When was the last time you actually played one of Nirvana’s CDs in your home stereo, car or iPod? Are your Nirvana CDs even loaded to your iPod? I know that you own them, at least Nevermind and possibly In Utero. Hell, you might even have a copy of Bleach, which was only purchased to increase your indie street cred. But the question isn’t whether you own these fifteen year-old CDs, it’s whether you actually play them. I have an easy out in that I reviewed the condensed version of their box set about a year ago. Our own Chris Griffiths has one too in that he revisited Bleach for our “Best of the ’80s” feature. But what about you? Has it been a year? Five? Ten? The full fifteen? Arguments can be made for and against grunge music being a fad. Certainly, after the success of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, major labels were scouring Seattle for any band wearing flannel, and some might say that the success of Nirvana these days owes itself to the death and eventual rock sainthood rewriting of the life of Kurt Cobain. Then again, Pearl Jam is still in existence, Chris Cornell still has a viable career and so do a host of others including Mark Lanegan, and to top it all off, Alice in Chains is reuniting for 2007’s Ozzfest.
When it comes to Nirvana, there’s certainly a fair share of revisionist history. People tend to forget that Pearl Jam outsold them consistently, and that most people never went to see them perform live, making them the one band they wished they could go back and see. But from my vantage point, on a college campus in the early ’90s, Nirvana far outshined (pun intended) any of their grunge contemporaries. Eddie and his pals may have outsold Kurt in Podunk towns across the Midwest, but in the music centers of the world, the places where young people congregated, Nirvana was everything. Why do you think everyone actually owns a copy of Nevermind? I would venture to guess that most people would probably easier part with their copy of Ten than any of Nirvana’s CDs, if only because of their reputation, even if each were equally dusty from non-use. An untimely death, whether you believe in his alleged suicide or any kind of murder conspiracy, achieved two things. It vaulted Nirvana even higher in a kind of accelerated legendary status and it froze the band forever in time. We will never hear any music from Nirvana past a particular time, nor will we see the band age and progress as we have with some of their contemporaries. Get this, if Kurt were alive today, he’d be turning forty in February.
Live! Tonight! Sold Out! is a home video that Kurt Cobain was putting together before his death, and was then completed by drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. The DVD version comes twelve years after the initial VHS release and reveals, if not anything new about the band, at least why we all loved them in the first place. Being in the middle of it at the time, it was difficult to notice that grunge was actually the second coming of punk. Kurt himself comments on this in the video, saying that punk music is equated in his mind with freedom. He states that rock can be as sloppily played as possible, but still be good and still retain a certain spirit. Of course, this then segues into an absolutely horrific performance of “Come As You Are.” Other highlights include a hilarious version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played for the UK show Top of the Pops, which infamously employed lip-synching. Showing their disdain for it, they very obviously aped playing their instruments, Kurt simply moving an open palm over his guitar and grinning like a maniacal mannequin while Krist and Dave just jumped around looking silly. The vocals, however, were live, and Kurt sang the song in a Robert Goulet or Jarvis Cocker-like lounge manner. Oddly enough, it’s one of their best performances. Another brilliantly captured moment is a playing of “Love Buzz” in Dallas, Texas where an altercation with a bouncer that originated before the show even began is played out at the close of the song when a crowd-surfing Cobain can be seen braining the bouncer with the butt of his guitar. The bouncer then takes a swing at Cobain after he drags him back onstage and the bouncer is then swarmed, blood visibly dripping down his face.
But it’s not all outtakes and odd performances on the DVD. The second half features nearly note perfect live renditions of Nirvana classics including “Something in the Way,” “Lithium,” “Drain You” and “Polly.” These performances go to show that Nirvana could actually reproduce their own studio sound, add more energy and please the crowds. Sure, Nirvana could take the piss out of any situation, whether it be a ridiculous television show appearance, their infamous “Rape Me” substitute on the MTV Awards, or even sabotage their own performances by doing a quick start-stop of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but they could also display a great deal of showmanship. They could just as easily play one of their songs straight as they could with exaggerated vocals, unchecked feedback and finishing with a complete destruction of their instruments, as in the punk rock days of yore.
I was one of those unlucky few that never got a chance to see Nirvana. I was actively going to shows at the time, and had plenty of chances, I’m sure (it’s hard to remember at this point), but I somehow missed out. Viewing Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, I began to remember what I enjoyed about listening to Nirvana, and completely forgot why I had been neglecting those CDs for so long. Of course, as a music journalist, I’m always looking for something new, so I have somewhat of an excuse, but not enough of one. This is no documentary, although it does contain various interview clips, nor is it a collection of music videos, or even cover Kurt’s death. Instead, it is a glimpse into the live appearances of a band at their peak, capturing them at their worst and best. At the end of the DVD, there’s the now obligatory (although this was done long ago) montage of the trappings of success, images and sounds intentionally disorienting to exemplify just how the band felt in the middle of a mainstream maelstrom. In the end, all they really wanted was to play music and make enough money to eat and tour, but America rarely lets its popular darlings get away with so little. I believe that it wasn’t their intention to get so big. Who would have expected a band that sounded like they did on tracks like “Negative Creep” to be on the charts with Michael Jackson, P.M. Dawn and Michael Bolton? Not me, but that’s where they ended up. The youth of America was looking for a cathartic release and Nirvana provided just the right amounts of pop simplicity mixed with punk aggression to vault them into a spotlight that was unfortunately trained on a band that wasn’t quite ready for it.
If you like this, check out:
Gus Van Sant’s Last Days
Nirvana- With the Lights Out box set
Nirvana- From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah