On the Goe: Re-release of ‘In Utero’ brings out powerful memories of Nirvana
As an 11-year-old boy, sitting in my friend’s Paradise Hills basement, I didn’t understand what I was seeing.
A surrealist landscape of religious iconography ran on the tube in the corner while a crazed mess of blond hair screamed out about devouring cancer and man-eating orchids.
The bizarre imagery soaked into my vulnerable brain all right, but it hardly made any sense. A little girl dressed in the white cape and hood of the Klu Klux Klan, grasping for a fetus hanging from a rotting tree? A frail man lashing himself to a wooden cross while a murder of crows flap their wings, waiting impatiently? What’s a kid supposed to make of that?
When I close my eyes and think about that video now, I really only remember flashes of red and purple and those eyes.
Oh those eyes, those sharp, soul-piercing blue eyes.
Pause the music video at 1:20, and what you see is my burning first memory of MTV. A wild-eyed Kurt Cobain singing the chorus of “Heart Shaped Box,” the first single from Nirvana’s final studio album, “In Utero.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that song changed my life, but that singular moment, I’ll never forget.
Fast-forward 20 years and Nirvana once again is at the forefront of my mind. “In Utero” is getting the 20th anniversary treatment: the original album was remastered and re-released with B-sides and previously unreleased mixes and material.
As it turns out, “In Utero” is not my favorite Nirvana album, but looking back, it is the most compelling album the band ever released.
“In Utero” had the unfortunate distinction of following up “Nevermind,” the monumental recording that forever altered the course of rock history and instantly made Nirvana the biggest band in the world.
In the years leading up to “In Utero” Cobain was intimately involved with both Courtney Love and heroin. A reckless relationship on both accounts, Cobain’s personal life was a mess. That, coupled with the pressure to deliver another massively successful hit record, undoubtedly led to the wild mix of love, heartbreak and insanity on “In Utero.”
From the get go, “In Utero” was always going to be a different record than “Nevermind.” Cobain had developed a hatred for the diamond-selling album, saying it was too polished. The next album was going to be more primitive.
Recording began on Valentine’s Day 1993 at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minn., chosen partially because of producer Steve Albini’s familiarity with the studio and its isolation from known heroin dealers.
Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl recorded 17 songs in one quick week before Love paid a surprise visit to the studio, throwing the recording process into chaos. Despite her best Yoko Ono effort, Nirvana finished recording in just over two weeks and captured the powerful energy characteristic of its live shows.
“I love that record,” Grohl recounted in his biography, “This Is A Call.” “I like it more than ‘Nevermind’ because there was nothing in between the band and the tape. That album is about as pure as an album can be.”
Nirvana’s record label DGC and parent company Geffen Records hated the band’s raw mix of “In Utero.” It was too noisy, lacked mainstream appeal and was initially deemed as “unreleasable.” Eventually, two of the final 12 tracks were remixed for mass consumption, “All Apologies” and “Heart Shaped Box.”
After the album’s September 1993 release, the band was basically at an end. Following a disastrous European tour, Cobain was found unconscious in a Rome hotel room with $1,000 in one hand and in the other was a note that read “like Hamlet, I have to choose between life and death; I choose death.”
Of course it took more than 50 Rohypnol pills to officially end the band. Nirvana’s true death came at the hands of 1.52 milligrams of heroin and a well-aimed shotgun.
The 20th anniversary edition of “In Utero” is intended to sound more like the band’s initial cut. Listening to it now you get the rawness, but you also hear the complete narrative arch of Nirvana. You can hear both the brilliance and turmoil of a band caught in limbo.