"Heart-Shaped Box" might be the closest one can get to a signature track for Nirvana's last album, "In Utero." Being the first single released off the album, it could very well have ended up on a Hole record instead. Much of the writing for "In Utero" was done in Kurt and Courtney's Hollywood apartments during Nirvana's long stretches of down-time during 1992. Their first apartment, on North Spaulding Street, had a large walk-in closet that often served as a song-writing sanctuary for Kurt, and it was there that "Heart-Shaped Box" was written.
"The only time I asked him for a riff for one of my songs, he was in the closet," Courtney told Rolling Stone in a 1994 interview. "We had this huge closet, and I hear him working on 'Heart-Shaped Box.' He did that in five minutes. Knock, knock, knock. 'What?' 'Do you need that riff?' 'Fuck you!' Slam. He was trying to be so sneaky. I could hear that one from downstairs."
Kurt continued to work on the song, but found that when he introduced it to the band, it strayed away from the delicate vibe he was after, and turned into a big, noisy jam. Shortly before the "In Utero" sessions with Steve Albini in March 1993, Kurt was ready to give up on the song, but let the band have one last crack at it. Suddenly, it all came together. Kurt discovered the coolly restrained vocal style of the song's verses, Krist came up with the demonic loping bass line that powers the chorus (which Kurt later expressed as one of his favorite bits of bass-work by Krist), and the whole band gave the tune the dynamic shape it needed.
Nirvana debuted the song live in Rio de Janeiro, at Apoteose Stadium, in Brazil on January 23rd 1993. This first version of the song featured alternate and nearly incomprehensible lyrics, but "Heart-Shaped Box" became a keeper.
The song was recorded by Steve Albini in March 1993 for Nirvana's "In Utero" album. It was one of the three tracks that were later re-mixed by long-time R.E.M. producer Scott Litt after the band finished work with Albini. It was with Litt, in May 1993 at Bad Animals Studios in Seattle, that Kurt added some acoustic guitar and the dreamy-to-razor-sharp harmonies that helped make the song a standout.
The version of "All Apologies" on In Utero is also re-mixed, and the re-mixed version of "Pennyroyal Tea" is available on the extremely rare "Pennyroyal Tea" single and on the edited version of "In Utero."
The song was released as the first single from the album, with "Milk It" (album version) and "Marigold" (unreleased track) as b-sides. The band made a music video for the song with Dutch director Anton Corjbin, featuring lots of surrealistic imagery: A heavy woman in a muscles-and-organs body suit and wings reaching for plastic fetuses on a tree, a little girl in a white-witch costume that turns black in a lake of ink and an emaciated guy with a Victorian Santa beard climbing onto a cross. The look of oversaturated color in the video was achieved by filming in black and white and having the whole video computer-colorized.
Video stills from the music video is presented on this page, including rare pictures from the edited version of the video. For unknown reasons, the video was edited after Kurt's death: The third verse got new footage, including rather obscure shots of Kurt lying on the ground amongst flowers.
Instead of the footage of the band, the little girl is featured a lot more in this version of the video, standing next to the old man in a hospital bed, with the fat lady, showing a wheelchair along a road, standing in a field of flowers, standing in front of the cross with the crows and her heart starting to bleed. The rest of the video was left as it was. MTV and M2 (also known as MTV2) have aired both versions of the video.
Kurt told several interviewers that the song was inspired by seeing documentaries and news features on terminally ill children. The song's alternate moments of gentle sadness and angry sarcasm may be emotionally true to those real-life situations. But Kurt also seemed to be taking a look at his relationship with Courtney. Much as he described in the symbiotic connection between the two babies in "Drain You," Kurt's relationship with his wife is not illuminated with standard romantic couplets - instead there is talk of cancer, umbilical cords and 'meat-eating orchids.' Kurt said he liked orchids because they reminded him of vaginas. There are orchids scattered among the medical models of embryos and uteruses in the artwork Kurt designed for the back of "In Utero."
The title of the song is taken from Kurt and Courtney's mutual interest in heart-shaped boxes, which they both collected. There were shelves filled with them at the Hollywood homes the couple shared through most of 1992.
Kurt spoke of his relationship with Courtney in a November 1993 interview with Gavin Edwards in "Details" magazine.
"Everyone thinks of me as this sad little spineless puppy who needs to be taken care of. It sickens me. When I first met Courtney, I thought of her as this totally independent, self-serving person and I really respected her for that - that is why I fell in love with her. Since we have been married, I have found that she is a bit more insecure. I am glad - it is nice to know she is not going to take off one day. I did not think I would ever have a best friend, let alone a mate".
In the June 1995 issue of "Musician," Krist Novoselic spoke out against pending music censorship bills that were working their way through a number of state legislatures. To make his point, Krist used a line from "Heart-Shaped Box" to show the folly of turning words and lyrics into criminal acts:
"One of the lines is 'broken hymen of your highness.' In that song, the word 'hymen' is used as a metaphor. In the context of these censorship bills, if you were to discuss the hymen as a normal, natural part of the female anatomy with a teenager, you would technically be breaking the law."
The "Heart-Shaped Box" video received two MTV Video Music Awards in 1994, one for best alternative video, and one for best art direction. Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear accepted the award on behalf of the then-deceased band, Dave making an emotional speech of how he thinks about Kurt every day and he misses him. Krist later showed up on stage and presented a video compilation in honour of Kurt Cobain.
Kevin Kerslake, director of Nirvana's "Come As You Are," "In Bloom" and "Sliver" videos, sued the band for stealing his ideas for the music video. When Kurt died, he dropped the case.
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