Kurt Cobain’s Last Stand

The crass, exploitative release of Nirvana’s final song.

Somewhere up in pop star heaven, wearing the same ratty cardigan that he wore on MTV Unplugged, Kurt Cobain is no doubt enjoying a last, bitter laugh over the release of a brand-new Nirvana single, “You Know You’re Right.” A keen student of fame, the author of endless jeremiads against the evils of the recording industry, the greatest rock star of the ‘90s could not help but feel satisfied by a week in which the release of Nirvana’s final studio recording propelled the band’s greatest-hits album to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. The release of the first new Nirvana song in almost a decade came in the same week that selections from Cobain’s private notebooks and diaries were released in a lavish coffee-table book in which Kurt himself predicted the end: “And in 10 years when Nirvana becomes as memorable as Kajagoogoo,” Kurt wrote in his diary, “that same very small percent will come to see us at reunion gigs sponsored by Depends diapers, bald fat still trying to RAWK at amusement parks. Saturdays: puppet show, rollercoaster & Nirvana …”

With the release of Nevermind, in 1991, Cobain had been widely acclaimed as the musical spokesman for the anger and longing of his generation—his crackling blue eyes were lit by the same alternating currents of gentleness and rage that lit up his songs. Three years later, when he blew his head off in his garage, he was clearly a world-class mess—alone, angry, depressed, suffering from constant stomach pain, sick and tired of being a rock star, furious at himself, venting his famous passive-aggressive anger on nearly everyone around him, and regularly injecting heroin. 

Unlike most post-mortem rock releases, “You Know You’re Right” is not B-side material or the result of recording studio wizardry—it’s a real Nirvana song that was recorded less than three months before the Cobain’s famous suicide. If his life was a mess, Cobain was at the peak of his powers as a vocalist and songwriter—the most gifted and popular writer that rock music had seen since Lennon/McCartney. “You Know You’re Right” is a defiant movement away from the surface softness of ballads like “Dumb” and “All Apologies” that he had written for In Utero and then recorded again—softly, with cellos—for MTV Unplugged. It was a song for the kids who grew up in places like Aberdeen, Wash., the logging town where Kurt was born—kids who slept on friends’ couches, listened to Black Sabbath, and found work cleaning floors, just like Kurt did before he became famous.

The song begins with Kurt in one of his Gollum-like moods of dependence and resentment, tiptoeing around emotions that are bound to explode. “I will never follow you/ I will never bother you,” the singer promises, his voice simmering with rage. As the weight of the resentment grows, his voice revs upward into the supercharged Boeing-engine whine that could channel more stress than any other sound on the planet:

I will move away from here
You won’t be afraid of fear
No thought was put into this
I always knew it would come to this

In earlier versions of the song, recorded live during Nirvana’s shows and sound-checks of the previous months, Cobain had used a different line for “No thought was put into this”—the memorable but very Nirvana-like one-liner “I am walking in the piss.” The change made the song better. “No thought was put into this” was more subtle and offered a more direct contrast with the singer’s claim to foresight; it would also sound better to executives at the commercial radio stations that had made In Utero the best-selling album in America.

Otherwise, “You Know You’re Right” is not a particularly accommodating song. “Things have never been so swell/ I have never failed to feel,” Cobain continued, raising the pitch of his anger even higher, ending in a drawn-out “pain” on which the band explosively freaks out, leading to the draggy, underwater chorus of “You know you’re right.”

Here the “you” of the song is clearly the singer himself—the “I” of the preceding couplet. But when the chorus is over, a new target comes into view. “Let’s talk about someone else/ Steaming soup against her mouth” the singer suggests, his voice rising back to the same pitch where he left off before. “Nothing really bothers her/ She just wants to love herself.” With guitars building to a heavy, industrial crescendo, the accumulated strain in the vocal is again released in the phrase “You know you’re right.” Repeated over and over again, the singer’s attack on himself is now turned against a new target—his wife.

Given the available evidence, it seems fair to say “You Know You’re Right” is about Courtney Love—and that the release of the song marks the beginning of yet another chapter in the ongoing negotiation between the rock star and his wife about their famous marriage. Love has helped prevent the release of “You Know You’re Right” until the end of 2002—eight years after it was recorded and eight years after Nirvana’s commercial peak. She also made sure to first record her own version of “You Know You’re Right” with her own band, Hole—a version in which she deliberately alters the lyrics, reversing the emotional dynamics of the song.

“Let’s talk about someone else,” Love’s version begins, repeating the lines that her husband wrote. “She just wants to love herself.” But Love was much too clever a survivor to be imprisoned for long in her husband’s narrative of their difficult marriage. In Love’s version, Kurt Cobain wasn’t going anywhere; she was the one who was leaving him—but only in Kurt’s frightened, childish, insecure mind. So, she rewrites her dead husband’s song:

She moves away from here
She just wants to love herself,
I won’t move from here
You won’t be afraid of fear.

Responding to what is now positioned as Cobain’s own fear of abandonment, Love would heroically remain by his side—the perfect rock ’n’ roll widow.

It is very difficult to hear the “new” Nirvana song as a song; instead, it’s a clue—to the state of Cobain’s marriage, or the reasons he killed himself. Cobain’s death was hardly the accidental result of partying too hard, or mixing pills with booze—he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Why? Was it the record companies? The fame? The drugs? These questions haunt the new song because Kurt Cobain killed himself, which makes the experience of listening to the song fascinating and macabre—but not exactly musical. It’s a way of merchandizing the rock star’s death—the musical equivalent of a “Kurt Is Dead” T-shirt.

Nor is the new Nirvana song particularly new, at least not to hard-core Nirvana fans, who have been familiar with the bootlegged live versions of the song when it was called “On a Mountain” or “Autopilot.”  “You Know You’re Right” is not even necessarily the best unreleased Nirvana song. My own favorite is “In His Hands”—a song Cobain wrote for Nevermind, in which he accurately foresaw the predicament that he would later blame on fame, heroin, and his wife: “Giving medications, in a lighted room/ Wouldn’t want to fake it, I know I should.” Proceeding from a weariness of the super-stardom he had discarded before it ever happened, Kurt then launched into a sly, perfect parody of the Who’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” changing the time-signature and rewriting the lyrics: “We’re not gonna make it, well I don’t mind,” he sang. “Wouldn’t want to fake it, but I have this time/ Giving conversations, to whom they don’t know/ Taking medications till my stomach’s full.”

Cobain knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t enjoy being a rock star. Like “In His Hands,” “You Know You’re Right” is interesting because it clearly shows the artist between styles; the fact that it sounds like transitional material makes it unlikely that the song would have appeared on a record if Cobain were alive. As a talented commercial artist and a famous control freak, Kurt knew that each new style had to appear new and completely separate, a discrete dot that could be easily connected to the dot that came before. “You Know You’re Right” was part of one of Kurt’s transitions—but to what? Bachelorhood? Becoming the new Black Sabbath? Or to recording his own sad-core version of Dylan’s Basement Tapes—detailing the evils of the music business? We’ll never know. As a commercial artifact, what’s special about the new Nirvana song is the high-quality mix—the pure, clear studio sound that can be effortlessly absorbed into the creamy, overproduced flow of commercial radio. The mix makes the song sound particularly out of date—a heavy, depressing, industrial bummer.

“You Know You’re Right” is finally a necessary coda to Cobain’s short but influential career. “We simply wanted to give those dumb heavy metal kids (the kids who we used to be) an introduction to a different way of thinking and some 15 years of emotionally and socially important music and all we got was flack, backstabbing and Pearl Jam,” the star explained some months before his death. But the desperately honest, do-it-yourself American punk scene that Cobain wanted to share with the metalheads was already dead; the music that Cobain loved was made all the way back in the ‘80s, by bands like the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Bad Brains, and the Pixies, who wrote songs that privileged emotional and musical directness, simplicity, and literate craft. By 1994, Nirvana was the last great punk rock band in America. It was also the greatest pop band in the world. The Kurt Cobain who wrote “You Know You’re Right” couldn’t live with the person he had become. Still, he would definitely have taken some pleasure in knowing that his last recording would be released eight years too late—so that his wife, his bandmates, and his record label could make millions off the crass merchandizing of his ugly, disturbing suicide. He wrote his story of stardom, disillusion, and betrayal before he ever became famous; now history has—sadly—proved him right.