Nirvana and the Art of the Cover


Art comes in different textures, different covers, like a grungy Nirvana. The band notorious for bringing a new sound to the music landscape, likeable or no, has also dabbled in songs and sounds not their own. This is not so rare a thing. Most musicians, and artists, get their start from mimicking others, and continue forging their style by trying things that belong to someone else. The singer and guitarist of the band, the late Kurt Cobain, got his start in a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band. In this age of remakes and dead art, it is easy and blameless to dismiss covers as anything other than terrible. However, a musician or band covering a song, making an existing song their own, has been around since the dawn of time, probably. Not every cover is brilliant, but there have been more than enough good covers to justify their existence. The band has done a few, there have been a few done of the band, and the music landscape is lousy with covers. In honor of the recent deathiversary and of them being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl seem like a good starting point.

Out of the blue they came, because their world-claiming album, Nevermind, was very blue. Nirvana was around since the late-80s, gaining and losing members until the line-up settled with Kurt Cobain on guitar and vocals, Krist Novoselic on bass, and Dave Grohl on drums. After Kurt’s suicide, Grohl went on to form Foo Fighters and recently directed the excellent documentary, Sound City. Novoselic left music for a while and tried fighting the good fight in politics. But these happenings are not what are the focus. Pre-Nirvana is the way right now and the songs that inspired them so much, they made them their own. Love Buzz by Shocking Blue is the song that’s been with them the longest, since Bleach. Their most famous cover, however, is Man Who Sold the World because of who it belongs to. Perhaps a master of covers and someone who will be talked about soon: David Bowie. The band has also covered two songs by The Vaselines, Molly’s Lips and Son of a Gun, and one by Devo, Turn Around. The band has done a few covers, but they have been covered many more times.

Throw a rock and you will hit at least ten covers of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Most sound like varying shades of the original, but there are a few that dare to be different. The star cover of the moment has to be Patti Smith’s, one song on her cover album, Twelve. She stretched a grunge rock song into a banjo-twanging meditation on teen spirit. Tori Amos turned Smells Like Teen Spirit into a beautiful, angry piano ballad. The music community also gathers sometimes and makes tribute albums, to the band or a specific album. In 2011, Spin Magazine released a 20th-anniversary tribute album, Newermind. The range of artists on the album was vast and indie, and there was a little poetry. The Vaselines repaid Cobain for his covers, in a way, by covering “Lithium”. Smells Like Teen Spirit was even given the musical treatment in Moulin Rouge! The artful world of covers doesn’t begin or end with Nirvana, though, and there are many other artists to talk about.

A final thing on Patti Smith and how she relates to covers: she does not share the hangups some musicians have about covers. Along with Twelve and the other songs she has touched, her klaxon call to the world was her rendition of Them’s Gloria. If you want to know how to make a song the same but different, listen to the ones she has changed. Another musician who is shameless about covering and also has a cover album, Pin Ups, is David Bowie. Most of his near-30 albums have at least one cover song on them. They range from The Doors, with Alabama Song, to the more obscure The Mojos, with Everything’s Alright. Tori Amos is another member of the cabal, with a cover album, Strange Little Girls, and a bottomless pit of songs that once belonged to someone else. Then there are musicians who essentially create a new song, with enough of the original to tap your feet to. Weird Al Yankovic has made a career of doing nothing but parody songs, and collecting residuals from UHF. Sometimes, the rare thing happens where the cover becomes more popular than the original. If you ask anyone about the song Hurt, chances are that they will say Johnny Cash wrote it. The song was written and sung by Nine Inch Nails, a music producer asked if Mr. Cash could cover it, and the end result was enough to make Trent Reznor, the man behind NIN, cry.

Cover songs, like the ones done by and for Nirvana, are their own piece of art. Often abused, but sometimes glorious.

By Ernst Charles Jr.

The NIN Hotline

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