“All Apologies,” unplugged
The first thing I ever knew about Kurt Cobain was that he was dead. I was just eight years old when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves, and still in elementary school when he died. But when I entered seventh grade and travelled downtown to Butler Middle School, his face was everywhere. The most popular t-shirt showed Cobain’s blond locks drifting over his eyes. There was a quote on the back: “The sun is gone, but I have the light.” I figure most of my compatriots—including many of those wearing the trendy shirt—were like me and had no idea what Cobain was in life. In death, he was a countercultural visionary, and that was the Nirvana that I began listening to. I missed the party, but I witnessed the mythmaking.
Fittingly, then, the first Nirvana album I owned (and the first CD I bought with my own money) was the posthumously released Unplugged in New York. I listened to it differently than the other albums I acquired in those early years, with which I would skip to the three or four songs I really loved, over and over. But I almost always listened to Unplugged in New York the whole way through. Its specialness came as a whole, not packed into any one track…not even Plateau, with that moment of mic feedback that I await like a friend from out of town. Almost two decades later, it’s the atmosphere, the feel of that album that I search for on some evenings. Stripped down, the songs aren’t angry and disaffected youth anthems. They’re soulful. The rebellion remains audible, but Unplugged reveals what else lies beneath the grunge.
“All Apologies” begins around the 45 minute mark, the penultimate song on the disc and the final Cobain-written one. The simple bassline (actually performed on a guitar) carries the song forward with inevitability, and the acoustic guitar picks out a carefree tune. The song seems to drift. The first sung line floats right along with the music. It’s not until the title words that we hear the first strains of angst: “What else should I be? / All apologies.” That two-word expostulation contains no trace of contrition. I am who I am, Cobain declares, and he delivers the “apology” in a voice just a step or two shy of a sneer. In these lyrics that affirm the singer’s identity, we hear passive aggression, exactly the sort a teenager gives a parent whom he can’t openly defy. He feels put upon, targeted for transgressions that he couldn’t avoid. He sings later,
Find my nest of salt
Everything’s my fault
I’ll take all the blame
Aqua seafoam shame
Feeling accused of both specific misdeeds and general wrongness, he moodily retreats to his “nest.” He’ll take all the blame that others heap upon him, as well as the shame that accompanies it. Shame has never been assigned a symbolic color, as far as I know, but “aqua seafoam” sounds as good as any.
Frustrated teenagers feel the world has them every which way at every turn, subjecting them to “sunburn” and “freezerburn” alternately, and sometimes simultaneously. Parents and peers each have their turn at oppression. The faces are all mocking, the days all painfully bland, and the choices forced upon them. Shoved into line and told to march in step, the young find rebellions both large and small irresistible. The world wins every time—even someone who strikes back successfully will probably wind up “choking on the ashes of her enemy”—but that only makes resistance more virtuous. Defiance is victory.
Cobain once wrote in a journal, “I’m not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.” In a world he perceived as unjust and ugly, he saw provocation as a duty. Singing “All Apologies” on Unplugged, he told everyone watching MTV, “What else should I say? / Everyone is gay.” Mission accomplished.
Defiance animates “All Apologies.” While the music continues its pleasant drift into the future, Cobain’s rough, passionate voice protests. The vocals refuse to be carried along in the song’s current. “I wish I was like you,” he sings, “Easily amused.”
The deep chords of the chorus alter the flow of the song. Cobain’s voice arcs upward to sing, “In the sun, / In the sun I feel as one.” When the bass cuts out, the forward progress ceases completely. His voice calls, “Married.” These lines evoke feelings of warmth, brightness, unity. The guitar gently plays up and down while the word “Married” optimistically hangs above it. The song cannot stay frozen in this moment, of course. Neither can life. Cobain belts out the word “Buried,” and then the drums carry us back into the current.
With Nirvana, the lyrics are often beyond the point. Once upon a time I tried to look up some song’s meaning on the internet and came across a Dave Grohl interview instead. Don’t get too hung up on lyrics, he suggested: Kurt sometimes wrote them 15 minutes before taking the stage. This, too, fits our image of the Man Who Was Cobain, a brilliant slacker whose ideas spilled out of him, raw. But even knowing how hastily written they might have been, the lyrics have too much staying power to be dismissed. Fragmented and impressionistic though they are, the words say something.
The song gradually fades out with Cobain repeatedly intoning, “All in all is all we are.” The tone is contented and accepting, the unity of the chorus now drawn out at length. The music fades out before the vocals, so that Cobain’s and Grohl’s final “All in all is all we are” suspends over empty space. In the end, there’s some peace after all.