Nearly 20 years after the suicide of Kurt Cobain, I found myself watching this performance once again, Nirvana’s rendition of Lead Belly’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” The television played this MTV Unplugged in New York performance on a loop as I sat on the floor at a friends’ apartment in the East Village the night Cobain was found dead at 27. They played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” over and over again. The memory is so strong that I know it must be false.
“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” was the last in the Unplugged set, the last song on what would be Nirvana’s final album. The fragile and surprising live performance of this song is Kurt Cobain’s defining moment. In a 1993 interview, not long before his death, Cobain told a reporter that he had been introduced to Lead Belly from reading William S. Burroughs. “I’d never heard about Lead Belly before so I bought a couple of records, and now he turns out to be my absolute favorite of all time in music,” he said. “I absolutely love it more than any rock’n’roll I ever heard.” On the MTV stage, Cobain told the audience, “This was written by my favorite performer… Our favorite performer, isn’t it?” he asked his band. And then he began to strum. The tempo Cobain chose seemed almost too slow but the band did not hurry him. Unlike Lead Belly’s bluesy, waltzy 1944 version, Nirvana played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” as a dirge. There were candles all around the stage; a purple light glowed around the band. Cobain sang hunched over with his eyes nearly shut, as if were simultaneously performing and elsewhere. He sang:
My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through
Her husband, was a hard working man
Just about a mile from here
His head was found in a driving wheel
But his body never was found
Grunge was often defined by its negativity. It was not a rebellious negativity but a passive negation, a canceling out. If you asked grunge what it was for, the answer was, supposedly, “Nothing.” The same answer might be given if you asked grunge what it was against. This sentiment was encapsulated by Kurt Cobain’s famous — and perhaps most enduring — lyric, “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” The sullen indifference (sometimes referred to as irony) of grunge — and the generation that produced it — was mind-boggling and infuriating to the generation of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, generations defined by wars and causes. Grunge had no external wars, no causes that felt immediate enough to be worth fighting for. The grunge generation was said to be internal — in other words, self-absorbed. This was true. Grunge looked mostly inward, as its war was with and about itself. Musically speaking, grunge’s most direct influence was punk. But where the full-blown nihilism and shock of punk still had the touch of theatre and play, grunge was all the more desperate for feeling it had nothing really to show. Punk was shredded, ripped-apart, exploded. Punk was dyed in brilliant colors, adorned with metal and combat boots. Punk was furious. “Kick over the wall, cause government’s to fall,” sang The Clash. Grunge was torn, faded, uncombed. It was the sweater your friend found in a thrift store and annoyingly left on your floor for a month, which you decided to start wearing for lack of initiative to get your own sweater. The image of grunge was, essentially, that of a homeless person.
Punk screamed at you. Grunge called into the desolation. “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” This lyric is far from a battle cry. This is the song of despair.
The homeless despair of grunge was born of a generation that felt itself on the fringes of American life. Few people could understand how young Americans who lived in relative prosperity and peace could sing about alienation so passionately that it sounded like a crisis. What crisis was there in suburbia, in the innocuous food court of the mall? “Anti-social” and “non-aspirational” were other adjectives used but a better word, perhaps, is “bereft.” What defined grunge most was a longing, a grasping for something essential but inexpressible.
Kurt Cobain liked to remember himself as a happy child in Aberdeen, who lost his joy when his parents divorced. Cobain withdrew into himself after that; he never felt quite right again. “I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason,” he told journalist Jon Savage in a 1993 interview. “I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn’t face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.” Cobain told Savage that he became antisocial as he started to “understand the reality of his surroundings.” Then, Cobain turned the conversation to genealogy. He had recently discovered his Irish ancestry, he told Savage, by calling random Americans whose name was similar to his. “I couldn’t find any Cobains at all, so I started calling Coburns. I found this one lady in San Francisco who had been researching our family history for years… They came from County Cork, which is a really weird coincidence, because when we toured Ireland, we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze. I’d never felt more spiritual in my life.”
When Cobain married and had a child in the last two years of his life, the question arose how it could be possible that two heroin-addicted rock musicians could raise a child. Less considered was the very fact that two heroin-addicted rock musicians wanted so much to be a family. “I’m too sensitive,” Cobain wrote to Boddah, his childhood imaginary friend on the night he shot himself in the head, “I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasms I once had as a child. … I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad.” Kurt Cobain’s music might have been self-absorbed, but it wasn’t indifferent. It was an expression of sincerity that had no place to go.
I’m worst at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” is not Lead Belly’s song. He shares it with a hundred and fifty years of musicians who came before and after him. It is a folksong whose author has been lost to time, dating at least back to the 1870s, passed down from singer to singer for decades until it was printed in 1917. The song has been recorded and re-recorded, at the rate of nearly once a year since it was written, taking the form of bluegrass, blues, pop, folk, Cajun, zydeco, rock, country and western. It is a very American song.
The lyrics of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” change with the renditions; from the 19th century, the song has been a metaphor for exile, slavery, life in the coal mines or the Great Depression. Sometimes there is a long timeless train in the place of the decapitation, but nearly everyone sings of a cold wind, a shivering, a desolation. Who is this girl spending a long windy night sleeping in the woods, the man who loses his body? The song is all questions and no answers. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” is mysterious, full of longing, and alienation, and a matter-of-fact despair that offers no solutions.
American music is as much the child of this despair as it is of optimism. In the 19th century, as America was really coming into her own, some musicians chose to recreate the melodies of European parades and waltzes. All the while, other music was bubbling up from the country’s swamps and her deep dark pines. It was a music of homelessness, hopelessness, lost love, hard work, murder, suicide. Of course no music expresses these feelings so blatantly as the blues. With Kurt Cobain’s Unplugged in New York performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (specifically, Lead Belly’s version of the song) he was connecting grunge to its despairing American roots – you might say its rootless roots – changing himself from a rock star to a participant in the American musical tradition.
Kurt Cobain was anxious on the night of the Unplugged show. People said he was suffering from drug withdrawal, that he wasn’t smiling, or joking, that he didn’t seem to be having any fun. Earlier, Cobain had asked the show’s producer to decorate the stage with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. “You mean like a funeral?” asked the producer. And Cobain replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral.”
In the last verse of the song, Cobain leaned forward in his gray office chair and broke into a scream.
My girl, my girl, where will you go?
I’m going where the cold wind blows
In the pines, the pines
Where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole …
Just before he was about to finish, Cobain sighed fast and opened his eyes in one last, panicked stare, as is someone has told him a secret he never wanted to know.
After the set, Cobain wandered off the stage in a bit of a daze. He lit a cigarette, stopped by some fans in the audience to sign a few autographs. Apparently, the producers of the show wanted Kurt to go out and do an encore, but Cobain told them he was finished. • 1 April 2014