All of the talk and articles about Nirvana in recent weeks over the 20th Anniversary of Nevermind, led me back to their entire catalog. One of my favorite Nirvana moments is their cover of “In The Pines” aka “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”. It’s simply a spell-binding performance. Cobain’s voice aches with rage and heartbreak. Listening to it without watching the performance (captured on their Unplugged performance) only tells half the story. When Cobain reaches the final “I will shiver” refrain, his eyes roll back into his head, as if this story actually happened to him. There’s a deadly pause, and with every ounce of energy he has left, finishes the final lines: “the whole night through”. As a whole, Nirvana wanted to stay true to their punk ethos, but with this song they conjured up the ghost of Leadbelly, and America itself.
Not that I knew the significance of this song when I first listened to it, in 1994. I just it was something special and a legendary performance. No one had to tell me that – it’s in the music itself. This was something entirely different than the blasts of punk energy and noise that Nirvana was known for. Even people who dismiss Nirvana, have a hard time denying the sheer power of that performance.
Looking back, it was probably my first real introduction to the blues. Sure, I knew of the blues. As a pre-teen/teenager the blues to me, meant Eric Clapton’s fluid leads and B.B. King’s appearance on U2’s “When Love Comes to Town”. I grew up listening to alternative bands of the 80s whose guitar playing and song structures were about as far away from the blues as you can get.
A few years later or so later, after repeated listens to “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” I wanted to know a little more about its origins. My older brother told me that it was a traditional blues song, usually associated with Lead Belly. Knowing that he had a lot of blues collections, I would sneak into his room when he was gone and play CDs by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others.
Suddenly the “classic rock” blues-inspired bands like Led Zeppelin (which I had also recently discovered) meant nothing compared to the deep-throated voice of Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Water’s manic performance of “Got My Mojo Working” from Newport. The legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to play guitar, was the spookiest and fascinating story I ever heard.
Previously I had always pictured traditional music as mundane, but this music felt more real than much of the stuff that was currently on the radio. Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin” exploded from the speakers as if he and his band were actually playing in the room next to me. Everytime I listened to “Got My Mojo Working” I wondered if the kit would make it through the entire song, or would be crushed into a bloody pulp. Buddy Guy with his violent, loud and aggressive playing seemed like the baddest guy to ever strap on a guitar. (I hadn’t really discovered Jimi Hendrix, yet.)
It would be years before I really started listening to the Blues on a regular basis, but in a way Nirvana set me up for it. So for that, I thank you Kurt.