Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 224
Fri. Sept. 27, 2013
“Old Age (Nevermind Outtake)”
With the release of the twentieth anniversary edition of Nirvana’s In Utero, I believe it’s time to revisit a song that Kurt believed wasn’t strong enough to fit on his band’s 1991 seminal album. Even though “Old Age” was recorded at Sound City for the Nevermind sessions, I feel that the seeds of this song would be resurrected in a new form as the opening number on In Utero. I urge you to go back to With the Lights Out and listen to this Nevermind outtake again. “Old Age” sounds like an early rough draft incarnation of In Utero’s “Serve the Servants.”
I bet you’re wondering what a song left off Nevermind has anything to do with In Utero, I’ll let Gillian G. Gaar explain from an excerpt from her 33 1/3 tome of In Utero, when she wrote, “Eight months [after] the group recorded at Sound City, Nevermind would top the US charts. Cobain would be hailed the new spokesman of his generation, and Nevermind’s lyrics would be critiqued and analyzed extensively. But there were there songs recorded during the sessions that were not released…” And one of those was “Old Age.” I believe that Kurt didn’t really care about this Nirvana outtake; the unpolished lyrics reminded me of spotlight his words were experiencing for being the official grunge spokesmen of his generation.
When Kurt was crafting the songs as demos that would end up on In Utero at the Word of Mouth sessions, because of the over-analysis the tracks from Nevermind was receiving, Cobain was feeling the pressure of lifting his lyrics to new heights after the success of “Smells like Teen Spirit.” Kurt needed some help and he got some much needed assistance from his wife Courtney Love as producer Jack Endino explained in Everett True’s Nirvana: The Biography, when he said, “Courtney came down at the end of the sessions, right when Kurt was doing the vocals for ‘Rape Me.’ The song dated all the way back to ’90, ’91, but it didn’t have a bridge, so he had to come up with some words. I think Courtney helped Kurt with his lyrics, because after he met Courtney his lyrics had changed.”
Endino’s observation is significant because not many Nirvana fans or critics realize how much a positive influence Love had on Kurt’s songwriting. Everyone enjoys badmouthing Courtney but you have to admit after he met and eventually married Love, Kurt’s lyrics improved immensely. Nirvana fans have to give credit to Courtney as Endino further clarified in True’s Nirvana: The Biography, when the producer said, “On In Utero, the lyrics are much more concrete. He was literally writing the words in the studio, and running them by Courtney—he’d read her a line and she’d be like, ‘That’s cool but what about the other line you used to sing?’ I thought, ‘Ah, the verbal one and the introspective one are bouncing off each other.’ Courtney might not be able to carry a tune, but she’s an explosion of words. She’s a crazy lyricist. I’m sure she helped him focus on his lyrics. I don’t think she wrote any of them, but she raised the bar as far as what he made himself try to do.”
Say what you will about their romantic dynamic but creatively, Courtney and Kurt were a perfect match together. Many cynics relish the notion that Cobain had his hands on Courtney’s songs and music but I believe that Love and Kurt were positive influences on each other’s craft. Together Cobain and Love made each other stronger artists and the proof is all there on Nirvana’s In Utero and Hole’s Live Through This.
Even author Charles R. Cross concurred in his book Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, when he wrote, “As is common in the marriage of two artists, they began to think alike, share ideas and use each other as editor. Courtney was a more traditional lyricist, crafting tighter and less murky lines, and he sensibility greatly shaped “Heart Shaped Box” and ‘Pennyroyal Tea, “ among others. She made Kurt a more careful writer, and it is not by accident that these stand as two of Nirvana’s most accomplished works.”
I wouldn’t give much credence to the overblown ‘song controversy’ over who exactly penned the Nirvana outtake “Old Age.” I believe that for all the help and guidance Courtney gave him during the making of In Utero, he thanked her by presenting her this song that he already re-wrote, thanks to her influence as “Serve The Servants.”
And for those of you who believe that Courtney was trying to capitalize by recording a Kurt song, “Old Age” was released as a B-side to the Hole single “Beautiful Son.” If Love really wanted to ride Nirvana’s coattails she would have recorded and released “Old Age” as Hole’s very own exclusive single. That didn’t happen. And so what if Kurt penned that outtake as Krist Novoselic claimed in a 1998 article “Whose Song is it Anyway?” by Kathleen Wilson, when Nirvana’s bassist said, “‘Old Age’? That’s a Nirvana song. Kurt wrote that song.” I believe Kurt gave “Old Age” to Courtney out of love and respect as a gift for helping making him become a more concise songwriter.
“Old Age” sounds like a rough draft of In Utero’s “Servants.” All you have to do is hear the outtake available on With the Lights Out, Kurt repeats the lyric “Servant” a number of times. Cobain must have taken the emotions from “Old Age” and with Courtney’s encouragement he crafted a much better song with “Serve The Servants.” I would bet that Cobain gave the song to Love also because “Old Age” reminded me of all the angst he was experiencing over his songs from Nevermind.
“Old Age” was the outtake that was the first seeds of Nirvana’s last album In Utero. Now celebrating its twentieth anniversary, I feel it was time to go back and spotlight the track that paved the way to the song that would become “Serve The Servant.” “Old Age” may end up becoming a forgotten rough draft but it’s time to give thanks to Courtney Love and this Nevermind outtake for being the catalyst for the creation of the last songwriting genius that is Kurt Cobain. Relive the sketch of a song that is “Old Age,” a relic that deserves further inspection for any Nirvana fan to see the growth of Cobain’s songwriting. Just to hear how much Kurt improved in two years is a testament in the genius of Kurt Cobain who matched the brilliance of his hero, the leader of the Beatles in eventually becoming the John Lennon of his generation. Even Kurt’s biographer and author of Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross can attest to the development in Cobain’s songwriting ability in his review of the 20th Anniversary of In Utero when he wrote for The Seattle Times, “But it is the songs on “In Utero” that matter the most and they soar. [They] represent the zenith of Cobain’s songwriting acumen; the album’s overall aesthetic, which leans more punk than pop, is admirable, too. Kurt wanted to step back from being a pop star, and he did so here by writing lyrics that were mostly about his own internal struggle.”
I know Cross and every other Nirvana fan like me, would love Kurt to fulfill the lyrical prophecy of “Old Age’s” final draft that is “Serve The Servants” when he famously sung “♫ Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old.♫” It also felt like Cobain was searching for meaning in “Old Age’s” lyrics when he sang “♫ One day if I find my way,♫” but he never did find his way, Cobain took himself away from his wife, his daughter and his band when he took his own life. Unfortunately Kurt’s legacy was over, he just wasn’t ready to grow old and wrinkled discretely. “Old Age” is a glimpse of a songwriter’s genius as a work in progress before his lasting legacy that is In Utero could ever be sung.
Hole’s “Old Age (single version)”
Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 224