I Was Young When I Left Home: How Kurt Cobain’s Voice Resonates

There are times when you hear Kurt Cobain sing that you believe no other voice has ever told the truth about suffering. But it's more complicated than that, isn't it?

There are times when you hear Kurt Cobain sing the you believe no other voice has ever told the truth about suffering. But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?

“Used to tell my Ma sometimes

when I see them riding blinds,

‘Gonna make me a home out in the wind.’

In the wind, Lord, in the wind.

Make me a home out in the wind.

I don’t like it in the wind,

I’m gonna go back home again,

but I can’t go home thisaway.”

–“I Was Young When I Left Home”, Bob Dylan

“Aaaaaaaay! Saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

–“Intro”, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

Cobain’s voice could sound like it was clawing its way out of a garbage can.

1. On the day I’m trying to finish off this essay, the rain starts in the early morning and by noon the backyard is filled with puddles. It’s the end of March; the temperature nicks 40 degrees and drops. The rain turns to pellets of ice, then snow. And the wind. To hell with this wind. To hell with this never-ending winter. All I want to do is curl up and wait it out.

Even when it’s screaming, some part of Kurt Cobain’s voice always contains that desire. Listen to “You Know You’re Right” or “Something in the Way” or even “Scentless Apprentice”; I don’t think it makes much of a difference, though I admit the quality is hard to put into words. Call it a permanent vulnerability. A defiant withdrawal from society. Call it childishness if you want. Sometimes I think it’s just a rumor.

2. Cobain killed himself 20 years ago, in April 1994. Throughout this month, the genuine and the scavenging will write about his personality, his childhood, his drug use, his tempestuous marriage to Courtney Love, and the circumstances of his suicide. Oh yes, and maybe some will write about the music he made with primarily Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl.

Without meaning to, they’ll write as if the music is as dead as Cobain, a thing attached to a generation (X) or a genre (grunge) or the person who sang it. For some the mystery is in the final act of a 27-year-old man who thought he’d sold away his world, not in the music he left behind or the voice that remains.

3. Imagine a cabin in a snow-covered wood. You build the cabin for protection from the elements, and though you can’t hide from yourself in there, at least you don’t have to expose everything you hate about yourself to the rest of the world. Hibernation, the mode of choice for the abused, neglected, ostracized, and depressed, isn’t defeatist. It’s protection.

On some songs, Cobain’s voice doesn’t get past the cabin’s front porch; as he sings “Something in the Way” on Nevermind, you loiter outside, hearing him through the window. The volume of the voice isn’t the only thing that matters; there are any number of live performances wherein Cobain sounds like he’s screaming from inside that cabin, screaming for you to leave him alone, screaming for help, screaming because it’s the only thing he can think to do, screaming because it’s fun and people are listening.

Away from the cabin life is good, good enough that his voice dares to think it’s free. You hear this most of all in Nirvana‘s life performances, away from the self-conscious crafting of the studio. “Drain You” was always like that. The raw nerve endings of “School”. His voice plays around with its timbre, tries on a few masks, like the parody of the Hollywood dream in the band’s cover of Fang’s “The Money Will Roll Right In”. But the voice never loses sight of that cabin through the pines, as if it worries it’ll forget how to follow the path back. The anxiety is a tether, what some hear as the authenticity in Cobain’s voice.

4. That’s enough about cabins.

5. If I could go back to when I was 17 years old in 1991, I’d want to hear Nirvana as I hear the band now. Back then, their music was too simple for me to understand. I just thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a hilarious song, its video a send-up of the high-school culture I was ready to bolt from. What a smug, know-it-all schmuck I was! And while my opinions began to change with In Utero, on which the slick sheen of Nevermind‘s production was replaced with a rougher leather coat, right from the first stumbling riffs of “Serve the Servants”, there was a still a distance between the music and my enjoyment of it. I wasn’t worried about, you know; I had other things going on.

6. The MTV Unplugged set finally converted me. Watching the broadcast in December 1993, I felt like I was seeing the beginning of the second act of a play I hadn’t understood, but now, suddenly did. All those strange words in the first act made sense.

Partly it was the covers: The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”, David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”, “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau” by the Meat Puppets (“Oh Me” was performed but not included until the release of the album after Cobain’s death), and that harrowing performance of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” These songs by other people showed me who Nirvana wanted to be, or thought they might have once been, or might accidentally become if the power was shut off. (Okay, Cobain played his acoustic through an amp. Who cared then? Why care now?)

That session also exposed Cobain’s ragged, pained voice, the element that for me unlocked Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero. The tornado of the band’s sonic assault banished, Cobain’s voice sounds like it’s lost a post to lean against. Take “Pennyroyal Tea”, appropriately enough—”I have very bad posture”—and hear his voice slide up into the notes and struggle to hold onto them.

Some songs he can cruise through, like “About a Girl” or “Dumb”, but others he pours every ounce of his scraped, self-abused voice into, like “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. “All Apologies” is deceptive, his voice calm at first, then cracking as it leans into “in the sun”, snarling “Married” again and again, as if he can’t believe it, and then trailing away, retreating.

7. So it’s December 1993, and now that you finally ‘get it’, you run down the aisle of the theatre, waving your arms like a madman, and shout at the actors, “Stop! Go back and do the first act again!” They can’t hear you, of course. They continue on with a second act that lasts until April 1994.

8. Cobain’s voice always sounds young, by which I mean not childish or adolescent but exactly what it was: the voice of a man in his early 20s who could reach back into his childhood and adolescence, neither of them particularly sunny, and call them up out of his throat. The helplessness and the confusion. The anger. Cobain never sounds, not once, like he’s trying to be older. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” would have been a perfect occasion, but he only sounds like a dog that’s been kicked out of town.

9. “Sliver” is the child, sure, but in a weird, complicated way. The bass riff pops along like a kid chewing bubblegum, but Cobain’s voice, an octave lower than normal, sounds like a doofus, one kid making fun of another kid who can only mumble. The lyrics sound like a kid, too—”Had to eat my dinner there/Mashed potatoes and stuff like that”—but the ferocity of the chorus leaps ahead in time to the pissed-off adult who sees the pattern this one instance of abandonment belongs to and the consequences it leads to.

And then in that third verse, Cobain’s voice jumps an octave. It’s bratty and seething at the same time, somehow. If it was any less scarred, you’d accuse the singer of whining; if it was less obnoxious, the song would become too heavy-handed.

10. In “Scentless Apprentice”, that boy is all done growed up now, looking back at himself to find the main character in Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume. The words fly past in a mush; you hear the boy only in Cobain’s voice, only in the striving, upward-tilted angle of the neck you might imagine as you hear the song and in the adolescent defiance of his yelping in the verses.

The choruses, though. Jesus, that’s a whole other thing. All he screams is “Go away/Get away”, but on the In Utero version, distorted with some kind of effects pedal or by mixing, the voice sharpens the words into machinery. Far more terrifying is what Cobain achieves in live versions of the song without effects. The version on From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, for example. When he hits the chorus, Cobain shrieks like a wounded, cornered animal, turning the “a” of “away!” into “awayeeeeee!” until, the last time, the cry tumbles off a cliff.

For the record, there is no bad version of “Scentless Apprentice”.

11. Also, on the television show Lost, when the producers wanted to show Jack at his lowest in the season four finalé, they had him cruising along to the Pixies’ “Gouge Away”. When they wanted to show him in an even worse state, they had him listening to “Scentless Apprentice”.

12. Cobain’s voice is never that big American voice as we usually think of it: a voice that sounds like it’s carried on the wind, or in the wind. Dylan’s voice has always been like that, ever since he was a 20-year-old trying to sound 70. Cash. Billie Holiday. Springsteen. The flat tornadoes of Neko Case’s voice. The big lonesome of Jimmie Rodgers. Cobain’s voice is smaller than those. Thinner. It’s never on the wind, it crouches against it, bleating, as if it hates the wind it conjures up.

13. Don’t pass it off on the drugs. It was never just the drugs.

14. If Cobain’s voice has a quintessential mode, I guess it’s the soft-loud-soft dynamic that matches the soft verse-loud chorus-soft verse structure of so many Nirvana songs: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Rape Me”, “Lithium”, “Pennyroyal Tea”. In them, and in the span of seconds, a mumble explodes into a war cry against the self and returns to a mumble. What Cobain finds in those individual parts is usually more compelling than just the shift from one to the other, but the shift needs to happen, like a you need a catapult to fling a fighter jet off an aircraft carrier.

If you can hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” without all of its Gen-X trappings, you can still be thrilled by the takeoff into the chorus, and maybe you can also hear the way Cobain’s voice rides the melody, the up-and-down motion from “With the lights out” to “it’s less dangerous”, the way he pinches “Entertain us” to sound like a condemnation.

15. But no single song or performance epitomizes Cobain’s voice, which has more expressive range than plenty of trained singers’ voices. It can sound like it’s clawing its way out of a garbage can. It can turn on itself, stopping at the end of a phrase and reversing direction, devouring everything that just came before it even as the song hurtles forward. Yips, yelps, guttural moaning. An emergency call from a guy who isn’t in a particular rush. He becomes the dumb guy in shop class you made fun of. He becomes a redneck.

The voice leers at you, points its finger. “I could be doing safer things,” it seems to say, “like working some dead-end job back in Aberdeen. Why are you making me do this?” If you listen, you can hear those dead-end jobs haunting his voice, too, the future he never wanted to live, the future he’s shocked to have escaped.

16. A hand dragged against sandpaper. You can keep searching and searching, you know?

17. Cobain’s voice knows it is sound first; it breaks words apart, reduces and expands them into noises. In “Breed”, “she said” is repeated so often you start to hear “she sad”. In “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “hello” becomes “how low”. Live this is taken to extremes, like “Tourette’s” at Reading in 1992, where words collapse into the occasional symptom itself. The torrent of the rant and its elementary rhythm are all that matter.

In a feature for Rolling Stone in the same year, Michael Azerrad mentions that Cobain liked Samuel Beckett, who in 1937 referred to his writing as “literature of the unword”. That’s what Cobain does time and time again: unwords words. In “Tourette’s”, “mean heart” (if that’s what he’s singing) transforms into a donkey braying.

18. “All in all is all we all are”—Beckett didn’t write that, but he would have admired it.

19. Cobain brutally mocks his own voice, too, as if the very notion of “his voice” is too precious to stand. During a 1991 taping for the UK show Top of the Pops, a performance included on Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, he sings “Smells Like Teen Spirit” like a molasses-voiced Frank Sinatra. Miming along to the album recording, the band makes no pretense of actually playing their instruments; before the intro is over, Krist Novoselic has already spun his bass guitar behind his head, and as the song’s signature two-note riff chimes through the speakers, Cobain doesn’t even touch his guitar. Only his vocals are live, are real, and he turns them into a Vegas parody of the song’s success, pushing his voice into a tar pit.

I keep thinking he’ll give up on the joke, but he never does. When the guitar solo arrives, he holds his guitar straight up above his head and pogoes into the crowd, as if he just stole the king’s crown.

The joke doesn’t last as long in a 1991 performance of “Negative Creep”, which Cobain starts in a Mickey Mouse voice until the chorus transforms him into one of those self-loathing high-school jocks he always hated. Both voices are monstrosities, and even if he didn’t plan the icy squeal—even if it was just something that happened in the moment—it throws his normal singing voice into sharp relief, suggests they’re both parodies, pretense.

Sometimes it’s not so dire. Live at Reading in 1992, again—the set which featured Cobain being brought onto stage in a wheelchair and a medical gown, a stab at press speculations about his health; this whole essay could be about that performance. Anyway, Cobain stumbles on the second line of the intro to “Sliver”, laughs, glances at Novoselic and bobs his head back and forth as if to say, “Why not?” then turns his voice into the child’s: “kicked and screamed/said ‘Please don’t go”, bratty, throwing a fit. Recovering for the chorus, he sings the next verse by yelping the first two words of each line then dropping into a rumbling bass for the others.

20. Nothing in those newly released suicide photos tells you a damn thing about the man’s voice, except that it was one more thing he was willing to part with. But you can hear that in every song.

21. There are times when you hear Cobain sing that you can believe no other voice has ever told the truth about suffering. It’s a voice that emerges from tangled guts and travels a windpipe that sounds like it’s only made of bone. Cobain’s heroin addiction may have developed into the nightmare it became from an attempt to ease what Azerrad described in that same 1992 Rolling Stone article as “a long-standing and painful stomach condition—perhaps probably an ulcer—aggravated by stress and, apparently, his screaming singing style.”

Sometimes you can hear his voice fighting through his body, centered in its painful middle, shaking him. Cobain pointed out to Azerrad that “Most of the concentration of my singing is from my upper abdomen, that’s where I scream, that’s where I feel, that’s where everything comes out of me—right here”, which Azerrad described as “a point just below his breastbone”, noting that “It just happens to be exactly where his stomach pain is centered.”

22. And yet, in live performance after live performance, Cobain’s voice breaks free into what Allen Ginsberg once described, referring to a younger Bob Dylan, as a “column of air”, a seemingly effortless breath that still sounds bruised and scraped. Never entirely free, but close enough to count. The effort doesn’t seem to be in the now of the singing, it’s in the past, lining the scored tissue of his throat and abdomen.

He’s been able to forget that he’s singing. This is different than a willful attempt to avoid “good” singing or “singing” altogether, like Lou Reed deadpanning his way through “New York” or Kathleen Hanna screaming through “Suck My Left One”. Listen to The Wipers’ “D-7” and its lead singer more or less singing the song, and then listen to Nirvana’s version on Live at Reading, in which it sounds like there’s no film between Cobain’s desire to sing and the singing itself, no sense in his brain that the singing is happening.

Maybe it was never that easy, not once, and it only sounds that way.

23. There are times when you hear Cobain sing that you can believe no other voice has ever told the truth about suffering, about the desperation that causes it, about the lies it makes you tell to yourself and the people you love. Yes. A desire to curl up and wait it out. Yes.

But there’s a desperate courage in that voice, too. A willingness to venture out onto a precarious limb. Risk. Art. For as long as it can last.