On January 30, 1994, grunge rock legends Nirvana entered Robert Lang Studios in Seattle, Washington during a short break from touring in support of In Utero. This session would take place a few short weeks before the band embarked on its ill-fated European tour that would end early with canceled shows and frontman Kurt Cobain clinging to life in a coma at a hospital in Rome.
This session would produce the last recorded song Nirvana would ever put to tape. Less than four months later, Cobain was found dead on April 5, 1994, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The tragic death of Cobain would be the final chapter in the band's short but remarkable career. Its final song would create legal problems for the surviving members of Nirvana and Cobain's estate for the better part of the next decade as they battled over its eventual release.
The song in question, "You Know Your Right," would finally see release in 2001 as part of a Nirvana greatest hits package. The story of Nirvana's final studio session is a fascinating glimpse into the dysfunction that had beset the group in its final months of existence.
What happened with Nirvana 30 years ago
January 28/29: Kurt Cobain is nowhere to be found
Drummer Dave Grohl and bass player Krist Novoselic arrived at Robert Lang Studios on January 28, but Cobain was a no-show. The same would be true of the following day when phone calls placed to the singer would go unanswered. Undeterred, Grohl and Novoselic set about recording ideas together while they waited for Cobain to make an appearance. Some of these ideas would see the light of day in another famous project.
While waiting for Cobain, Grohl, and Novoselic to work on a batch of songs the drummer had been writing in his downtime. During this session, future Foo Fighter's tracks like "Big Me," "Exhausted," "February Stars," and "Butterflies" were all recorded in addition to other collaborative material. Three of the four songs would see later release on Foo Fighters 1995 self-titled debut, and The Colour and the Shape in 1997.
January 30: Kurt Cobain finally arrives at the studio
On the final day of recording sessions, Kurt Cobain surprised everyone by entering the studio. Producer Adam Kasper and the band quickly shifted from playing around in the studio and got right to work on laying down the basic tracks of "You Know Your Right," a song the band had been writing at soundchecks and that was played once live during a performance at Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on October 23, 1993.
A classic example of Nirvana's quiet/loud song structure, "You Know Your Right" is one of the darkest Nirvana songs in their entire discography. Over a bassline that wouldn't seem out of place in an Alice in Chains song, Cobain's emotionally direct lyrics during the verse paint a picture of resignation and defeat in a frayed relationship. Possibly written about his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Hole singer Courtney Love, "You Know Your Right" is Cobain at his most lyrically vulnerable.
As the chorus kicks in with distortion and chunky power chords, Cobain screams the words "pain" while the chords shift in unison underneath this haunting phrase. At the end of the chorus, Cobain sings the words "You know your right" as feedback squalls bleed into the next verse. The performance is as powerful as anything the band had ever done before, while also being as raw and honest as Cobain would ever get as a songwriter.
When the song finally saw a proper release on Nirvana's 2004 box set "With the Lights Out," "You Know Your Right" was an immediate hit, topping the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart for four consecutive weeks. It's unclear if there are other Nirvana songs that remain unreleased, but if this was the last recorded material we will ever listen to, it's clear Kurt Cobain still had great songs written before the tragic end of his life in 1994.