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A bootleg of Damien Jurado's performance at the 1999 Bumbershoot Festival doesn't sound much different from what you might witness today: A quiet yet stage-bantering big guy sings sad, thoughtful songs with an acoustic guitar. This is what Jurado does best. But after telling a bad joke and expressing thanks that terrible singers like Bob Dylan can write such great words, Jurado ends the show with this: "A few years ago, we lost someone dear to us... and this song is actually one of his songs."
Jurado's performance of Nirvana's "Something in the Way" is hauntingly solemn. In many ways, its withered vulnerability has a lot in common with the following year's Ghost of David, arguably the bleakest entry in Jurado's excellent discography.
What comes out in this phone interview with Jurado about the song is not only a great story about getting mixtapes from a pre-Nirvana Kurt Cobain, but also, more importantly, the disappointment of a punk-rock kid let down by an unspoken promise.
NPR: I don't know that you've heard the recording anytime recently, but in the bootleg, you say two things before performing the song: that you rarely play covers and that your friend Adam Voith "dared" you to play the song. In the decade since, you've done your fair share of covers, but what ultimately convinced you to perform that song that day?
DJ: To be honest with you, I thought [Nevermind] was good, but hated the production of the record. To me, it sounded like a Guns N' Roses production. But that [song] was different. It's the only song that stands out on its own. I think that had to do a lot about the story of the song about how — at least what I heard anyway — that Kurt had the song and they weren't sure if they were gonna use it or not. They were unhappy with some of the takes, so they just had Kurt on the couch with this guitar that was lying around and recorded it that way. If I remember the story correctly, the guitar wasn't in tune with anything else, so they had to retune the cello to the guitar. It's a really intimate recording. It literally sounded like a guy on the couch playing guitar. The track stood out for me in that aspect; plus, it's a really pretty song. It's simple. I think it only has two chords.
Why I chose to do it that day I can't even recall. I think it just had something to do with being at the festival and seeing how the record turned a bunch of people on to other music. The influence of Nirvana, I think, is all around us, especially here in [Seattle]. Nirvana is still influential to me — not so much musically, I guess, but the spirit.
NPR: I talked to David Bazan yesterday about his version of "Something in the Way." He realized something as he was saying it for the first time — that he was drawn to your music for the same reasons that he's drawn to Kurt Cobain. I thought that was really on point. There's a sweetness and melody to both, but there's also a darkness.
DJ: Something else to consider, though, is that I have a really weird connection with Nirvana's music — and, I guess, more so Kurt. I don't talk about it much, but I'll share it with you. Kurt and I actually lived in the same area. Kurt was from the county of Grays Harbor in Washington, and I was living around there the same time that he was. Around the time that I was in seventh grade, I got into punk-rock music. I think I was almost 14 at the time. I had a friend in my grade whose dad managed a hotel and resort out there called The Polynesian in a town called Ocean Shores. That's the town that I was living in. And Kurt was living in Aberdeen, which is about 30 miles away. Kurt worked as a janitor for the resort.
A friend of mine came to school one day with a blank cassette, and on it was a compilation of bands like the Butthole Surfers and Fang and Black Flag. I said to him, "Where did you find this?" Because this was 1986, and living in a small coastal town like that, one, there weren't very punk rockers and, two, the music was very hard to come by. He told me, "I got this cassette from this guy named Kurt who works at the hotel." And I said, "Oh, wow. Can we meet him?"
In my mind, before meeting him, I thought he was gonna be this punk-rock kid with a mohawk and whatever. After school, we went to his dad's hotel and I was gonna meet Kurt for the first time. I remember getting off the school bus and my friend says, "Oh, that's him over there." Looking across the parking lot, I'm thinking, "Where? Where?" Because in my mind this guy has purple hair. He pointed to this kid who had long hair. He didn't look like a punk rocker. We were introduced, and we talked for a long time. I said I'd be into getting more cassettes, so he made us punk-rock compilations and we'd occasionally see him off and on for the next three months before he was fired and decided to move to Olympia. The rest is history.
It wasn't until I actually moved to Seattle in the fall of 1988 — I think that's when the "Love Buzz" single had come out. I wanted to go see Nirvana, but I didn't make the connection that this was the same guy until actually going to the show. That was pretty weird, you know?
NPR: Do you still have those mixtapes?
DJ: No. Here's the funny story: I have one cassette, but the cassette that I still have — in the fall of 1988, when I moved to Seattle, there was a radio station here in town that was then called KCMU. Now it's called KEXP. KCMU — it was the first time ever hearing "alternative" or punk-rock music on daytime radio. Turning on the radio during the day and hearing Big Black or the Dead Kennedys — that was all new to me. I think I was so excited, and not having any money as a young kid, that I actually recorded over the mixtape.
NPR: Oh, no!
DJ: I recorded the radio over that tape. Had I known then what was gonna happen, I think I would have saved it. I still have the cassette, but it isn't the original mix.
NPR: A little piece of history lost, but at least you have the story.
DJ: Yeah, but the really funny thing is, though, that on the tape, the [station] actually plays the single, "Love Buzz." [Laughs.]
NPR: David Bazan also told me yesterday that while you didn't listen to Nirvana together, there was a common understanding about that "poppier" band in the midst of all the punk you were listening to.
DJ: The first time I heard Nevermind, it was pretty shocking. A lot of people talk about how shocking it was in a positive way, but for me, it was shocking in a negative way. I had spent years before that listening to Bleach and seeing them live. I thought they were gonna one-up themselves. I thought that they were gonna make a record that sounded like [what would eventually sound like] In Utero. That's what I thought was gonna come next. So getting Nevermind was kind of disappointing for me.
NPR: Did you think Nirvana was misrepresenting Seattle?
DJ: No, I don't think it was misrepresenting. From things that I've read, I don't even think Nirvana was happy with the production of Nevermind. It was a slick record, you know?
NPR: Well, that's why the band insisted on getting Steve Albini to engineer In Utero.
DJ: Right. I just remember being completely disappointed. You have to think back. This was the era of Guns N' Roses. Guns N' Roses was one of the biggest bands in the world. And to have a record come from a "punk rock band" and have it sound like that, it was a little jarring. It was almost like contemporary punk rock. It was safe.
It was basically around that time that I dropped out of the whole punk-rock game. By the time that Nevermind came out, I had decided to get into folk music. Because at that point, it was like, what is the point now? Does that make any sense?
DJ: In some ways, it was a little bit of a dumb reaction, because I could have just as easily delved into something that was more underground and stuck with my Butthole Surfers records. But if it gets to the point where you're going to a Butthole Surfers show and you see people from your high school that you don't even get along with — people who made fun of you the previous year for having colored hair or a shaved head and combat boots — and now they're sporting those clothes. For me, it was kind of offensive.
NPR: So you were reacting to the "year punk broke"...
DJ: Yeah, for me, it was more the year punk died. It was so slick. There was literally nothing punk-rock about it whatsoever. I'm looking back and thinking, "Is Nevermind a great piece of work?" For sure. It's a great record with great songwriting, but as a whole, I just don't listen to Nevermind. I can't get into it. I just can't. But I think that is the reason I loved "Something in the Way" as much as I did: because it stood out from the rest of the record.
NPR: Does "Something in the Way" still resonate with you now? Does it mean something different?
DJ: For sure. It has the same effect on me now as when I first heard it. It's a feeling that I can't even put into words. It's melancholic, but also very comfortable. But after [Kurt Cobain's] death, it gives it a whole new level of feeling. Looking back, I still have never heard anything executed like that except maybe Nick Drake's Pink Moon — the entire Pink Moon record. It's the intimacy and the feeling that goes along with that. It's a really special, special moment that's captured on record.
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