Kurt Cobain died twenty years ago today. Remember where you were? I was on my first and only trip to L.A., staying in Westwood, near UCLA. On the TV in the room was a special—I suppose I was watching MTV—about Cobain on which I saw a video for “Heart-Shaped Box” and the entirety of the Unplugged in New York MTV special (if I weren't away from home I wouldn't have seen any of it, no cable). There are some striking performances in that show, but none more so than the song that ends the set, Lead Belly’s “Where Did You SleepLast Night.”
Flash forward about four years and Kajsa and I were riding in a car, me driving, playing a new tape I’d made for her. It was not unusual for us to play these tapes while driving aimlessly about Connecticut. The tape ends with this song. I remember cranking up the volume as this song got going. I was eager for her to hear it and I could tell it really drilled her, her eyes kind of watered at the end, y’know, how, listening to it, you think it’s gotten as unhinged as it's going to get and then it goes further. And then, well, you’re kind of speechless. It was a great feeling to have her share it with me.
The great shame in all this is not getting to see how much further Cobain could’ve gone. Watching the show in 1994, with him newly deceased, I found it hard to believe. He seems so affable, mellow even, in front of the crowd, very easy-going and at home. And his ability to pour such angst and drama into his songs and singing seemed to suggest that he had it sussed. Whatever you can’t work out with people you get up on stage and give back to them sonically. I guess that’s always been how I’ve imagined the performing life. I know that many performers suffer from having to perform and suffer from the kind of life—the public life, in short—that it makes unavoidable. I suppose I assumed it was a give-and-take. You take the energies you soak up from all that exposure and you pour it out when you get back up there again.
That’s the way I feel about this song anyway. Cobain creates the tension that he rides here to the end. It’s a feeling of desolation, desperation, and disillusion. The woman the song addresses has maybe been unfaithful, but at some point that seems not even to be the concern. The fact that she can only say “in the pines in the pines where the sun don’t ever shine I’ll shiver the whole night through” or “I’m going where the cold wind blows” becomes a statement for the fatality of this situation. I imagine he’s killed her or is about to and that’s her final resting place. What’s wonderful is that all the sense of violence about to break out and also a terrible mourning are so fully contained in Cobain’s vocal.
Cobain cites the song as being by Lead Belly (or Hugh Ledbetter), though the song was around before Lead Belly did it and Cobain doesn’t follow Lead Belly’s version completely. Lead Belly sings “Black girl, black girl” rather than “my girl, my girl” and she speaks the lines about her husband’s head found in a driving wheel but his body never was found. In that version the song seems to be addressing a woman whose man has died or been killed and now, bereft, she’ll be wandering in the pines. The Nirvana version doesn’t communicate that situation at all. Here “her husband” is described and could well have been killed by the speaker, or his death is what has left “my girl” vulnerable. It could be said that the anguish expressed by Cobain’s vocal could be the girl’s, continuing the story of her lonely life in the pines, but I find in Cobain’s handling of the finish a kind of rage and recoil. If nothing else, this version makes us feel the horrible fatality of the girl’s situation.
In any case it’s a chilling, aching and unforgettable version.