'You can't fire me because I quit'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I’m pretty sure I was in biology. Freshman year of high school, fall of 1996, sitting distracted and bored but still trying to look attentive and polite while the teacher went on about chlorophyll and osmosis and whatever else happened to be covered in that chapter on cell absorption and plant matter and whatever else it is you’re supposed to learn when you’re sitting in biology as a freshman, when my interest was piqued.
It was carved into the side of the desk with a ball-point pen, repeatedly to almost mimic a pocket knife, to the point that it was difficult to tell if the original ink was blue or black. There it was, scrawled in all caps and underscored with its original, as far as I knew, source:
“YOU CAN’T FIRE ME ‘CAUSE I QUIT
- KURT COBAIN”
My first thought was actually surprise; Did Kurt Cobain actually say that? Did that turn of phrase come from him?
In a recent rediscovery session of all things Nirvana, the kind that comes in inevitable cycles simply because it’s impossible to escape their music for too long, I flashed back to that moment and that question while In Utero came out of my headphones. A little searching and digging through indexes didn’t leave me with any kind of answer to that question, but it did confirm that the phrase has been part of the lexicon for most of the 20th century, and perhaps earlier. Finding the source would take much longer, and I’m not going to pretend to have an answer.
So whether or not it was original or merely an apt appropriation of a phrase to react to a time, those words left their mark on its listeners, not least of which included Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. He said as much to Mojo in Nov. 2009:
“If there's one line in any song that gives me the chills it's that one. Maybe all those things that people wrote about him painted him into a corner that he couldn't get out of."
Like Grohl, the history of the phrase didn’t mean as much as the point of origin from my point of view. Seeing the words and letters ground into the desk so crudely and attributed to such a tortured soul, someone I already saw as a ghost with tremendous presence who still loomed over every note I heard coming out over a radio or my little walkman at the time. That feeling never left.
I remember a discussion about Nirvana with another writer a work a couple of years ago, and I was surprised at the pushback I got when I said that In Utero was Nirvana’s best album. How could I not think Nevermind was their best? It had all the hits, of course! It changed music! That’s ridiculous! And so on.
And all those things are true, and it’s a tremendous record. But I have trouble judging what I like based on how it’s done in the public or what it means to other people. When it comes to Nirvana’s studio albums, In Utero always burned brightest. Where Nevermind was the sound of a tremendous band blossoming and on the verge of realizing a dream — which was just to continue being a band, playing shows and making a life from music — In Utero was the violent, confused reaction to the pressure and scrutiny that came with suddenly being the biggest act in America, the leaders of a movement that no one predicted. If not necessarily the best or most memorable song, the sludgy screams of “Scentless Apprentice” always felt like the heart of that record, not least because of Cobain’s searing couplet towards the end:
“You can’t fire me because I quit
Throw me on the fire I won’t throw a fit”
And from there, it’s back into the crazed scream of “Get away, get away, get away...” It’s a manic, furious performance that sums up exactly where Nirvana was and where Cobain was feeling with his art in 1993 as the machine and spotlight were at their peaks for the band. Cobain, like Bob Dylan 30 years earlier, was reluctantly pegged as some sort of spokesman for his generation and similarly wanted nothing to do with the title. And he wasn’t going to wait to be thrown on the has-been pile by the fickle public.
Dylan went electric, turned away from the audience, followed his muse and continued making vital music, a confusing and bewildering path that continues today, thankfully. Two days ago, he celebrated his 72nd birthday, and will keep touring and keep singing this summer and as long as he feel like he can, and on his own terms. Cobain didn’t do that. He chose a different path, one that leaves him and his band with a much smaller body of work than we’d all like, and it’s one that we all have to live with.
But what is here is here, and it made its impact immediately, the hits and the album tracks and the b-sides alike. It’s all the words and the music, of course, but even more so, it’s who’s singing them and when. And if they’re any good, those words will live on; on vinyl, in print and, sometimes, carved into a desk, looking to assault and stimulate the confused, inquisitive minds that might stumble upon them when they’re not expecting to be changed.
May 26, 2013
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org