Every so often I have to write a online story for the Sioux City Journal. These are referred to as "Coffee Breaks." By design, these articles are supposed to be short-and-sweet content that can be either informative or entertaining; they also give reporters a creative outlet to deviate away from their respective beats.
For some reason, I struggle to find something worth writing about. After writing so many articles based on interviews, I guess I have trouble devising a couple inches' worth of creative copy. And when I do have something I want to write about, it often goes on for far too long and could have probably run in The Weekender as a full-fledged story. Basically, I either struggle like hell to get a Coffee Break done or try too hard to write something I care about.
Last week was one of those days. My Coffee Break column was going to print April 5, so I looked up that date to see if anything substantial had happened. That's when I came across the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. Now there's something I could write about.
However, I decided I wouldn't delve too far into the controversies and conspiracies surrounding his death and whether I believe any of them (ask me at the bar the next time you see me). Instead, I wanted to focus on his music, more specifically the songs I loved to listen to that weren't released as singles.
After about 1,100 words, I managed to narrow down my five favorites: "Scentless Apprentice," "Paper Cuts," "Territorial Pissings," "Very Ape" and "Milk It." If I had more time, I probably would have listed my favorite Nirvana songs that were released as singles. So... that's what I'm going to do. Hope that's OK with everybody. See how I buried the lede just now? You're not supposed to do that in Reporter School. What was I talking about? Oh yeah. My top five favorite Nirvana singles:
The day I shared my Nirvana-inspired Coffee Break online, a reader emailed me how much our lists of favorite Nirvana songs overlapped. However, she would have switched out my inclusion of "Paper Cuts" for "Sliver." And honestly, I'd be fine with that if "Sliver" wasn't listed as a single.
It's a simple but effective song about a boy longing to go home, reflecting Cobain's own life. As someone who was raised by a single mother, I can understand the boy's anger and confusion as he repeatedly calls out "Grandma take me home!" after being dropped off by his parents. To me, "Sliver" isn't necessarily about telling a story, it's more about capturing the emotion of that kind of situation, evident by Cobain's voice getting increasingly more coarse and distraught as the song goes on.
4. YOU KNOW YOU'RE RIGHT
Huh? Don't recognize this one? Well, there's probably a good reason for that. "You Know You're Right" wasn't featured on any of Nirvana's studio albums. Not "Bleach." Not "Nevermind." Not "In Utero." However, this particular track does appear on the 2002 eponymous compilation album, "Nirvana."
"You Know You're Right" is a perplexing song. Lyrically, it's not as obvious as something like "Sliver." But it sure is depressing, like much of Cobain's lyrics. What I like about this song is its intermingling of personal lyrics and awesome jam out portions. You know it's time to go nuts when we get to the "Heys."
3. RAPE ME
I was deciding between "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Rape Me" for this spot. What ultimately was the deciding factor was the boldness of this song. I remember first listening to this song on the radio as a little kid. I distinctly remember my mom changing the channel in disgust. Toddler Chris had no idea what was going on at the time. Probably didn't know what rape was.
By the time I was a teenager, I finally listened to the song and reacted in much the same way my mom did. Although I was a bit more confused. "Why is he saying that? What exactly is he trying to say?" Only after listening to the song repeatedly (and watching a Nirvana special on VH1) did I discover Cobain's true intentions to make "Rape Me" an anti-rape song, albeit in a very blunt manner. That's the approach that should be used for a topic as serious as rape. Tiptoeing around or merely suggesting would only dilute it's impact.
2. THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD
I think one of my favorite bits of music trivia is David Bowie bemoaning the fact that young fans would commend him for playing a Nirvana song like "The Man Who Sold the World." To which Bowie would reply or think to himself, "F*** you, you little tosser."
Indeed, "The Man Who Sold the World" is not a Nirvana song. Bowie deserves that credit. However, I'd argue Nirvana's cover is not only just as good as Bowie's original, it may even be better (and I'm an avid fan of Bowie). Released as part of the "MTV Unplugged in New York" album, this cover track is given a new kind of honesty and drives home that sense of "longing-for-a-place-in-this-world" that I think most young people feel at one point in their lives.
1. PENNYROYAL TEA
Not sure if this last entry counts since the single was technically recalled shortly after Cobain's death. Screw it. I've already typed it out. It's not like I can just delete it or something. In any case, I love this song. "Pennyroyal Tea" is a darkly written song about distilling the life from within, much like the makeshift herbal tea used for abortions that Cobain frequently mentions.
Both the acoustic and studio versions of this song work wonderfully, but I think these days I tend to prefer the acoustic. The simple instrumentation of the plucky guitar emphasizes the song's strong lyrics. Again, this isn't an overly complicated track, but each verse feels as strong as the next. Cobain is able to allude to so much by saying very little.