saw it, the relationship was one where he was under her thumb- perhaps some feeling of unreciprocated need.  That this examination of the status of the relative levels of feeling is how he introduces the genesis of the relationship should probably be telling.

Marander was a girl Kurt met as he entered his twenties, self-sufficient for the first time and traveling often to Olympia, WA to see the rock shows that never made it out to Aberdeen, his hometown.  He eventually met Marander through friends, starting a relationship with her and soon moving in.  Who’s to say what the relationship was like- unfortunately, we really only have this song as a semi-direct statement on the situation, and as such, littered with countless obfuscations and red herrings, it is pretty far from wholly reliable.  However, it still exists as one person’s semi-direct statement on their situation.  Let’s not pretend, however, that it certainly cuts Marander a fair shake.  She was never made aware that, despite her prodding, he’d written the song for her.

The chorus is right on us following the opening verse, and it represents a frigidly efficient framing of a failing relationship:

Take advantage while/ You hang me out to dry/ Oh I can’t see you every night/ Free

After setting us up with that opening statement of need, Cobain accuses this person of “hang[ing him] out to dry.”  Not only does he suffer this, but bitterly recounts his subsequently grabbed opportunity, taking advantage of his pain by redirecting it her way.  The lines following these speak for themselves- “being with you on this level this consistently is taking a toll on me, and it’s partly my fault.”  Very powerful stuff, speaking particularly to Cobain’s economy of style- suggesting here the endless hours of frustration in 17 words.

In the history of pop music, and specifically where it regards love, bitterness is absolutely no stranger.  Sometimes it’s ugly (“How Do You Sleep?”), condescending (REM’s “The One I Love”), antagonistic (“Under My Thumb”).  It takes rare form in the next verse of this song, however, in a potent contrast to the opening verse’s baldfaced honesty.

I’m standing in your line/ Hope you have the time/ Take a number too/ Keep a date with you

Notice how the anger doesn’t even last to the end of the verse before it flips directly to recrimination.  Suddenly, these “I do”s are no longer statements of commitment, they’re fairly hurt statements of scorn.  “I do hope you have the time.”  He repeats these very painful rituals, maybe, because he feels there is still something there.  “I do keep a date with you.”  He’s saying it to hurt her on one level, shoving what he sees as his obvious surfeit of need in the relationship right in her face.  But it also tells her- I still keep the date.  Even though I’m made to wait in line- I still keep the date.

This marks the end of new lyrics for the duration of the song, and from this point forward, the move from jangly (sorry, it’s just the right word for the sound, so I’m going to keep repeating it) REM to fuzzier, more insistent Pixies section tells the story set against lyrics we’re already familiar with.  The first verse’s opening verse represents here now a frustration boiling over and maybe even, perhaps, a self admission.  Maybe this is Cobain telling himself, again, what he needs (“an easy friend”), and projecting an anger that it isn’t whomever he’s been addressing to that point (“hang me out to dry…”).

The song ends with those haunting “I do”s, as tight a piece of writing as Cobain ever put down, a transcendently tense coda that evokes the band’s more famous two word mantra/ coda.  “I do” speaks in the same way to the confusing moments of every relationship that “a denial” speaks to every frustrated moment of youth and maturation (especially in the context of the era that particular song was written).  This song is the band at the absolute top of their game, a song that towers as one of the more heartbreaking, bitter, caring and confused love songs ever recorded- and it moves, too.  You could dance to “About a Girl.”  Well, you could wiggle a bit at least.  The guitar solo is classic, simple Nirvana- “You know, I can’t play like Segovia but- Segovia can’t play like me.”

A testament to it’s place in the band’s history, it never was gone from a setlist for long, lasting throughout their career.  It lead off their legendary Unplugged concert/ album, almost like a fingerprinting of the band as they opened the show.  The performance was released as a single in October of 1994, and buoyed by the sentiment behind Cobain’s death and the performance’s place in that, reached number one on the Modern Rock charts.  A rough live version was also included as the B-side to the original (ie pre-Incesticide) “Sliver” single.

If you’ve never heard this song, you’ve never really heard this band.

“Floyd the Barber”

•December 28, 2008 • Leave a Comment

One of the major themes of Bleach is Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, WA.  The Aberdeen of his youth, the Aberdeen of his adolescence, and the Aberdeen he saw himself leaving in the very near future.  “School,” “Sifting,” “Swap Meet,” “Paper Cuts,” “Mr. Moustache”- these weren’t just songs that represented, in some small way, Cobain’s worldview- they represented, literally, a panorama of Cobain’s world.  A song like “Mr. Moustache” isn’t just a song about Cobain’s views on gender roles and mores, it’s also about how they existed to him as an… Aberdonian?

So this brings us to “Floyd the Barber.”  Of course this song exists as a sort of a grotesque allegory, drawing on the concepts and iconography of perfect, sunshiney Americana and pulls back the curtain to reveal the ugly side.  Not a particularly original idea, but this song does have one thing going for it where it’s organizing principle is concerned- it’s pretty funny.

This is the Rickey Henderson of Nirvana songs, wherein Cobain refers to himself in the third person (well, let’s be fair- he’s quoting Floyd).  “‘Hello Cobain, come on in.’/ Floyd observes my hairy chin.”  Pretty simple, direct.  There’s a playfulness there that, after around 1992, completely and utterly disappears from his lyrics.  I don’t think I need to explain why.

“Andy ties me to the chair/ I can’t see I’m really scared/ Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip/ Pee-pee pressed against my lip.”  Over the course of the song, many Andy Griffith Show characters are mentioned- Floyd of course, Andy, Opie, Aunt Bea.  Of course, the idea is that these people we feel like we know and relate to are actually, when left to their own devices, completely monstrous.  Like, for instance, taking a poor, unassuming guy looking for a shave, and strapping him to the barber’s chair and mouth raping him.

Again, it’s not complicated.  It is good for a laugh, but it isn’t particularly revealing in any way.  It is the first instance in Cobain’s lyrics of the rape/ violation trope, which he would revisit a few times.  “I was shamed,” coupled against Floyd erectile invasion, are examples of this.  Of course, in this instance it’s treated largely as a pitch-black joke, which is very common for punk rock lyrics of the time, specifically SST-based West Coast punk/ hardcore hybrid bands, which we know Cobain was listening to at the time- especially Black Flag.  The song is also another of a dying breed sort as far Cobain “song-types” may go- it is a coherent, fully fleshed out idea expressed in one song.  No diversions, obfuscation.  An idea expressed throughout.

As a final note on the lyrics, there appears to be some dissent on the internet as to the last line of the last verse- “I die smothered in [fill in blank].”  Now, I’d always thought it was “I die smothered in Andy’s clutch” (this is, of course, after the Mayberry gang have taken turns cutting Kurt up).  In verifying this, I’ve also read “Andy’s butt,” “Aunt Bea’s muff,” and, “…and he’s not,” which makes no sense and is almost certainly wrong.  I still think my recollection is most likely to be the actual line.

Musically, “Floyd the Barber” is a little boring.  The verse is the leaden stomping between F and E barre chords.  This is not the Nirvana of Pixies like-dynamics and finesse.  The is the Nirvana of My War era Black Flag, or Master of Reality era Black Sabbath.  Both of these bands and their respective “periods” are excellent, of course, and are at no fault for the relative lack of strength of this particular influence.  It just so happened that Nirvana’s strengths lay elsewhere.

The chorus is just as leaden, but like the aforementioned influences that spawned it, it’s pretty catchy.  The best part of the song is the bridge, which expands a bit on the two-chord line from the verse, kicking up the tempo a bit in the process.

For reasons unknown, “Floyd” was never a consistent presence in Nirvana’s setlists, particularly once their pool of material deepened.

“Blew”

•December 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

We’ll start off with the band’s first studio album, and while it’s not, strictly speaking, their first release, what I think I’ll do is work through the LP tracks first (in chronological order), followed by a look at the non-album stuff in a less structured manner.

For all their reticence, post-Nevermind, at being labeled “heavy metal” (mostly relating to what was, at the time, considered “heavy metal” as a short hand term and the gender/ sexuality issues the band perceived the popular incarnation to have), the first studio album the band produced is, in many ways, a classic heavy metal record.  The tempo to many of these tracks- “Blew” especially- is leaden, slow, and thick.  The band was always (rightfully) identified less with the flanneled, Hessian-sludge of many of their Northwestern contemporaries, and more with the pop soul that got punk rock the initial attention that, say, no-wave never got.  The more you listen to Bleach, however, with a couple exceptions, it makes you wonder if that maybe started somewhere later on.  Cobain would later claim that the sound of Bleach was largely born of pressure from the label to shoehorn the songs into the “Seattle” or “grunge” sound at the time, but Cobain was such a prolific re-writer of his own history it’s difficult to tell how true that is.  In his defense, however, there exists a chunk of rarities from that time period that are certainly more of the “new wave” or “pop” variety.

Lyrically, “Blew” is very simple and, like many of Cobain’s songs (specifically the earlier ones), almost impossible to decipher.  There is some interesting wordplay here, though, that seems to point to what became a touchstone for Kurt- his strange juxtaposition of very specific words and concepts.  A lot of this would come together to form what was his “voice,” as a writer- he very certainly had a definite style and point of view, and skewed manner of expressing a thought that was unique to his perspective.  Reading “Blew” independent of the music, it seems fair to guess that the writer has an enthusiasm for words, and not in the sort of prosaic, Dickensian sense, but more in the way that he hits on a specific choice because of the way it sounds and feels, and less for it’s referential value or even specific meaning.

“If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to blew,” naturally, makes little-to-no sense, and though I do think it’s a memorable line, I wouldn’t want to argue that it has some great poetic significance.  Cobain was, of course, absolutely capable of this, and shows it often, even on this very record.  But “Blew” is not that (at least as it starts)- “Blew” is pure wordplay, and while he’d have better stabs at that free-formed word choice in the band’s oeuvre, there is something uniquely humorous about that first line.

Of course, like much of Cobain’s work, the spirit of the sentiment isn’t just fluid from song to song- it’s fluid from line to line.  Where we start with a nearly absurd but evocative line as the song turns a corner, it’s first verse flows into what would be, throughout their many songs, classic Cobain- a sort of anxious ennui that plays out in turns as melancholy, anger or sarcasm.  Here, it appears to be taking shape as the latter two- if you “wouldn’t mind”, Kurt would like to “lose” (sarcasm), “leave” (anger), “breathe” (angry sarcasm).

This sort of carries over into the first line of the chorus- “is there another reason for your stain?” (sarcastic anger, I suppose), but then takes a sharp turn to fill-a-syllable-ville.  “Could you/ believe who/ we knew/ stress or strain?”  There’s certainly a clear idea there, and there is something to the disjointed rhythm of the sentiment as it moves along with the start-stop nature of the chorus.  The follow up, of course, “Is there/ another/ word that/ rhymes with stain?” is a sort of junior high solipsism that, thankfully, Cobain quickly grew out of.

Overall, the lyrics to “Blew” are notable, I think, for two reasons- their self-acknowledged lack of maturity, and the coda.  Even while expressing some level of discomfort or anger, there’s a sense that Cobain doesn’t feel like he really knows where the anger is directed or why he’s feeling it (note all the question marks), and the attempts at humor signify that he’s not entirely ready to take it or himself entirely seriously just yet.  He’s mad, but he’ll probably sit back and take it for a while longer.

The coda is interesting in it’s out-of-nowhere expression of hope and optimism.  “You could do anything.”  Who could do anything?  Given the evidence we have of Cobain as a writer, it’s not easy to defend the idea that he’s addressing himself.  The line doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the song, so there isn’t much use trying to use that as a guide.  When you really look at it, it absolutely qualifies as one of his strangest lyrics.  It’s not “You could have done anything,” for instance.  There’s no acidic hedging or peripheral pessimism.  It’s simply an expression of plain-faced confidence, an expression that Cobain didn’t seem to want to follow up.  The first Nirvana song on the first Nirvana record was, it may seem, also a  “last” in this way.

So while this drop-D metal setpiece is hardly ground-breaking musically, there is a perspective lyrically- though not as sharp and biting as Cobain will eventually become- not often found in these thunking, Nordic sorts of metal songs.  Cobain would later make a concerted effort to point out that much of what comprised Bleach‘s lyrics were largely meaningless to him, and dashed off last minute, but as with any work of art, it’s largely impossible to separate it from it’s creator.

Of course, Bleach was famously recorded for just over six hundred dollars, and while there is a bit of a hiss and a first-take feeling to a lot of the drum parts, the performances on the album as a whole are strikingly immediate, and “Blew” is an excellent example.  The perfectly timed feedback squeal as the guitar comes in; the inventive lead guitar noodling in the verse; the tight, disciplined guitar solo.  Nirvana was, at the end of the day, a very efficient, tight studio band.

In many ways, “Blew” is Bleach in a nutshell- remarkably catchy, heavy (to the point that it must have surprised people that bought it months after first experiencing Nevermind), lyrically a bit oblique.  It may be, literally, the heaviest song Nirvana ever released- performed in drop-D tuning, it was mistakenly adjusted down another step while being mixed, resulting in it actually being drop-C.  It was never changed back.

“Blew” was the title track to the later released Blew EP, which was a promotional effort by Sub Pop to match up with their European tour.  Unlike most of Bleach, “Blew” appeared on Nirvana setlists throughout their existence, which is a tribute to it’s strength as a song (especially considering how quickly the band dropped the large bulk of tunes from this era from it’s performances).

Introduction.

•December 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This is a blog about Nirvana.

In their history, Nirvana released three studio albums, two live albums, a rarities and singles album and a box set (not to mention the “greatest of the box set” release, and the cash cow greatest hits album).  Though it can be debated on what constitutes their having “formed,” (first practice, first show, first album?) most agree it was somewhere around 1987, and they came to a grinding halt seven years later in 1994.

A whole lot has been written about this band.  Despite their roots in especially simple, direct punk rock music and their often ignored evocation of years of pop music that came before them, Nirvana was the very definition of a zeitgeist, especially in the way that their status as such often exists outside any objective assessment of the work they produced.

They are a cultural lightning rod not because of the more salacious aspects of their existence, or even, necessarily, Cobain’s suicide (although this is often debated vis a vis the sheer stamina of the band’s legacy).  They’re cultural lightning rods because they represent what very few- and possibly zero- popular musicians have represented in the context of the medium.  They were, without debate, a lone band that single-handedly changed the cultural landscape, business, and perception of rock and roll music.  This does not imply that they did so without standing on the “shoulders of giants,” so to speak, or even that, in many cases, what came after was necessarily better than what was wiped out.  It is the singular and debate-free nature of the change and it’s face that sets them apart.

The Beatles are similar, although in a sense they didn’t change as much about popular music as they simply invented.  Eventually this was, like all great 20th century art, digested by a newer generation and spit back out in rebellion, reference, reconstruction.  Punk rock and hip hop took what came before it and, in a lot of ways, “cleansed” or re-imagined it.  Once fifteen years of rules for pop musicians had become established, they were there for breaking, and while it’s debatable which of the two was more strident in it’s rejection of what came before it, or which was more engaged with what it was seeking to reject, there is never a clear answer as to “who” started it.

Was it the Ramones?  The Stooges?  The Velvets?  The Sonics, The 13th Floor Elevators, MC5, Blue Cheer?  Was it Run DMC?  Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five?  Afrikaa Bambataa, the Sugarhill Gang, Chic or the Ohio Players?  It doesn’t matter- the medium was the message.

Nirvana, of course, wouldn’t have risen to the top were it not for the years of groundwork laid by REM, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Jane’s Addiction, Dinosaur Jr, Pixies and countless others that hijacked college radio and effectively created an opportunity for the right band at the right instant to write the right song for the right demographic.  There’s something unique about that situation and while the debate as to the band’s actual output and the quality of their influence is a valid and interesting one, they will remain a Roman column of whatever house pop music resides in.

I would therefore like to take Nirvana, song-by-song, and look at what they all mean in the broader context of the band’s existence, and maybe a little cultural explication of what they all represent.

As I mentioned, a lot has been written about this band, and that will certainly not end here.  I would prefer this to be a discussion instead of a declaration, so the proverbial phonelines are open.