“School”

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.

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~ by Timothy Rogan on July 14, 2011.

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