Nirvana: Live, Tonight, On Tape ...
"Yeah, you're old."
That's a phrase that has been kicking around in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind. To call me a 'fan' is an understatement, writes Brett Robinson. While many people disown (or are at least mortified by) the soundtrack of their youth, I have conspicuously and unabashedly clung to my youthful obsession with this band. Fall of 2011 will mark twenty years since I, and millions of my peers, were forever marked by both the mystical powerage of both music and celebu-drama. Unlike most of my peers (and I think this is why I failed to 'let go'), I was fortunate enough to witness Nirvana perform live, less than five months before the band ceased to exist.
My mother accompanied my 12-year-old self to a cold hockey rink on a Friday night in November of 1993. I can't say that experience proved to be an epiphany, but it certainly was epic in the scope of the events that would unfold throughout the media in April of 1994. My most distinct memory of that event (besides Half Japanese kicking things off with a megaphone and a form of rock music I still can't quite fathom), is watching Kurt Cobain and Pat Smear wail away on their squalling guitars during the show's finale. I had no idea what I was hearing, some bastardized version, perhaps, of that eerie, deathrock song that appeared out of nowhere, 13 legendary minutes after Nevermind's proper closing tune "Something In The Way". There was a disco ball hanging above the stage which Kurt gleefully destroyed. I remember this clear as day. Or do I? I was just 12 years old after all.
With Kurt's death a few months later, the rock band that had christened me into the world of performance disintegrated in a hurricane of mystery, shrouded in mental illness, lubricated by drug abuse. Couple that with some tumultuous personal events happening to my adolescent self ("Gramma take me home / I wanna be alone") and the makings of obsessions and compulsions are fully defined.
With no new music forthcoming from a band I had been repeatedly listening to since I was a mere ten years old, I found myself endlessly looping a worn VHS tape of the two 1993 MTV Nirvana broadcasts, Unplugged in New York and Live N' Loud. I, and many of my friends, subsequently found ourselves at that awkward age where parents just don't understand and music becomes the light at the end of the tunnel. (In fact, it was more like the carrot/stick trick, but kids don't understand that stuff.) While that old adage about the Velvet Underground definitely doesn't apply to Nirvana (didn't sell a lot of records, but everyone started a band who actually bought one), the legacy Cobain's music did leave was such that most everyone who picked up a guitar during those years taught themselves the basics through learning his songs. It is perhaps still the case today.
Fast-forward from April 1994 to sometime when the Internet is more readily available to me. I find a Nirvana website and on that website are the details of numerous bootleg recordings. I then find a website documenting setlists of every known Nirvana gig, and the unfathomably exciting prospect that the Fitchburg, MA show exists on tape somewhere, and that one of these strangers out there will send me a copy! I fire off a (I'm sure) embarassingly over-enthusiastic email to this stranger, and a few anxious weeks later I receive a Maxell Type II Gold cassette containing the very performance I attended. The quality was atrocious; the audience singing along to 'Lithium' is louder than Kurt Cobain himself, but I loved every second of being able to relive those 90 minutes over and over again.
Fast-forward even further. The internet is ubiquitous and I am decades older now. I've spent a good chunk of my free time becoming some sort of Nirvana historian and have acquired a surprising high number of audio and video recordings from a band that only existed from 1987-1994 (with several periods of extreme inactivity therein). As the big-money people that own Cobain's legacy will continue to 'Milk It' for decades (a la Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, etc.), every new official release brings, for me, some level of both cringe-worthiness and tantalization. The Nevermind "Super Deluxe Edition" is a perfect example of this: die-hard collectors know what could have been included to provide a comprehensive document of the album; instead we are to be satiated with a haphazard set, with less than half of the running order containing material that has not already been heavily bootlegged.
For those more casual fans, the set may prove to be quite the treat, but for aficianados of the band's live and studio session history, I know that there are numerous recordings (ranging from the rough to the stellar) that capture the band in ferociously great form. I would like to share some of my most favorite moments, in the hopes that they will be sought out for your listening enjoyment.
1. Vendettagainst - September 28, 1991 - New York, NY
This rare song - of which a 1987 radio session demo was released on With The Lights Out in 2004 (as "Help Me, I'm Hungry) - was the terrifying set-closer to the show at the Marquee Club that night. The US Nevermind tour, which had begun just a week earlier, could arguably be considered the band at their peak.
This particular song is an uncommon gem, with only two performances known to have been recorded with Dave Grohl (both in 1991, and only three days apart). Photographs are available of Cobain performing this song, having disgarded his guitar in favor crowd-surfing and scream/moaning while Krist Novoselic and Grohl maintain a thunderous beat behind his wall of vocal noise. The loud/quiet dynamic is in full effect and this song, despite lacking any guitar, still holds up well against Nirvana's more angry and violent songs such as "Scentless Apprentice" or "Paper Cuts." Several audience recordings of this show are available in collector's circles; with the best quality one being quite listenable.
2. untitled improvised set-closing jam - November 10, 1993 - Springfield, MA
Nirvana's improvisational side is tragically poorly-documented in terms of officially released recordings. The hidden track on In Utero and some recordings on With The Lights Out contain the extent of it. But nearly every show the band played featured some sort of impromptu jam. Their performance in Springfield, MA during the US In Utero tour occurred during a leg when the band seemed genuinely happy with the stresses of the road. The perfomance that night went on for more than an hour and a half, and culminated with a ten-minute epic that was never heard before or again. At one point in this spacey, almost early Pink Floyd-esque, piece Cobain starts riffing on the postumously released 'You Know You're Right', and every time you hear him start you wish the band had followed along. The entire show is quite solid, documented via a fan-recorded DAT tape, but the final number is a magical trajectory someone searching for unheard Nirvana would do well to seek out.
3. Smells Like Teen Spirit - September 1, 1991 - Rotterdam
Live performances of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' recorded before the song blew up are fantastic to hear. The absence of instantaneous crowd-cheering and the fact that the novelty of the song had yet to wear off on the band is evident. This particular version is one of the only songs at the Rotterdam show that the band (mainly Kurt) didn't fuck up royally. This show is incredibly well-documented: at least two amateur video recordings, plus several audience audio recordings exist, and Dave Markey's footage appears in the long form 1991: The Year Punk Broke and the music video for 'Lithium'. This version is blistering, and the entire show captures classic Nirvana.
4. Oh, The Guilt - November 25, 1990 - Seattle, WA
The band was huge in Seattle but relatively unknown nationally at this point in their career. Dave Grohl had joined the band only two months earlier, and they wrote numerous songs together in that short period of time including 'Oh, The Guilt' and 'Aneurysm'. Even casual fans would do well to seek out this entire performance, which spans nearly 100 minutes - and the circulating versions are not even complete!. The band is full-on, Kurt's voice holds up phenomenally, the setlist is completely atypical of any other performance, and there are both excellent audience and soundboard recordings available. If there is one unreleased recording of Nirvana worth having, it is a copy of this show.
5. Sifting - June 23, 1989 - Westwood, CA
You may have seen clips of this song and performance on MTV. Two different amateur video recordings exist of this show, and the band's musical performance is quite stellar. While both the band and fans seem to discredit Jason Everman's rhythm guitar skills, he does not detract much from this performance. 'Sifting' was rarely played, but at this show, even in the brightly lit room, it retains its stark and claustrophic aura. Perhaps it is the low-quality PA, but Kurt's voice during this show comes off as particularly caustic.
6. Where Did You Sleep Last Night - February 14, 1994 - Paris
While I personally disagree, many fans consider this version to best the Unplugged In New York version recorded three months earlier. Melora Creager, who would subsequently be known for her band Rasputina, adds a haunting cello line to this set-closing song on Valentine's Day in 1994. It is said that Cobain and Courtney Love were experiencing marital strife during this time and one might wonder what exact emotion was being channeled here - if one wonders about such things. Regardless, this is certainly one of the better live performances of the song, culminating with a feedback outro and rounding out one of Nirvana's final live performances ever. At least four audience recordings and video footage of this show are known to exist.
7. Spank Thru - April 10, 1990 - Ann Arbor, MI
It's ironic that Chad left Nirvana when he did. His last couple months of shows with the band were some of their best. This concert is available to collectors via several excellent audience recordings, and at least two separate video recordings that all capture the energy of this classic show. The band would subsequently reference this show onstage upon a subsequent return to Michigan. Kurt in his Sub Pop t-shirt flailing around like, as he would put it, a rhesus monkey, is a classic display of pre-explosion grunge (sorry...) and effectively displays the pre-explosion Nirvana. This particular performance of the "first Nirvana song" (per Novoselic, in the Wishkah liner notes) runs at breakneck speed and contains nearly all elements of what made the band's live performances so swell. This show is 40 minutes of worthwhile Nirvana, about a month before Chad's last show with the band.
8. Drain You - August 15, 1991 - Hollywood, CA
This show is criminally unknown amongst fans and collectors alike. This performance of 'Drain You', one of the earliest known, features a similar naivete found in the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' performance listed above. It is clear that Nirvana, and Kurt in particular, were quite fond of the newest songs in their arsenal (namely this, 'Rape Me', 'Teen Spirit' and 'Come As You Are') and were really relishing their power as eventual hits while still working out the nuances of performing them live. This show is available as a crystal-clear DAT recording that unfortunately is barely in the hands of collectors. Kerrang magazine, a magazine Nirvana despised, flaunted the scarcity of this recording by naming this show the "Greatest gig of all time." Much like the Off Ramp gig listed above, this should have no problem appealing to even the most casual Nevermind fan.
9. Bad Moon Rising - March 19, 1988 - Tacoma, WA
Another set-closing track, this re-tuned version of Credence Clearwater Revival's hit features an earnest vocal performance from Cobain and one Dave Foster on drums, who is at this point the only named drummer of Nirvana to not be featured on an official release. Amongst sincere archivists of Cobain's recorded output, any show pre-1989 is considered with holy grail status. This show features numerous songs that would be dropped from Nirvana's setlist (heavy on Incesticide side B) in a soundboard recording that is not particularly painful to listen to. 'Bad Moon Rising' merely caps out an extremely passionate and interesting performance amongst an era of the band that is unfortunately poorly documented.
10. untitled improvised set-closing jam - February 7, 1992 - Sydney
I got all the way here and realized nothing was from 1992. It was a difficult year for the band. They could still churn out the hits, and brought out some forgotten oldies like 'Swap Meet' and 'Beeswax', but all in all I feel as though it is perhaps Nirvana's weakest time as a live band. The February 7, 1992 show is an slight anomaly. An incredibly rare electric version of 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night' is performed, stopping perfectly on cue after treading on for several minutes in a dark and stormy fashion. The show closes with a monstrous improvisation that contains elements of 'Hairspray Queen' and 'Endless, Nameless' but remains distinct enough to be a wholly other entity. At 10-plus minutes, the piece conjures up shades of the band Earth, whose primary musician, Dylan Carlson, would be at Kurt's wedding as best man about two weeks later. While no video footage of this performance has circulated, judging by the sounds of the audience DAT recording there is the cliche instrument destruction happening amidst the din. But the song carries on with a distinct march and remains one of their most original improvised set-closers.
After trespassing through the annals of Nirvana fan recordings, I found myself moved to explore more esoteric music, eventually ending up completely consumed by bands as equally or more distraught in their delivery of sound. The Melvins, obviously, must be understood as a reference point for all eras of Nirvana's music. Similarly, bands like SWANS, Cop Shoot Cop, the Stooges, Sonic Youth and Scratch Acid all produced much less commercial material than what Nirvana assimilated their influences into. For some reason, I did not become the super-fan that also fell for the mid/late-90's drivel that the wake of the grunge fad spawned. On November 27, 1993, in Miami, FL, Kurt suggested from onstage to the kids in the audience that they go see Harry Pussy at Churchill's after the show. Well, nearly 20 years later and Churchill's is still kicking, playing host to one of the most intense acts you will ever see: the Laundry Room Squelchers ( http://www.squelchers.com/ ) That band's name always reminded me of the unsung Nirvana hit 'Sappy', but I do doubt that anyone can prove much of a relationship between the song and said Squelchers band.
In the meantime, I can be charmed that an underground of out-there sounds is still thriving and supporting itself decades after a hick band from the Washington sticks shone a brief spotlight on the DIY circuit and paved the way for a few thousand kids (or more, I hope) to get a move on and present their passion to others. It doesn't matter if Kurt lived or died because what remains can be so breathtakingly beautiful that it trumps the derivitive infinitely.
At ten years old, all I wanted was the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' cassette single. My dad, who took me to the shopping mall that day to buy it, encouraged me to buy the whole album instead. I listened nonstop for nearly two years. My mother took me to see Nirvana live in concert. I owe them both a debt of thanks twenty years later.
Brett Robinson is left handed and doesn't know how to ride a bicycle. He has a crooked eye and is uncircumcised. He is obsessed with books about UFOs and Nirvana. He regularly performs with the rock'n'roll band Egg, Eggs, described by The Wire as "groovy sluggish puke." He currently resides in western Massachusetts, his favorite place in the world, with his cat.