Everyone knows Nirvana’s songs. Lesser known are the stories behind them. ‘Blew’, the first song on ’89 debut ‘Bleach’, is about Cobain’s growing sense of claustrophobia living in Aberdeen as a teen. Such was Cobain’s restlessness growing up, he had intense visions of killing his school class mates. “I fantasised about it but I would have always opted to kill myself first,” he later said.
’Floyd the Barber’: Named after a bumbling hairdresser on US sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, ‘Floyd…’ saw Kurt imagining himself being tortured and murdered at the comic character’s hands. Strangely, police reports suggest that when Cobain’s body was found, his TV was tuned to continuous re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show – meaning the character may have been one of the last images he saw.
’About a Girl’ Both an ode to Kurt’s then-girlfriend Tracy Marander and a love letter to the Beatles, whose ‘Meet The Beatles’ album he listened to on repeat for an entire afternoon before writing the track. Kurt later described it as a “jangly R.E.M. type of pop song.”
’School’: Disillusioned with the Washington grunge scene, Cobain compares its cliques to his time at Aberdeen High School as a teenager (“You’re in high school again,” he sings). Cobain was deeply unhappy at school and unable to fit in, despite his best efforts – at one point, he joined the school wrestling team.
’Love Buzz’: Nirvana’s first ever single was actually a cover, originally written by little-known Dutch band Shocking Blue. Robbie van Leeuwen, the man behind the original, was only made aware of the cover when he heard it in a record shop, but claims not to have bought it because Nirvana’s version was “inferior”.
’Paper Cuts’: The only Nirvana song in which the word ‘Nirvana’ appears, legend has it ‘Paper Cuts’ was inspired by the real-life story of a family in Cobain’s local Aberdeen who locked their children in their attic: “She pushed food through the door/And I crawl towards the crack of light,” Cobain sings from the perspective of the children.
‘Negative Creep’: This ‘Bleach’ track is thought to be, at least in part, a nod to Mudhoney – the line “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more” is close to their fellow Seattle grungers’ ‘Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More’. Kurt later claimed the song was about himself.
’Scoff’: This song’s said to be about Kurt’s relationship with his parents, who didn’t think he should be pursuing music (“in your eyes, I’m not worth it”). However this appears to be a myth, as Cobain came from a big musical family: his uncle Chuck Fradenburg starred in a band called The Beachcombers, his Aunt Mari Earle played guitar and his great-uncle Delbert had a career as a tenor.
’Swap Meet’: One of Cobain’s most bittersweeter moments as a lyricist (“She loves him more than he will ever known, he loves her more than he will ever show”), ‘Swap Meet’ was reportedly inspired by a couple he spotted rowing over bric-a-brac at a flea market in Aberdeen.
‘Mr Moustache’: An essay on masculinity and what it means to be a modern man. Cobain had long entertained this idea – at school he was on the wrestling team, but claims to have “pretended to be gay to piss people off”. Fittingly, the song’s main riff borrows from a band with a frontman who skewed traditional notions of masculinity: ‘Hello I Love You’ by the Doors.
‘Sifting’: The final (and longest) song on ‘Bleach’ is perhaps also the most mystifying – Cobain rarely spoke about the track and never revealed its meaning. Our guess? The song’s about refusing to grow up, get a job and fit into society as expected, as a stubborn act of rebellion: “Wet your bed, wouldn’t it be fun?” he sings.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: The idea for Nirvana’s defining anthem came from Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, who spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall after a drunken night vandalising a local religious centre – earlier, they had sprayed “God Is Gay” on the headquarters of a church group who’d been telling pregnant women they’d go to hell if they aborted their child.
‘In Bloom’: A song about adolescence and sexual confusion. Cobain claims that he was unsure as to his sexuality up until a relatively late age due to “not conforming to the cheerleader jock stereotype.” To further antagonize the homophobes, the band wore dresses in the track’s video.
‘Come as You Are’: This fan favourite, whose title it’s claimed was inspired by a Aberdeen hotel ad, is essentially a slowed down replica of Killing Joke’s 1985 track ‘Eighties’ – so much so, in fact, Killing Joke levelled a lawsuit against the Seattle band, dropped after Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Dave Grohl later ended up playing drums for Killing Joke in 2002.
‘Breed’: Described by Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt as a “stylistic breakthrough for the band,” ‘Breed’ dates back to 1989 – like ‘Polly’, it missed out on a place on the group’s ’89 debut only to resurface later. Its original title was ‘Immodium’. The song’s status as a fan favourite was cemented when the band opened with it at their famous Reading Festival 1992 show.
‘Lithium’: A song, in Cobain’s words, about a man who after the death of his girlfriend turns to religion “as a last resort to keep himself alive. To keep him from suicide”. The title dates back to collaboration in 1990 with Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan – the pair had been writing a (still-unreleased) album together, which Cobain wanted to name the project Lithium.
‘Polly’: According to Krist Novoselic, ‘Polly’ was written after Kurt read a newspaper article about the abduction, torture and rape of a 14-year-old girl who was en route home from a concert in Washington. On hearing the track, Bob Dylan remarked of Cobain: “that kid has soul.” Interesting sidenote: a parrot was one of the many animals Kurt and Courtney Love kept in their apartment.
‘Territorial Pissings’: Recorded live, straight into the mixing desk during the Nevermind sessions to give it a raw feel, this two minute punk blast again targets the idea of macho men. Influenced by Courtney Love’s staunch feminist politics, the second verse includes the line: “Never met a wise man/If so, it’s a woman”.
‘Drain You’: Kurt originally intended this track to feature in a side-project, the Retards. It later became one of his favourites to play live. ‘Nevermind’ producer Butch Vig had to trick Kurt, who didn’t like recording overdubs, into layering guitar line after guitar line for the song’s heavy sound (there ended up being 11 guitars on the track).
‘Lounge Act’: Cobain thought that the bass intro to this ‘Nevermind’ favourite sounded like something a cheesy lounge band would use, inspiring its title. According to Krist Novoselic, the song was written about Bikini Kill member and riot grrl founder Tobi Vail, who Kurt had a brief, tempestuous relationship with. The pair remained friends after splitting.
‘Stay Away’: Originally titled ‘Pay to Play’, the demo featured different lyrics, deafening feedback and a screaming coda, with Cobain shouting “God Is Gay” repeatedly. Kurt’s fascination with the twisted nature of religion was at a peak during this point of his songwriting career – ‘Nevermind’ was almost titled ‘Abort Christ’.
On A Plain’:Kurt’s most meta moment: a songwritten about writing a song. Touching on writer’s block (“I’ll start this off without any words”), in the end, he settles on simplicity: “I’m on a plain/I can’t complain.” The track was another written well in advance of ‘Nevermind”s recording – the song dates back to 1990.
‘Something In The Way’: This ‘Nevermind’ closer’s lyrics were inspired by graffiti on the wall of a bridge near Cobain’s Seattle home. They were later painted over in a clean-up of the city, causing outrage among Nirvana fans.
‘Serve the Servants’: ‘In Utero”s opening salvo is often described as Cobain’s most autobiographical song. A scuzzy singalong anthem, it’s packed with nods to Kurt’s father (“I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad”), his wife Courtney Love (“If she floats, then she is not a witch”) and his own success (“teenage angst has paid off well”).
‘Scentless Apprentice’: Inspired by the Patrick Suskind novel Perfume, this track (like the novel) details a man born with an amazing sense of smell but no body odour of his own, who becomes a murderer. The track stemmed from an idea by Dave Grohl that Cobain originally “didn’t think was was good” but decided to go along with it to spare Grohl’s feelings.
‘Rape Me’: “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me,” Cobain said in 1993 of his controversial anti-rape anthem. “‘You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.'” Musically the track uses the same chords as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, only inverted.
Heart-Shaped Box’: This track’s original titles, ‘Heart-Shaped Coffin’ and ‘Umbilical Noose’, reveal much about the dark core of this track. The song is thought to be a meditation on the excesses of love – capable of extreme happiness and brutal depression. Courtney Love has a simpler interpretation of the song though – she claimed last year Kurt was “singing about my vagina.”
‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle’: Frances Farmer was a ’30s film star who rebelled against her studio, was caught drink driving and attempted to flee to Mexico. She then entered therapy where she was treated with electric shocks. Cobain saw parallels between Farmer, his own treatment from the press and his record company’s pressure to release more mainstream material.
‘Dumb’: “That’s just about people who’re easily amused,” Cobain said of ‘Dumb’. “People who not only aren’t capable of progressing their intelligence but are totally happy watching 10 hours of television and really enjoy it. I’ve met a lot of dumb people.” He also claimed it was an attempt to write an all-out pop song, saying there was no point “pretending [I’m] a punk rocker again.”
Very Ape’: Originally known as ‘Perky or Punky New Wave Number’, this is another song about masculinity, this time likening the modern man to an ape. A breathless punk number, its drums were recorded in a nearby kitchen, with producer Steve Albini surrounding Dave Grohl’s kit with over 30 microphones.
‘Milk It’: A tribute to the Melvins’ ‘It’s Shoved’, ‘Milk It’ was maybe the closest Nirvana got to the mission goal they set themselves on ‘In Utero’ – writing an album that would drive away the mainstream fans (or “cunts” as Cobain less politely referred to them) with frenzied punk noise. Lyrics like ‘I’m my own parasite’ found Cobain coming to terms with his spiralling drug addiction.
‘Pennyroyal Tea’: A life long sufferer of painful stomach ulcers, Cobain tried the herbal drink in the hope it would help his condition. It didn’t (“It doesn’t work, you hippie” Cobain remarked in his journal). Urban legend has it if drank in large enough quantities, the tea can cause abortions, continuing Kurt’s obsession with death and the womb.
‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’: Originally titled ‘Four Month Media Blackout’, this was Cobain at his most cynical and disillusioned with the music industry machine – though he claimed the lyrics were just “random lines strung together”.
‘Tourette’s’: ‘In Utero”s shortest song, ‘Tourette’s’ details Cobain’s fear of turning into “some eighty year-old guy with Tourette’s Syndrome, cursing his head off, telling the whole world they’re fucked,” a sentiment echoed in his suicide note: “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
‘All Apologies’: Originally a folk song and titled ‘La La La’, ‘In Utero”s finale was dedicated to Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain. “Peaceful, happy, comfort,” were the only words Cobain offered when asked for the track’s meaning by biographer Michael Azzerad in 1993, surmising the song’s mood instead.