Nirvana's Incesticide turns twenty

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In the wake of the generation defining, pop music altering, astronomically hyped wonder that was Nirvana's Nevermind, Kurt Cobain would spend the next two and a half years of his life trying to remind people what his band was actually all about (while simultaneously trying to figure that out himself). After embarking on world tours, gracing countless magazine covers and garnering persistent praise from the likes of MTV, Nirvana released Incesticide on December 14, 1992.

See also: - Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction turns 25 - Beastie Boys' Check Your Head turns twenty - Today in history archives

A collection of b-sides, covers and live rarities, Incesticide seemed custom designed to antagonize fans of Nevermind's radio singles, while illuminating the hearts and minds of true believers. It was a kind of sociopathic Rorschach test for music buyers: one hears a sloppy, discordant hodgepodge of poorly recorded drunk musicians, while another experiences the primal, focused energy of a band that -- at least when behind their instruments -- always knew exactly what they were doing.

"I'd rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I'm not," Cobain is famous for saying (even though the songwriter actually borrowed the line from French author Andre Gide). With Incesticide we were treated to a Nirvana that existed almost completely outside the stormy circus of Nevermind, most of the recordings predating the band's rise to pop phenomenon.

As an opening track, "Dive" feels as much of a Gen-x anthem as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," with its cynical disillusionment ("Pick me, pick me yeah/Everyone is waiting/Hit me, hit me yeah/I'm real good at hating") and it's messianic call to arms ("dive, dive, dive in me") -- though it's always been tricky business trying to decode Cobain's lyrics, partly for their intentional paradoxes and misleading ambiguity, but also because the songwriter notoriously despised journalists using his words as a gateway into his psyche.

"I've read so many pathetic, second rate Freudian evaluations of my childhood," Cobain once wrote in his journals, published after his death in 2002, "about how I'm a notoriously fucked up heroin addict, alcoholic, self destructive, yet overtly sensitive, frail, neurotic, soft-spoken, narcoleptic little piss ant who is at any moment going to O.D."

Yet at the same time, it has to be acknowledged that Cobain often used songwriting as a therapeutic reflection of his troubled childhood, which can be seen in the 1990 Sub-pop single "Sliver," a melodically infectious, bass-driven tune about being carelessly shuffled over to Grandpa Joe's house as a child: "I kicked and screamed, said, 'Please, don't go/Grandma take me home/Grandma take me home/I wanna be alone.'"

It's been well documented that Kurt Cobain often felt unwanted as a child, seeing his father Don Cobain as disappointed that Kurt was not more of a sports-loving, broad-shouldered laborer like so many males of Aberdeen, Washington. "She should have stood out in a crowd/She should have made her mother proud/She should have fallen on her stance/She should have had another chance/She should've been a son" Cobain sings in "Been A Son," a song written from the assertion that Don Cobain wished Kurt's sister had been a boy, taking up the testosterone flag that Kurt had long since abandoned.

Often overshadowed by squealing feed-back and punk-rock rawness, many songs on Incesticide display Nirvana's deep affection for catchy melodies and traditional pop structures. Both "Sliver" and "Been A Son" reveal Cobain's deep-seated affection for Lennon/McCartney hooks, particularly in early albums like Meet The Beatles, which Cobain often cited as one of his all time favorites (bet he would've gotten a kick out McCartney sitting in with his former bandmates last night), along with other unlikely poptastic inspirations such as Abba, the Bay City Rollers, the Knack and Boston.

Perhaps influenced by his time spent in Olympia, Washington, Cobain loved to surprise his hardcore punk audience by featuring his syrupy, twee-centric roots (evidenced by Nirvana's excellent cover of Terry Jack's wimpy 1974 classic, "Seasons in the Sun"). While not as mainstream as the Beatles or Abba, Scottish art-pop band the Vaselines were given the tribute treatment on Incesticide with "Molly's Lips" and "Son of a Gun," illustrating that Cobain's distaste for his thirty-million-sold Nevermind was less it's major-chord accessibility, and more its overly sanitized production.

Yet radio-friendly hits were not only what fans expected out of Nirvana, but many critics, as well. On the whole, Incesticide did not receive favorable reviews during its 1992 release. While NME's Angela Lewis praised tracks like "Sliver" and "Dive" -- calling side one "the album that never was" -- she considered the second half "largely a trudge through oddball work-outs which time and better conceived songs allowed [the band] to leave behind... Side Two is not terribly good. Fact is, it's not supposed to be, otherwise these near five-year-old spring '88 'Bleach' leftovers wouldn't have been effectively dumped until now. This patience-testing material from an embryonic, Green River-fixated Nirvana is best forgotten, unless you're truly smitten."

Early Nirvana tracks such as "Beeswax," "Aero Zeppelin" and "Downer" represent the darker, ultimately sloppier side of the band -- which was often at odds with the grunge-pinups image that the media had cultivated for them. It seemed equally important to Cobain to evangelize this side of the band's anatomy, appearing desperate to reach out to fans who loved them during their pre-MTV Seattle incarnation.

"I feel so incredibly guilty!" Cobain wrote in his journals, "for abandoning my true comrades who were into us a few years ago. And in ten years time, when Nirvana becomes as memorable as Kajagoogoo, that same very small percent will come to see us at reunion gigs, sponsored by Depends diapers -- bald, fat, still trying to RAWK."

Obviously, this never happened. With Cobain's suicide in '94, Nirvana became the most relevant band of the decade, its image forever pulled in all directions by historians, fans, legal battles, morality pundits and starry-eyed girls with braces staring up at a bedroom poster of the blue-eyed martyr of rock.

As a historical document, Incesticide stands as Kurt Cobain's attempt to reclaim his band's identity. The album's cover displays a painting by Cobain (which is rumored to be the stipulation upon which he agreed to the compilation release) with liner notes written by the songwriter himself. Here Cobain derides the "wastes of sperm and egg" that was the two men who had recently gang-raped a woman while chanting the lyrics to the Nirvana song "Polly." "If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us -- leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."

Though the liner notes also include a softer, more sentimental version of the grunge messiah, an anecdote that ultimately sums up Kurt Cobain's approach to art and fame better than anything -- short of the music itself -- ever could. Here he describes a visit to London in which Cobain shyly introduces himself to Ana da Silva of the late '70s art-punk band, the Raincoats. Despite being as famous the president, Cobain had a "fever-red face" while meeting Silva in the antique store where she worked, describing his visit as "an intrusion," while he humbly asked if she knew where to get a copy of the then-out-of-print Raincoats debut album.

"A few weeks later. I received a vinyl copy of that wonderfully classic scripture [in the mail], with a personalized dust sleeve covered with xeroxed lyrics, pictures, and all the member's signatures," Cobain gushed later. "There was also a touching letter from Ana. It made me happier than playing in front of thousands of people each night, rock-god idolization from fans, music industry plankton kissing my ass, and the million dollars I made last year. It was one of the few really important things that I've been blessed with since becoming an untouchable boy genius."

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