Adam: I was 12 years old and my family was on vacation in Florida when I saw the news reports on TV in our hotel saying that the singer from a band I was vaguely familiar with had killed himself. I was just beginning to be interested in rock music in 1994, and after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, I wasn’t allowed to own any Nirvana albums. I had to get my Nirvana fix from the radio and from a mixtape a friend gave me later that year which included half of Bleach and half of In Utero. I used to listen to it through headphones on the school bus and in the back seat of our minivan. I listened to it a lot in the winter of 1994-95, and for a long time after that, listening to In Utero reminded me of winter. I still haven’t heard the other half of Bleach, but I bought In Utero a few years later and I listen to it every now and then. My inspiration for writing this post was the recent media attention surrounding the DVD/CD release of Nirvana’s set at the 1992 Reading festival. I bought the DVD, and it is great because it documents what a Nirvana concert was like when the band was at the peak of its popularity.
Glenn: Like you, Adam, In Utero was my introduction to Nirvana. I was obsessed with that “Hey! Wait!” song that showed up between Foreigner and Journey songs on the local FM rock station. I saved up my $14.98, ordered the CD from BMG Music Service (which, along with Columbia House, was the iTunes of the ’90s, kids), and played it incessantly. I even adjusted the volume knobs on my ancient stereo to match the EQ suggested in the liner notes. (This being a Steve Albini recording, it’s all treble, hardly any bass.) In fact, my mother took the In Utero CD away from me because I was playing “Rape Me” in the presence of my impressionable young brothers. Years later I bought it back from her at a garage sale. My brothers turned out fine.
In my experience, many people our age have a deep connection with this album, more so than with Nevermind. Why? For one, In Utero may be slightly more approachable. The songs are muckier, for sure, less catchy, and even slighter than those on Nevermind. But they sound like songs your own shitty basement band might come up with. If you were awesome. And you could sing like that. And if Dave Grohl was your drummer. (Dave Grohl, man, good god.)
At any rate, In Utero has that anybody-can-do-it punk-rock spirit that absolutely thrills, and even masks the paucity of excellent songs on the record.
Adam: I think this album sounds much better than Nevermind. It is definitely muckier, and heavier, which I rather like. I think its the album that the band wanted to make, whereas Nevermind was more a creation of producers out to make a quick buck on the grunge craze of the early 1990’s. Cobain’s voice sounds more rough and the lyrics are darker on this album as well. Regarding “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” for instance, the ostensible subject is Frances Farmer, a Seattle-born actress popular in the 1930s who was involuntarily institutionalized for essentially no better reason than being a free spirit. The line “she’ll come back as fire/burn all the liars/leave a blanket of ash on the ground” struck me soon after I heard the song for the first time on that mixtape I got in sixth grade, and I remember thinking about that particular line at age 13 and thinking about what it meant, and how vitriolic it was. Reading the line doesn’t do it justice, one really has to hear Cobain singing it to get the full effect, which is part of the reason I’ve included the song below.
Another particular line that affected me early on is from the song “Pennyroyal Tea.” “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally.” I remember hearing that line on my fabled mixtape and wondering who this Leonard Cohen character was, and being the intrepid youth I was in those pre-internet days, I figured it out. I don’t remember exactly how I figured it out, but I found out he was a singer, and I remember thinking that he looked like someone old people would like. That satisfied me for years, and I was content not knowing his music at all until my junior year of college. Leonard Cohen is now one of my absolute favorite artists. Do I have Nirvana to thank for my near-obsession with Leonard Cohen? Probably not, actually, but that song let me know he was out there waiting for me.
And Glenn, I agree with your “good god” statement regarding Dave Grohl. The man is insane behind a drumkit. I remember reading an interview with him some years ago in which he said when he was a kid and learning how to play drums, the only kind of sticks he had were marching sticks, which are big and thick and heavy. He says that the reason he hits the drums so damn hard is because he learned by using those heavy sticks. His heavy-hitting style is reminiscent of another hard-hitter, and my favorite rock drummer of all-time, John Bonham. Of course, no one will ever be able to replicate Bonzo’s unique sound, but Grohl comes close on In Utero.
Glenn: I’d like to offer a minor rejoinder, Adam. Nevermind was not created to capitalize on the grunge craze, as you suggest — it created the grunge craze of the early ’90s, as far as the mainstream goes. Sure, sludgy metal-influenced punk had been around for years before Nevermind, but as far as West Michigan middle-schoolers (that’d be you and me) were concerned, Nirvana was grunge. And that meant that grunge was Grohl’s drumming, mucky guitar playing, and Cobain’s scream.
Cobain’s voice is deceptively simple. At first it’s like, “Okay, depressive screamer on the horse screams in agony — got it.” But there’s something more calculated. As a friend put it, “It’s not just that he screams, it’s that he screams melodies.” Take that, Dave Mustaine. I read someplace that during the Bleach sessions, an engineer told a Seattle scenester, “I hear this guy open his mouth and I don’t know if it’s good or bad but it blows me away. You have to hear it yourself.” There’s chaos but also control. Another good description of Cobain’s scream comes from world-class jackass Robert Christgau: “Kurt Cobain yowls like John Hancock crosses his k’s.” (Stray comment: Christgau, as dickish as he is, is usually right.)
As I was listening to “Frances Farmer” just now, my girlfriend came into the room and said, “Do you like this music?” To which I responded. “Yes. Of course. Good god, yes.” I think what Cobain (and his scream) offered us was an example of crisp sincerity and absolute commitment to the angst of adolescence. He took our feelings as seriously as we did. That’s why it’s sometimes hard to listen to Nirvana as an adult — it’s hard to take those feelings of adolescent pain and angst as seriously as Nirvana did. Cobain’s singing can be like an open wound. And if that’s too much to bear, just listen to Dave Grohl.
Adam: I stand corrected, Glenn. Nevermind did indeed create the grunge craze. And with regard to your comments regarding Nirvana taking adolescent angst seriously, I think the first lines of “Serve The Servants,” the first track on In Utero, sum up Cobain’s feelings on the subject: “Teenage angst has paid off well/now I’m bored and old.”
4 Essential Tracks:
“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”
“Serve the Servants”