With the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” being a topic of discussion for the last few months, we explore one of the lesser-known Nirvana songs “Drain You.”
Arguing the best songs of precious bands is always a fool’s errand, but arguing the most underrated is quite revealing. And so it is with “Drain You” off of Nirvana’s breakthrough album “Nevermind.”
Perhaps it is a case of me being precious about the song. Let me explain.
I bought the “Come As You Are” cassette tape single as a 10-year-old with my allowance in a record store in Tuscon, Arizona. This, of course, was that weird time in the very early ’90s when cassette and CD co-existed and the cassette wasn’t the nostalgia item it has become lately amongst the bohemian youth and lo-fi enthusiasts.
It’s still a wonder that my parents actually let me buy the “Come As You Are” cassette, given the artwork features sperm swimming in blue-filtered vaginal fluid. My family was on vacation (back when family’s could still do that sort of thing) during which I’d suffer sun poisoning, experience a bad headache whilst walking around a simulacrum of a Wild West boom town and vomit whilst watching my father dine on rattlesnake.
The trip was hallucinatory enough and was made more memorable after I convalesced enough to wander into the record store and come out with the “Come As You Are” single. My dad had watched the original airing of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video on MTV with me, so he was familiar with the band and maybe just thought I didn’t know what sperm were. Now that I think of it, though, my mother may have mentioned something about the little creatures while listening to the tape in our rent-a-car.
Naturally, I listened to “Come As You Are” immediately and multiple times, but then I gave the b-side “Drain You” a try and it instantly became my favorite. I played the song so much that every every 20 minutes my parents had to replace my music with John Prine’s “The Missing Years,” which I boogied to as well.
But, I never was quite the same after hearing Nirvana—especially after hearing “Drain You.”
The song really should have preceded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” as the main single. Kurt Cobain‘s guitar is immense, the chords are perfect and Dave Grohl sounds as if he might drive his drum set several feet into the ground, with the reverberations peeling paint in large flakes.
This would have been enough for classic status, but at 1:35 Nirvana takes the song off the rails into Sonic Youth-territory with atonal noise, tribal drums and a guitar solo and scream before the band launches back into the verse. The effect is still so powerful that it continues to give me the goosebumps. (So powerful, in fact, that Foxy Shazam had no choice but to go in the opposite direction with their schizophrenic but interesting Queen by way of George Gerswhin cover.)
As Death and Taxes’ Stephen Blackwell notes, “A lot of people pass it over because it doesn’t have a middle 8 and the bridge is a drum passage with rubber duck noises… It may have the best opening of any Nirvana song and better displays the quiet-loud dynamic than any other Nirvana song, save for maybe ‘Laundry Room’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’… Also, it has a great lyrics… .”
Which is correct. Witness the first verse:
One baby to another says
I’m lucky to have met you
I don’t care what you think
Unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube
And end up in your infection
In the chorus Cobain speaks about chewing meat and passing it “back and forth in a passionate kiss.” The second verse—which is my favorite—goes:
With eyes so dialated
I’ve become your pupil
You’ve taught me everything
Without a poison apple
The water is so yellow
I’m a healthy student
Indebted and so grateful
Vacuum out the fluids
Listen to the original version of “Drain You” below. And after that, listen to the live versions at Reading 1992 and MTV’s “Live & Loud”—and tell me, does the song not give you goosebumps?