In December 1985, Mari Earl agreed to let her nephew – her sister’s kid, an 18-year-old punk rocker, high-school dropout and sometime vagrant who, as a musician herself, she’d always had a soft spot for – use her home in suburban Burien, Washington to record a demo with his new band. It wasn’t the first time Kurt Cobain had used his aunt’s house as a recording studio. Four years earlier, he’d recorded a number of songs there under the name Organised Confusion, using wooden spoons and a suitcase for percussion instead of Earl’s drum machine because he wanted his music to be ‘pure’. That session – full of distorted guitars, heavy bass and “occasional bloodcurdling screams” – had been noisy. This one, lasting two days, took the biscuit.
“They set up in my music room and they’d just crank it up!” Earl later remembered. “It was loud. They would put down the music tracks first, then he’d put the headphones on and all you could hear was Kurt Cobain’s voice screaming through the house! It was pretty wild. My husband and I, we’d just look at each other and smile and go, ‘You think we should close the window so the neighbours don’t hear? So they don’t think we’re beating him or something?'”
What the neighbours would have heard was Fecal Matter, Kurt Cobain’s first real band, who, despite their fleeting existence, have gone on to attain near-mythical status among Nirvana fans. The racket they committed to tape over the course of those two days – a demo album titled ‘Illiteracy Will Prevail’ – became the holy grail for Cobain completists: after details of the album were mentioned in Michael Azerrad’s 1993 biography Come As You Are, fake versions of the songs were widely circulated from 1997 onwards but the real things didn’t start trickling out until 2005. Further tracks appeared in 2006 and 2007, though some have been mislabelled and others are incomplete.
At the time of the recording, Fecal Matter was comprised only of Kurt and Melvins’ Dale Crover (by that point, the pair had ditched their original drummer, Greg Hokanson), but fellow Melvins Mike Dillard and Buzz Osborne later joined the group, albeit briefly. There is, however, some confusion as to the group’s live history. Cobain biographer Charles R Cross states that the band fizzled out before playing a single gig; others maintain that the original lineup – Cobain on guitar and vocals, Crover on bass and Hokanson on drums – managed one show in December 1985, supporting The Melvins at the Spot Tavern in Moclips, a remote beach resort on the Pacific Coast. In any case, Fecal Matter came to an ignominious end sometime in mid-1986: according to Buzz Osborne, “Kurt got disgusted with it because I wouldn’t buy a bass system and so he said that I wasn’t dedicated enough.”
This was a fate met by most of Kurt Cobain’s early bands, who tended to be short-lived and largely undocumented. They exist only as footnotes in a larger story: there’s The Sellouts, the Creedence Clearwater Revival covers band that disbanded when he physically attacked the bassist; Brown Towel, who – thanks to a misspelled poster for one of their (very) few gigs – have gone down in history as ‘Brown Cow’; The Stiff Woodies, a Melvins side-project he was briefly involved in, and a few others (Skid Row, Throat Oysters, Ted Ed Fred, etc) that were early Nirvana lineups in all but name. Fecal Matter, though, are more significant. For one thing, the ‘Illiteracy Will Prevail’ tape was what convinced Krist Novoselic of Cobain’s talent, and it marks the first-known appearance of a couple of tracks (‘Spank Thru’ and ‘Downer’) that would later be recorded by Nirvana. For another, unlike his subsequent bands, Fecal Matter’s recordings have survived, and people can actually listen to and analyse them for themselves. Most importantly – and to use an obvious metaphor – Fecal Matter were the fertiliser that Nirvana would sprout from, and ‘Illiteracy Will Prevail’ provides a musical document – crude though it may be – of Kurt Cobain’s adolescent concerns and his development as a songwriter.
Cobain’s teenage years had been restless and rudderless: after quitting high school when he learned he wouldn’t have enough credits to graduate, his mother threw him out of the house when he failed to find employment. From then on, he would sleep on friends’ couches, in the back of vans and sometimes – according to legend – under one of the bridges on the Wishkah river. Whenever he did get a job, they were low-paying and never lasted: he would often just stop showing up rather than formally quit. While staying with the family of a particularly devout friend, he became a born-again Christian, only to renounce his faith soon thereafter. At one point, he was on the verge of joining the navy, passing the aptitude test before reconsidering the decision at the last minute.
Though Fecal Matter’s lyrics address none of those experiences directly, they are very obviously the work of someone who was aware of his place on periphery of society, and who felt aggrieved and indignant about it. “Rebellious and angry,” was how Earl remembered his lyrics. “Mostly slams against society in general. Kurt didn’t like the social ladder in school – kids thinking they were cool because they wore the ‘right’ clothes or were handsome or pretty. His songs back then reflected his opinions about these things.”
That’s certainly evident on ‘Class of ’86’ (also known as ‘Buffy’s Pregnant’), in which Cobain inhabits the dual roles of drunken, misogynistic jock and vacuous, gossiping cheerleader – presumably the sort of people he knew well from his time at Aberdeen High School – and sneers about how “Me and my breakdancing friends went out and beat up some punk rock faggots”. ‘Spank Thru’ is a delightfully puerile ode to masturbation, while ‘Bambi Slaughter’ finds him “Raiding grandma’s garage, selling personal possessions for bucks” and ‘Vaseline’ makes brief mention of his troubles with the law (he was an infrequent visitor to the cells, usually on small-fry charges of trespassing and vandalism). One song that they did not record (and which is often mistakenly thought to be an early version of ‘Anorexorcist’) was ‘Suicide Samurai’, but Earl managed to glimpse the lyrics her nephew had written in his notebook and what she saw left her “with an impression that he had possibly tried suicide before.”
Arguably the most fascinating – not to mention disturbing – track is ‘Laminated Effect’, a boy-meets-girl tale where the girl is a lesbian, “never fond of the shaft”, who finds herself ‘cured’ through having sex with the boy, a gay AIDS-sufferer who was raped by his father as a child. The song ends on the refrain “Made not born, made not born”, and even if you chalk it up to a youthful faux pas, it’s hard to reconcile the sentiment with its author, a man who later claimed to be “gay in spirit”. (The Nirvana blogger Nicholas Soulsby has speculated that ‘Laminated Effect’ may be about Cobain’s uncle Patrick, who was indeed gay, suffered from AIDS, and claimed to have been raped by his uncle Delbert as a child).
The ugliness and emotional viscera of the lyrics are matched by the music they accompany: the guitars (recorded directly into a tape machine, in true DIY fashion) are sludgy and heavily-distorted, and are complemented by Crover’s proudly amateurish drumming and Cobain’s guttural howls. Amidst the noise and confusion, however, there are moments of songcraft and melodic ingenuity that stand out (particularly on the higher-quality remasters bootleggers have taken it upon themselves to produce), and Cobain – or ‘Kurdt Kobain’, as he was credited – was immensely proud of it. To him, the album’s very existence was tangible proof of his abilities as a musician, and while there’s no denying its rough and rudimentary nature, you can hear why, after being passed a copy some months later, Krist Novoselic was impressed enough to agree to start a band with him. Indeed, Cobain handed out copies of the cassette (complete with a hand-drawn cover of flies buzzing around a turd) to numerous friends and acquaintances in Aberdeen, many of whom probably now regret losing or taping over it: while incomplete bootleg versions are doing the rounds, a genuine copy of the tape would now be worth thousands of dollars – the very definition of turning shit into gold.
Today, despite their own brief and confusing history (just as the extent of their gigography is disputed, some people now believe ‘Illiteracy Will Prevail’ was recorded at Easter 1986, not in December 1985) Fecal Matter exist as a crucial part of Nirvana’s. The tape itself is fascinating, though less for the songs contained therein than what they reveal about their 18-year-old author. If making sense of Cobain’s inner life sometimes seems akin to putting together an incomplete jigsaw, ‘Illiteracy Will Prevail’ is at least one of its dog-eared corner-pieces.