While ‘Run’ – the new Foo Fighters single – is on the air, we take a ride in 1993. Nirvana, at times, were still alive and a certain drummer surprised Kurt Cobain during the ‘In Utero’ legendary sessions. With a simple, lovely tune…
The year 1992 was no easy one for Nirvana. The world wanted them, but they largely chose to shun the world. The boom of ‘Nevermind’ (1991) had cast an eerie shadow over the entire group, especially in the head of the leader Kurt Cobain. Maybe it had not been such a great idea to go with the “populist” vision of Geffen and Butch Vig, the producer of that multi-million selling album.
Nirvana were unbeatable when they got the mix just right, alternating bitter angry songs with sickly sweet melodies. And unfortunately, on the album of ‘Smells like teen spirit’, the sweet ones outweighed the bitter. «Our next record will have a lot more punk», the singer explained to an English magazine, «though we’ll still scatter a few candies here and there».
To this recipe of Kurt’s just add a record that was selling like hot cakes, a close relationship between the main songwriter and heroin and a new baby on the way (Frances Bean, the much trumpeted daughter of Love and Cobain) and it’s pretty obvious why Nirvana didn’t get around much in 1992, but when they did, they played up a storm (like at the landmark concert in Reading). And yet the music business kept on demanding their presence. «We turned down world tours with U2, Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam: basically, we’d say no to anybody. It was like holding a match and watching it burn down to your fingers», remembers Dave Grohl, ex-drummer of Scream who joined the group just before ‘Nevermind’ was recorded.
An awkward situation he was in too: «In the beginning, I was just the umpteenth drummer of Nirvana, it probably wouldn’t last. In Winter of 1990, I was living in Olympia, in Kurt’s house, but we didn’t become friends straight away… There was a connection there, but he was much closer to Krist (Novoselic, ed.)». Two years later and things had changed dramatically: Nirvana felt compelled to record a proper album. Partly to apologise to all the fans who had been so into ‘Bleach’ and saw ‘Nevermind’ as a total sell-out to the entertainment industry. «It was no big deal for me», recalls Grohl, «seeing as how I was used to my friends in Washington D.C. having a laugh at my expense since I’d become a big fucking corporate rock star. But it really got to Kurt».
Which was why this time it was going to have to be much more “pure” right from the outset. Even down to the choice of producer. «Steve Albini was chosen after we’d laid down a load of instrumental tracks with Jack Endino. Steve liked those demos. He asked us for a hundred thousand dollars and jumped on board». So they were all set for the grand adventure in Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls (Minnesota). Adventure? It was more like a monastic retreat. Twelve hour stints in the studio every day, analog/ambient recordings (digital being the work of Satan for the likes of Albini) and no contact with the outside world. Grohl gave it his all while Cobain unveiled one sterling song after another (‘Serve the servants’, ‘Heart-shaped box’, ‘Rape me’, ‘Pennyroyal tea’, ‘Frances Farmer will have her revenge on Seattle’ etc.). There’s a bit of everything on that disc (from the Beatles melody of ‘Dumb’ to the suffocating punk of ‘Milk it’ and the elegy of ‘All apologies’) and the drummer has full rein.
Dave was inspired. He recorded all his tracks in just three days with his instrument surrounded by thirty vintage microphones. Not one vibration escaped the recording. Albini, usually harsh in his judgement of rock stars, was oddly satisfied. «When you’ve got a great drummer and you record him they way you should, well then you’re already half-way there». Once his sessions were over, he would have needed another rite of passage: to write an entire track to go on an official Nirvana album. But modesty got in the way. Or awe. «I’d been writing music for years – told Grohl – but in that band there was such a special chemistry that I’d never ever have dreamt of interfering with it». And yet, the drummer has a little something set aside, a lovely melody called ‘Color pictures of a Marigold’ that Dave had already recorded on a little known record that came out towards the end of 1992 under the pseudonym Late! called ‘Pocketwatch’. A real cult-album released only on audio-cassette.
One afternoon, Grohl was singing it under his breath, taking care not to wake Cobain who was having a nap in the next room. Suddenly the door was thrown wide open and a voice made him jump out of his skin: «Wow, what was that? Play it again, pal». And it was Kurt in the doorway with a smile all over his face. Five minutes later the two of them were finishing the arrangement. «Something that still weirds me out seeing as how in the Foo Fighters I write the songs off my own bat. To be working with a great songwriter was really weird, and then that guy happens to be Kurt Cobain…». It only took an hour and ‘Marigold’ was as good as done: Dave sang the main vocals, Kurt did the backing vocals in the chorus and the euphoria was palpable. Albini even wanted to put it on the new record, but then it was the drummer who took a sharp step back: «No. No way. ‘In Utero’ is totally Kurt’s vision, his private world, no outside contributions. We’ll pick it up again somewhere else». And so it was that seven months later ‘Marigold’ came out as the (highly acclaimed) B-side of the single ‘Heart-shaped box’.
Over twenty years, David Eric Grohl was to become one of most respected and successful rock musicians ever, maybe the most respected of all. And all thanks to Foo Fighters, for sure, and that little ‘Marigold’ too. «That evening in ’93 I came out with something over dinner. Hey guys, what was the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out of the band? Buddies, I’ve written a song!». Everyone laughed, especially Cobain. Nobody wanted to feel down with a sandwich and a beer in front of them. The record was coming along really well, it was a sure-fire hit. And the future for Nirvana couldn’t have seemed rosier…