Revisit Mark Lanegan and Kurt Cobain’s 1989 cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
Since the shocking news broke that the legendary Mark Lanegan died at age 57, we've been going back through some of our favorite Mark Lanegan memories, and one of those is when he teamed up with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic to cover Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on his 1990 debut solo album The Winding Sheet, four years before Nirvana popularized the song on MTV Unplugged. Kurt handled guitar and backing vocals, while Krist played bass and Lanegan's Screaming Trees bandmate Mark Pickerel handled drums, and as legend has it, it came from a 1989 session where the four of them covered a handful of Lead Belly songs, but this is still the only one that's been officially released.
Lanegan wrote about the sessions in his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. "Sometimes Kurt would come down and stay with us for a couple days," Lanegan wrote. "Sometimes I'd hang out with him in Olympia, listening to the old blues records we both loved. One afternoon at his place, we started talking about making a record. 'We should do a record of this stuff,' one of us suggested. And then the other, 'We should do a record of all Lead Belly covers.'"
"I casually mentioned the idea to Mark Pickerel, who was by then working for Sub Pop Records, the label that had signed Kurt's band," Lanegan continued. "After one rehearsal with Pickerel and Krist Novoselic as rhythm secetion before we'd really even thought it through, we suddenly found ourselves in the studio to make a record for Sub Pop."
They ended up abandoning the project ("Neither Kurt nor I were really willing to grab the reins... I was too awed by Kurt’s genius"), but then Sub Pop eventually asked Lanegan to do a solo album, and they ended up using "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" from those 1989 sessions. "[We] ended up using a recording of one of the heavier songs from our aborted Lead Belly record, 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,'" Lanegan wrote in his memoir, "an acoustic tune Kurt had electrified, which had compelled me to take my performance into the familiar rock territory of the Trees, doubling my voice to harmonize with myself and singing the last couple verses in the very utmost registers of my limited vocal range, as though Lee Conner himself had written the part." Kurt also ended up singing backup on "Down in the Dark" from that same album.
Lanegan spoke about Nirvana's Unplugged version in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview. "His version of that song is the definitive version — it blows mine away," he said. "One of the coolest things that ever came from hanging with Kurt was just sitting in his shed and hearing him play acoustic guitar and singing. To me it sounded like what I imagined it would be like if I was sitting in the room with Skip James or Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was so soulful and real, it gave me the chills."
Revisit both versions below...