When did "You Know You’re Right" become Kurt Cobain’s swan song?

There is a moment in the latter half of Everett True’s tremendous exegesis of Nirvana, whose groan-provoking title The True Story happily became The Biography for its paperback release, that an anguished and relapsing Kurt Cobain draws to an end the closing track of a setlist in Paris with a prolonged and agonizing scream. Both True and Charles Cross, in his own rivaling text Heavier Than Heaven (unfairly maligned as presumptuous and hagiographical), each heavily imply that toward the end of the band’s career, Courtney Love – at that point now the mother to the newborn Francis Bean – was known to have rekindled a past relationship with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan. It is less clear how Kurt, on the other side of the Atlantic playing a tour to support In Utero, was supposed to have become aware of it, or even if the scream was borne of that knowledge. Cross does not mention the story at all, although it is clear he is aware of the specific evening. The Cobain in True’s Story, wrapping up “Drain You”, is a disassociated mess, lost to opiates and apathy, damaged, sad.

True’s scrutiny of that sonic purgation immediately fingers the Corgan dalliance, and I still can scarcely bear to play Siamese Dream when my iPhone shuffles into it. Francis Bean’s nanny seems the primary source of record on the tryst, but Cali De Witt only comes just shy of complete accusation. “I think he suspected her of cheating on him with [Lemonheads’ vocalist] Evan Dando and Billy Corgan,” he told Everett True. “Was she? I think so. Did they get fucked up and make out one night? That counts to a husband who’s wondering. Was it a real affair? No, maybe not.” Nirvana played Paris on February 2nd, 1994, and just over sixty days later, Kurt Cobain was found dead from self-inflicted assassination by shotgun.

The issue of “You Know You’re Right” that most devotees of the band are familiar with is the headlining number on 2002’s Nirvana best-of collection. The track’s simple existence is a marvel in itself, the sole recording to conclude an unofficial hiatus during which Kurt isolated himself with Courtney in an extended bed-in first at the couple’s Los Angeles retreat and next in Seattle, to where they relocated at the beginning of 1994. The best evidence suggests that “You Know You’re Right” first rocked a professional studio on January 30th. Like most Nirvana songs, it was fleshed out in just a few takes. It is the band’s darkest recording, but also one of its best, of thematic kinship with In Utero‘s naked suffering: The derisive “she” who once loved like a Pisces in “Heart-Shaped Box” makes contact on the other side of the abyss with the hateful “she” expending all of that love on herself. Lyric sheets and karaoke consoles are here an instruction in understatement, dryly inserting pain for the grisly scream that finishes each refrain.

It is no small testament to the euphonic indefatigability of Nirvana to say that one’s enjoyment of its latter-day catalogue is considerably augmented by the mere pursuit of unheard tunes. The greatest of these underserved tracks includes “Even In His Youth,” a cut so sublime that it was made to appear publicly on the single that unleashed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into the world (even if it was later excised from the tracklist that would become Nevermind). I prefer the harsher 1989 demo version that appears on the With the Lights Out box-set, alongside gratifying remakes of Wipers classics “D-7” and “Return of the Rat”, grungier impressions of “Milk It” and “Breed”, and several acoustic covers to rival the unabashed beauty of Unplugged.

A great number of these rare tracks had already been known to Nirvana fans for years. Five volumes of Outcesticide bootlegs emerged in the intervening years between the band’s dissolution and the release of the two official anthologies. Of the 113 tracks spanning this collection by the count of my iTunes aggregate, relatively few constitute a listenable experience. When the publication of Kurt’s journals had been nigh at the end of 2002, there could be heard the ancient sigh of Nirvana apologists for the wanton commercialism of the man’s work, that this public exhibition of his privatest demons was to have pulled that sorry trigger anew. So it was curious that Outcesticide, a similar exposition of Nirvana in bloom compiled beyond the grave, ducked the question of intent when it came time to reckon what Kurt would and would not have wanted heard or read. (To say nothing, as always, of Krist and Dave.)

The bootlegs place even the hardest-core listener into the uncomfortable position of critiquing the monumental band on the level of the primordial. As Mark Richardson notes in his review of With the Lights Out for Pitchfork, Kurt’s usually supreme guitar fretting feels at times hobbled and rote when he is not aware he is playing for an audience. Other tracks begin with or segue into glorious music, only to be euthanized by an excess of feedback and shapeless clamor, such as the only recording of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” in electric instruments. And there are moments on Outcesticide that feel darkly soporific: try not to groan when he manages to slur and stumble over the words “Vicodins” and “Demerol” in an otherwise milky and ruminative rendition of “Pennyroyal Tea”. But consider that this cut was swiped from a soundboard in mid-October 1991, less than a month after the release of Nevermind and just nearly two years before Albini completed In Utero. In the album’s song, the stated addiction to prescription opiates has been euphemized into “warm milk and laxatives”, those vestiges of the brutalizing comedown, but both versions keep intact some of Kurt’s fiercest and most beloved lyrics, begging for the “Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally.”

There are enough unmistakably autobiographical sketches – “Negative Creep”, “School,” “Sliver”, “Serve the Servants”, “Downer”, “Heart-Shaped Box”, “Rape Me”, certain elements of “In Bloom”, “About a Girl”, and so on – in the Nirvana catalog that fans since the band’s very inception have been content to pad out the Cobain mythos with parallels in his songwriting. The North Aberdeen Bridge really did shelter the artist as a young man when he had no other place in the world, and its spray-painted inscriptions of hope may just be the last line of defense for the teenage pilgrim in whom there is something dispirited in the way. But while critics of Cobain’s writing ability maintain that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was at its genesis nothing more than a statement of Kathleen Hanna’s that Kurt had absorbed the scent of his then-girlfriend’s deodorant, the singer explained to Michael Azerrard that he really had been electrified by a session of revolutionary banter and originally took Hanna’s scrawl for a compliment, not an observation. The feverish strikes-out and margin commentary accompanying Kurt’s journal entry for this song’s lyrics should put the lie to doubters who hear “Dumb” literally.

“You Know You’re Right” does not also benefit from this abstraction. One needs only to hear Courtney Love pressing mourners to call her deceased husband an asshole and a fucker in her eulogy to wager a guess as to what – or, for that matter, whom – the song is about. Those without access to the eulogy (I apparently received it among my Outcesticide bootlegs, but it is not listed with the “official” tracks) nor the stomach to read a transcription may also glance cursorily at the lyrics of this monument to what Camus might have called knocking four quick measures onto the audio-reel of unhappiness. In Cobain’s own disquieting words:

I will move away from here
/ You won’t be afraid of fear / No thought was put into this / I always knew it’d come to this / Things have never been so swell / I have never failed to fail[/felt so well] / Pain!

Nothing really bothers her / She just wants to love herself

I am trying not to be too hard on Ms. Love. As long as the verdict on her infidelities is never settled, she was by most recollections an adoring if often aloof and perturbed spouse, a little too over-bored, a little too self-assured, and completely unprepared for the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth of marrying into psychosis. One almost disturbs oneself by empathizing with the frontwoman of Hole, who can also be credited with the nightmare of saving Cobain from the suicide attempts that did not succeed. And yet the written epilogue accompanying the first and more lethal overdose apparently included the names of men Cobain believed had cuckolded him, and Charles Cross, the most likely person to have actually handled the letter, reports that Billy Corgan was on it.

If one is tempted to implicate Love in the unfortunate culmination of it all the following month, the surest case against her is failing to do enough to mollify her husband’s narcotic paranoia, if that is all it really was. And if Courtney had made all of the appropriate advances at conciliation, Kurt was not persuaded. The With the Lights Out box-set includes a tinny acoustic rendition of “You Know You’re Right” captured on a boombox at the Cobain residence months before he would even suspect perfidy from his daughter’s mother. Here is Cobain excerpted again and sounding almost as if he were freestyling:

I will never walk it through / I could never promise you … / This will mean I’ll love again / Guess I’ll never have a fan … It’s a never-ending dream / I will always want to faint … / It’s another point of view / Look at me when I was you / I could never die again / I won’t lose another friend / She will see another me …

We may detect the cursory hint of relationship anxiety among an otherwise frustratingly vague collection of stanzas, but it remained just that even as the song makes its next appearance at an Aragon Ballroom performance on October 23rd that same year. I first heard this version on the Outcesticide V bootleg, wherein Dave Grohl can be heard erroneously announcing the next track to be “All Apologies.” The audio fidelity of the recording is so achingly poor that in place of the proper title of this previously-unheard track the curators of this disk had apparently heard variously “On a Mountain”, “I’m a Mountain”, or even “Autopilot.” (It is much beyond the pale that a band as artistically novel as Nirvana would have songs called both “On a Plain” and “On a Mountain.”) Even Charles Cross was fooled, misplacing both the speaker and his intent. When the song begins in earnest, virtually none of the lyrics can be discerned. It is what is missing, however, that should interest us – namely, any of the accusatory rhyming patterns of the studio version. Even in a recording as muddied and incoherent as this one, the song can still be identified more closely with the acoustic demo above than with the caustic professional cut that headed off Nirvana. We also see the first emergence of a refrain that sounds, at the very least, like “pain.”

There is another scream to which I would now like to draw your attention. It is indeed rather a succession of screams, and after hearing them the listener may find himself reaching for his throat to massage out a phantom rawness in his vocal cords. Bringing to a climax a concert at Le Zénith in Paris, Nirvana performed the number usually considered the superior exemplar of its live shows, a nearly seven-minute arrangement of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. Aside from some remarkable tweaks to the cello accompaniment, and given that Cobain has always swelled the violence in his voice for the closing verse, the Leadbelly cover is at first largely indistinguishable from its grand execution on Unplugged. The audience loudly erupts in appreciative ovation at precisely the moment it remembers the music finishing in MTV’s broadcast … but, over their applause, Cobain keeps going. It is February 14th, 1994, the last Valentine’s Day of Kurt Cobain’s life, and the song has not ended, but transformed, with all that remains the question, the verse, the screaming and the tears, as he tries to mask the sonic shrillness of his voice cracking before legions of Parisian admirers by savaging each word into an esophagus-shredding recrimination. At this point, the cello sounds so beautiful that its player seems almost complicit in his very public torture, as it billows out under Kurt’s shrieking for his girl, his girl, don’t lie to him, tell him where did you sleep last night.

Charles Cross and Everett True differ on the whereabouts of Courtney Love when her husband played Le Zénith, and I am more inclined to trust True, that, at least through Cobain’s February 20th birthday as well as their second anniversary four days later, she was in Los Angeles (rather than London, as she would claim). And then, on March 1st, Kurt opened a set with a disturbed cover of “My Best Friend’s Girl”, the Cars song with lyrics that read: She’s my best friend’s girl / But she used to be mine. No psychotic screams, just bitter defeatism. Is it any wonder that, less than two months earlier, “You Know You’re Right” had acquired the razor’s edge that it did? You know he knew.