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Music

The early experiemntal Nirvana song inspired by Jack Kerouac

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain sits among the most iconic names in rock history thanks to his innovative work over the late 1980s and ‘90s that brought grunge music to the fore of the rock world. His suicide in 1994 elevated him to a new level of fame with a haunting irony, given that fame was one of the final nails in the troubled singer’s coffin. 

Like many creative minds, Cobain had a deep love for literature, especially works that gave the therapeutic release of spiritual escapism. Like The Beatles, The Doors and Bob Dylan before him, Cobain was enamoured with the literature of the Beat Generation, which included the progressive, creative ideas of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. When writing many of his lyrics for Nirvana in the late 1980s and ‘90s, Cobain would regularly employ Burroughs’ famed cut-up technique to produce avant-garde word structures and thematic ideas. 

Another author of the Beat Generation that Cobain was fascinated by was Jack Kerouac, who was most famous for his 1957 novel Life On The Road. Ostensibly, Cobain was particularly affected by Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, and the book was the key inspiration behind one of Nirvana’s strangest songs. 

In the late 1980s, while recording material for their first album, Bleach, Nirvana recorded a 93-second experimental track called ‘Beans’. Discussing the quirky helium induced song, Cobain said that the Sub Pop label co-founder Jonathan Poneman “thought it was stupid. He thought we were retarded.”

The seemingly nonsensical lyrics, “Beans, beans, beans / Japhy ate some beans,” were actually in reference to Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, which follows the story of two characters, the narrator Ray Smith (based on Kerouac) and Japhy Ryder (based on poet and essayist Gary Snyder). The semi-fictional story is based on Kerouac’s introduction to Buddhist idealogy in the setting of a life split by a love for outdoor adventure in the form of hiking, mountaineering and hitchhiking and the opposite love of “city life” involving drunken parties, jazz clubs and gambling. 

Despite the song’s deeper connection to Cobain’s love for US literature, Sup Pop dismissed it as a load of rubbish and excluded it from Bleach in favour of the band’s winning grunge sound. ‘Beans’ was found on some unreleased tapes and was released in a 2004 compilation album called With The Lights Out.

Listen to Nirvana’s ‘Beans’ below.