Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time
"Where Did You Sleep Last Night" - Nirvana
Attributed to Huddie Ledbetter
From MTV Unplugged in New York (Geffen, 1994)
This V-C-V originally ran on August 23, 2005 on pcmunoz.com
I have a picture of Kurt Cobain on my desk. It's a pretty well-known shot: a sort of sad close-up, with Cobain sporting a scruffy beard and looking directly into the camera, a few blonde locks falling over his face. At the bottom it says KURT COBAIN, 1967-1994. It serves to remind me that we never know from where our great artists will come, or when they will leave us.
I thought Kurt Cobain was an astonishingly expressive vocalist. I'd put his screaming up there with Prince, his emotional voice-breaks up there with Hank Williams, and his commanding way with a melody in there with any of the great pop singers. I liked his original songs quite a bit, especially "Come as You Are", "All Apologies", "Heart Shaped Box", "In Bloom", and the more recently released "You Know You're Right, which has a great, unique vocal.
Nirvana's version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is attributed (writing-wise) in the liner notes to Huddie Ledbetter, better known as the influential 20th century folk musician Lead Belly, though the song (sometimes known as "In the Pines" or "Black Girl") is reputed to have roots that go a little further back than Lead Belly. I find it significant, and indicative of Kurt Cobain's serious devotion to the art of songwriting, that Cobain reportedly idolized Lead Belly and in general seems to have been interested in songs that were created before the advent of rock 'n' roll.
Nirvana's rendering of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is shot through with personal pain and creepy paranoia. The chorus is essentially the heart of the song, and sets the mood right from the beginning: "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..."
The arrangement is spare, open, and flavored with Lori Goldston's cello and Dave Grohl's especially light-handed flourishes on the drumkit. After a brief instrumental middle section, the band launches into a last round of choruses. The final chorus contains one of the most harrowing vocals in a pop song that you'll ever hear: as the band revs it up a notch in intensity, Cobain steps up his vocal to a near manic state, seemingly channeling the pain and power of every past singer of the song, while remaining enormously musical and tuneful. The effect is positively chilling. It's an odd little coda to the heavy-duty unleashing of emotions when Cobain offers a quiet "Thank you" in response to the applause (from the MTV audience) that closes the performance.
While on tour in the Pacific Northwest in support of my record California a few years back, I noticed a sign on the freeway for Cobain's hometown, Aberdeen. I had an impulse to venture into the town and soak in the vibes of Aberdeen and the other small Washington towns where Kurt Cobain spent his early years. We didn't have time for that kind of stop, so instead I just peered out the back window of the van, watching the road to Aberdeen disappear behind us.
I wish he hadn't left us so soon.