Better late than never: the late Nirvana frontman’s rumored childhood demos, previously authenticated but delayed by record company politics, will finally arrive in stores in time for Record Store Day 2018.
BY FRED MILLS
A couple of years ago, in a BLURT exclusive report titled “Pre-Nirvana Kurt Cobain Demos Unearthed,” we outlined how a 30-track collection of cassette tapes reportedly dating back to the Nirvana frontman’s childhood had been discovered and were being estimated as being worth “seven figures” or more. At the time of the report there was more than a little speculation that it was all a hoax or, at very least, wishful thinking on the you-gotta-believe segment of the Cobain/Nirvana fanbase (and trust us, that is a HUGE segment).
Subsequently, though, the tapes were authenticated and production shifted into high gear, with a target release date of April 19, 2014 – Record Store Day. It was to be a limited-to-1000-copies numbered set of cassettes, titled The KDC Tapes, released by Geffen/Universal and housed in a deluxe “cigar box” styled packaging and featuring Cobain-derived memorabilia that includes faux-syringes, cigarette packs and snippets of lyrics scribbled on napkins. The artwork was reportedly derived from the recently published photos of the Cobain suicide crime scene. Following the exclusive RSD title there were also going to be non-limited CD and vinyl editions released by the summer.
And then… nothing. Nada. April 19 came and went, and then the summer came and went as well, with no Cobain release, no Nirvana release, nothing. Not even a peep from the Nirvana camp or from their record label. Speculation among the fan community was rampant: were there copyright issues blocking the release, or did the label get cold feet and back off from what could be considered, by sensitive or politically correct types, distasteful, or was there even second guessing along the lines of “what Kurt would’ve wanted” (e.g., were he still alive, would he have wanted his earliest, naive rumblings as a musician made public)? Or PERHAPS COURTNEY LOVE WAS BLOCKING THE RELEASE?!? After all, that batshit gal could be capable of ANYTHING – she proved it when she had El Duce of the Mentors offed…
Not to worry, long suffering Cobainirvana acolytes: none of the above turns out to be the case; it was simply a situation where the people behind the release wanted to “get things right.” BLURT has learned from our record industry sources that issues arose primarily surrounding the aforementioned packaging and artwork, with snags in the production including not only having to negotiate with the authorities for the original crime scene photos but also getting the rights from the cigarette manufacturer and the medical supply house (which made the specific type of syringes Cobain preferred, a kind of “reverse hydraulic” feature that facilitated easy injection when not using a tie-off around the arm) to create reproductions of the original items. Those hurdles finally overcome, Geffen has announced that the limited edition cassette box set, still bearing the name The KDC Tapes but now with a more fan-friendly production run of 3000 copies, will be available on this year’s Record Store Day, which falls on Saturday, April 21.
Expect a bit more than the usual frenzy at your local indie record store this year, kids.
From our original report, let’s recap:
A trove of dusty Phillips cassettes purchased by a self-styled “junker” at an Aberdeen, Wash., garage sale have turned out to be early demo recordings by the late Kurt Cobain. It marks the first time since the 2004 Nirvana box set With the Lights Out that heretofore unheard Cobain material has surfaced, and Nirvana experts are hailing the 30-plus tracks – some of them full songs, others just “sketches” – as likely representing the earliest known Cobain material in existence.
The individual who bought the box of tapes initially got curious when he spotted the initials “KDC” (as in, “Kurt Donald Cobain”) scrawled in black magic marker on the side of each cassette. Upon listening to them he contacted a music industry lawyer, who in turn contacted representatives of Cobain’s estate and Cobain’s record label; the tapes were subsequently verified by noted music producers Jack Endino and Butch Vig (who both worked with Nirvana) as being legitimate. The finder is reportedly now in negotiations to sell the tapes to the estate and label.
One industry observer estimates the potential value of the tapes as being “in the seven-figure range.”
Cobain, who was born in 1967 and attended high school in Aberdeen while living there with his mother, apparently recorded them on a vintage 3M Wollensak mono tape deck when he was in elementary school – presumably about the age of 8 or 9, as several of the song titles focus on people and events circa 1974-75: “Nixon Must Die (Or Resign)”; “I Wanna Be Just Like a Weatherman”; “Carlos the Jackal”; “Shazam!”; and the collection’s lone cover, a ukulele version of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.”
According to a source who has heard the material, the tunes are “mostly singalongs” performed on acoustic guitar or the aforementioned ukulele, along with some rudimentary percussion performed by an unknown additional musician, “There’s nothing there that would really give a blindfold test listener the sense that Cobain would go on to form one of the biggest bands on the planet, although it is worth noting that even at that age you could hear the initial stirrings of his trademark rasp – kinda like any kid sounds after he’s been punched in the throat a couple of times, actually.
“With that said, however, a few recurring lyrical motifs, somewhat precocious on one level and disturbing on another, do provide ad hoc foreshadowing. At least three songs contain the word ‘vagina,’ each part of some childlike rhyming scheme, one of them being ‘your mama’; and there’s an unusual fixation on firearms too, such as in ‘…Weatherman’ where he sings in a kind of taunting tone of voice, ‘You’ll wish you were dead/ When I point my gun at your head.’ That’s followed by the popping sound of a kid’s cap gun.”
Genuine historical artifact, or merely a curio for hard-core Cobain and Nirvana fans? With interest in both the artist and the band never having waned since his death in 1994, it’s likely that “The KDC Tapes,” as they’re being referred to in industry circles, will eventually anchor several archival releases: a CD of cherry-picked highlights, a collection of DJ remixes, and the inevitable big-ticket boxed set – possibly even a DVD documentary outlining the finding-of, the cleaning-up-of and the marketing-of the tapes. [Editor’s note: the latter info was obviously premature. See the second paragraph above for the current status of the release.]
Also likely: the unknown percussionist will turn up wanting his cut of the profits. Already, the Cobain estate has reportedly been contacted by several individuals claiming – rather implausibly, and without credible documentation – to be the percussionist. As Cobain’s mother, Wendy, told a Seattle newspaper reporter, “Kurt really was a surly, unpleasant child to be around, and while he’s been characterized as being the type of musician who didn’t like to play with just anyone, it was actually the other way around – nobody wanted to play with him.“
As noted above, both Vig and Endino had initially verified the tapes’ existence and likely provenance, but as time went by and the tapes failed to be released, speculation was rampant that it had all been a hoax, and Vig and Endino’s subsequent silence on the matter seemed to justify that conclusion. In early 2014, however, at a press conference at the Universal Music Group’s offices in Los Angeles, the two producers appeared jointly to announce the impending release, implicitly giving their blessings. “We are pleased and proud to be part of this project,” the pair offered, in a statement. “Kurt impacted our lives in so many ways, this is just our way of ‘giving back’ to the Cobain community.”
In the 2014 press release originally circulated by Universal, it was noted that both the surviving members of Nirvana as well as Cobain’s widow Courtney Love had given their blessings to the project but were not directly involved with the new box set. More recently, however, it appears that in the wake of the protracted delay, Nirvana drummer (and Foo Fighters frontman) Dave Grohl has gotten involved with some last minute remastering of the tapes, utilizing the original mixing board from Sound City Studios (the same facility that he feted in his 2012 documentary about the legendary studios), which he had obtained a few years back. “Kurt would’ve dug that,” Grohl tweeted. “[He] loved [going into] Sound City, sometimes just to fuck around with [all the] vintage gear.”
@FooFightersDave Kurt would’ve dug that, total studio rat, loved Sound City, sometimes just to fuck around with vintage gear
Watch BLURT for a review of the Cobain box shortly after Record Store Day, per our usual roundup of choice titles the staff and contributors score. Hopefully yours truly will have a workable cassette deck in time for RSD…
Top Photo Credit: A.P. Rilfuul, RETNA Images Inc.