“About a Girl”

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.

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~ by Timothy Rogan on May 3, 2009.

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