Verse Chorus Verse: The Recording History Of NIRVANA
February 14, 1997
by Gillian G. Gaar
Nearly three years after Kurt Cobain's death in April 1994, interest in his group, Nirvana, remains strong. The band's latest album, From The Muddy Banks of The Wishkah, released this past October, became their fourth #1 album, and their third to enter the charts at #1. Wishkah remained in the Top 40 for six weeks, and at press time had sold close to half a million copies. Though Wishkah's stay in the Top 40 was relatively brief, its initial high placement is an indication that future releases from the band will certainly follow.
Though Nirvana has officially issued six albums, the number of non-album B-sides, compilation tracks, and other rarities the group has released is enough to comprise at least two additional albums; only a fraction of these songs appeared on the band's "odds and sods" collection, 1992's Incesticide. The release of Wishkah has sparked further conjecture about tracks that may still be left in the vaults. This article will chart the band's recording history, examining the unreleased material that is out there, in addition to looking at the market of Nirvana collectibles.
Nirvana's story has been previously covered in Goldmine (December 10, '93 and May 13, '94). But it's worth going back in order to take a closer look at the band's work in the studio. Cobain was born February 20, 1967 in Aberdeen, Washington, though he spent the first six months of his life living in the neighboring town of Hoquiam. The family then moved to Aberdeen,-a block away from the North Aberdeen bridge, which crosses the Wishkah river-the same river that gave Nirvana's latest album its name.
Cobain's interest in art and music was evident from a young age. Cobain's aunt, Mari Earl (then Fradenburg, the sister of Kurt's mother Wendy), recalls, "He was singing from the time he was two. He would sing Beatles songs like 'Hey Jude.' He would do anything. You could just say, 'Hey Kurt, sing this!' end he would sing it. He had a lot of charisma from a very young age" (the family taped some of these impromptu performances). Earl, a musician herself, was also the first one to put a guitar in Cobain's hand, at the age of two. "I put it in his hand, and he turned it around the other way, 'cause he was left handed," she says. "We had kind of a bond because of music."
Until his early teens, Cobain's artistic interests were primarily channelled into visual art, including an attempt at claymation. Not much of this early work has been seen, though a few illustrations appeared in Northwest newspapers after Cobain's death. But he maintained his interest by playing drums in the school band, and visiting Earl in order to use her musical equipment. Earl regularly performed in area nightclubs.
"In between gigs I always set up the equipment in a corner of the dining room so I could rehearse," she explains. "Kurt was probably about 10 years old when he first started asking if he could turn on the equipment, play my guitar and sit behind the microphone. I don't have any vivid memory -of what he sounded like, but I remember him being very careful not to damage the equipment. He respected it." As his interest in music accelerated, Cobain was given a guitar-a Lindell-for his fourteenth birthday by his uncle, Chuck Fradenburg, who also worked as a musician.
By this time, Cobain's musical influences ranged from '60s pop groups like the Beatles and Monkees to classic '70s rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Black Sabbath. As he learned to play guitar in the early '80s, his musical tastes widened again, after meeting Matt Lukin and Buzz Osborne at Montesano High School (Montesano being another neighboring town in the area). Both Lukin and Osborne played in a local band called the Melvins (Lukin would go on to play in Mudhoney?, and through Osborne, Cobain learned about the burgeoning hardcore scene and such bands as Black Flag and Flipper. Back at Aberdeen High, Cobain met Chris Novoselic, born in California in 1965, who'd moved to Aberdeen with his family in 1979. The two hung out at the Melvins' practice space, largely because of the lack of anything else to do in Aberdeen.
During this period, Cobain made what may be his first recorded effort, again at Earl's house, who had married and moved to Seattle (two hours drive from Aberdeen) While visiting over Christmas vacation in 1982, Cobain brought along his electric guitar, and made a tape, also using Earl's bass, and drumming on an empty suitcase with wooden spoons.
"Most of what I remember about the songs was a lot of distortion on guitar, really heavy bass, and the clucky sound of the wooden spoons. And his voice, sounding like he was mumbling under a big fluffy comforter, with some passionate screams once in awhile. Musicially, it was very repetitious. He called the recording Organized Confusion."
Cobain would continue to make home recordings on a regular basis, both before and during the Nirvana years, up to the last weeks of his life. It's not known how much of this material has survived, or what the quality is-or if tracks said to be "Kurt's home recordings" on the innumerable bootlegs on the market are indeed what they claim to be."Kurt enjoyed coming up here," Earl adds. "He always was very very careful; whenever he ran into any problems, he would always ask me, 'Aunt Mari, could you help me with this?"' But though she was a musician herself, Earl says Cobain rarely discussed the specifics of his work with her.
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