Kurt, to the Point
The Cobain-Love-Grohl-Novoselic nexus and the Sub Pop coffers, like most established music sources here in the era of “what, me pay for music?”, need constant and repeated feeding. A revisitation of the once-ignored first chapter in the Nirvana saga allows for that and, thankfully, so much more. Reappearing now on the approach of its 20th anniversary, and remastered by original producer Jack Endino, we are reminded that Bleach was an artful mess of Jackson Pollock style and proportions. Alongside the faltering electric melodies they swiped from the likes of The Pixies and The Vaselines, one could also hear the early rock sludge of contemporaries like The Melvins, Mudhoney, and The Jesus Lizard as well as the prototypical ear-splitting defiance of The Stooges and Sonic Youth.
On Nevermind in 1991, Nirvana kept unspoken the tasks, demands, and corollaries of their Washington gutter-punk ilk. “Here we are now, entertain us”—or we’ll entertain ourselves. “No, I don’t have a gun”—but I can get one and pull the trigger. Yet on Bleach two years earlier, having realized they were already getting burned out by a society suckled on hair-farming metal (and, in Kurt Cobain’s case, burned out by substances far more potent) the trio paid $606 for recording time and left such subtlety at the studio door.
Convention was normal life; convention for Cobain also included his too-frequent squatter lifestyle, his tweaking of standards of machismo—the absence of normal life. In Nirvana, and especially in this first iteration of it, he led a version of punk with no grand social issue at hand other than desperate pushback against ennui and the outside world of idiots closing in: “As I eat cow I am not proud” (“Mr. Moustache”), “Search for a church … Wet your bed” (“Sifting”), “I’m a negative creep/And I’m stoned.”
Indeed, Bleach signals that Nirvana was Cobain’s world and we just lived in it. There were certainly pointers to every major player in Cobain’s band and life being an afterthought in that era: bassist Krist Novoselic only now pops up for a middling band or political cause; their longest-lasting drummer, Dave Grohl, was still a year or two away; even Courtney Love was a consolation prize. This album (or at least this mix of it) and the 1990 Oregon concert accompanying it in this new edition make Cobain out to be something he never was early in life and seemingly rejected later in life: the center of attention.
Sure, there are hooky moments where the Novoselic-Chad Channing rhythm section help significantly—”School,” “Love Buzz,” “Negative Creep.” Otherwise, Cobain’s bloodcurdling wails and busted chords both highlight and smother the album, the singalong factor of tracks like these and “About a Girl” going largely unrealized until the band’s MTV Unplugged performance years later. It’s all the more fascinating to hear Cobain’s efforts to shred both strings and vocal cords throughout the band’s early-career concert from Portland’s Pine Street Theatre, spanning half of Bleach‘s tracks, B-sides like “Been a Son,” the unreleased song “Sappy,” and their standard Vaselines cover “Molly’s Lips.” How—if—he made it through longer theater and festival shows in later years remains a mystery.
Biographers and interviews document that getting in the van at this time made Kurt Cobain happier than his slapdash piss-and-vinegar lyrics would suggest. This dichotomy, this conflict that Bleach was, is, and represented, forms a prelude to Nirvana’s pop promise and rock’n’roll tragedy: one of the angriest party albums ever made and the death of one of the world’s loneliest men, one loved by millions.