It ain’t Shakespeare, but “Aneurysm” is Kurt Cobain at his tangled, tortured best – a monument to emotional sickness and depravity, and beloved object of our obsession with the voyeuristic. Cobain’s dark, seething artistic voice is deeply personal and reflective, a product of both struggling with – and reveling in – his vulnerabilities, anxieties, immorality and dog-hungry appetite for self-destruction (including a $400-a-day heroin habit).
“Aneurysm,” more than any other song in the Nirvana catalog, captures Cobain’s bedraggled, sullen brilliance: his smoldering, razor-abrasive vocal delivery, his “disheveled junkie” authenticity and his endearing willingness to bare his soul (track marks and all).
Jazz giant Miles Davis once said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Well, Kurt Cobain lived it like few others, and you can feel it in the passion and desperate abandon of his music. Ironically, the more uncomfortable he became with mega-stardom and its pressures, intrusions and absurdities, the more we thrust it upon him.
“Aneurysm” grabs you by the throat
Nirvana’s ascent to Rock royalty in the early-’90s was always more about the messenger than the message. Cobain became the anemic, hugely talented, hopelessly smacked-up – and positively mesmerizing – ambassador of grunge.
You could even argue that just before he took his life in 1994, Cobain had ceased being the messenger and had become the message itself – the consummate cult of personality that gave a new generation of Rock-N-Roll faithful a raucous, threadbare voice of rebellion. Kurt possessed a captivating persona that few could match, with the exception of perhaps Jerry Garcia (and his attainment of “messiah status”).
“Aneurysm” gets its name from the artery-swelling medical condition that can be caused by intravenous drug use (among other things), and it’s as schizophrenic as Cobain himself, careening from relative serenity and light to raging, retching mayhem. Whether the song is a brooding ballad to former (pre-Courtney) girlfriend Tobi Vail, or a love-hate ode to heroin, or both, it offers a glimpse inside the mad mind of grunge’s “anti-Rock star” Rock star.
Nirvana’s no-frills authenticity played extremely well in concert
Cobain first tried heroin as a teenager, and by 1991 he had become a full-fledged junkie. Though he claimed in an interview that he wrote “Aneurysm” about Ms. Vail, the heroin-specific drug references in virtually every line of the song are impossible to ignore. Perhaps he and Vail did the drug together:
Come on over and do the twist
“Twists” are small plastic bags of heroin secured with a twist tie
Over do it and have a fit
A user in the throes of a heroin-induced seizure is said to be “fitting”
Love you so much it makes me sick
Injecting heroin can make the user nauseous, first-timers often vomit
Come on over and shoot the shit
Using heroin intravenously is referred to as “shooting”
Kurt and girlfriend (riot grrrl) Tobi Vail
The song opens with a nasty, manic, minute-long intro, featuring Cobain’s trademark fuzzed guitar backed by Krist Novoselic’s low-slung, bomber bass line and Dave Grohl’s thumping, Bonham-style assault on his drum kit.
Cobain’s corrosive vocal entry slows the pace and simmers along with a controlled chaos that aches with edge. The simplistic lyric format (Hemingway-esque in its sparseness) and one-dimensional instrumental arrangement is reminiscent of a coarse, debauched version of a 1960 ditty – reinventing the form in the rusty barbed-wire image of grunge.
Remember, the last thing Gen-Xers wanted was pretentious, poetic lyrical musings or super-technical instrumental passages or exotic instrumentation. After a long, soulless decade of heavily synthesized, over-produced music, the masses craved stripped-down authenticity, riveting in its honesty and simplicity – the kind that spawned Rock-N-Roll back in the 1950s. They wanted a savior to lead them back to the primal roots. They were desperate to roll in the mud again, and Kurt Cobain, the ragtag junked-up everyman, answered all their prayers.
The lyric arc of “Aneurysm” and Cobain’s delivery quickly come unhinged, spiraling into a self-flagellating tirade. With “Beat me outta me” repeated more than a dozen times, Cobain lays down the gravelly rage and self-loathing (and possibly his losing battle with heroin) that made him such a riveting performer.
Seeing Nirvana perform “Aneurysm” live is the Rock-N-Roll equivalent of witnessing Christ being nailed to the cross. Cobain lit himself on fire, and we consumed it with the ferocity of a blood lust. Though Nirvana’s concerts were void of many of the usual big-band accessories like Jumbotrons and pyrotechnics, with Cobain on the stage the performances were still some of the greatest Rock spectacles of all time. He was the spectacle.
In the end, Kurt Cobain gave in to his addictions and depression brought on by the relentless adulation and expectations of fans and the music media. His brief, brilliant, reckless life is defined by tragic irony: He may have saved Rock-N-Roll, but the process killed him.
Another great band, The Rolling Stones, shed some light on the insatiable demands and pressures of super-stardom in their classic 1974 hit “It’s Only Rock-N-Roll”:
If I could stick a knife in my heart
Suicide right on stage
Would it be enough for your teenage lust
Would it help to ease the pain?
Ease your brain?
Well, would it? Rest in peace, Kurt. You were one of a kind.
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- Kurt did epic battle with heroin addiction, but ultimately lost. Following the April 1994 suicide, toxicologist Dr. Randall Baselt wrote that the level of heroin in Cobain’s body was at “a high concentration, by any account.”
- Cobain had an obsession with premature death. He ends one dairy entry with the line, “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend” – a shout-out to The Who‘s “My Generation” – and his suicide note includes the proverbial Rock-N-Roll mindset “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” from Neil Young.
- Kurt Cobain: “The worst crime is faking it.”