Originally written November 2018
In a post 80’s America, especially in the pop music world, there was a sense of shiny new optimism and subsequent culture that alienated a large group of the emerging generation’s middle-class youth. These were the kids who just felt off and felt off for feeling off. Young adults and teens always have been drawn to the music underground to find counterparts. But one thing even the strongest sense of underground community couldn’t gift was power. Power to be heard. The rest of society and of culture looked at these scenes, these pissed off and angry teens in their rock clubs and dive bars and were quite fine with their distance from relevancy. “Let the weirdos go with the weirdos to places we can ignore.”
That was before Nirvana. In 1991 Nirvana released the juggernaut that is Nevermind. And with Nirvana came change. The Seattle trio made up of vocalist/guitarist Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic on bass, and drummer Dave Grohl were the first band to take that alienation, apathy, and loathing and force it into sound, and a thunderous sound it was. It became a sound that not only disrupted the bright and cheery post 80’s world, it crushed it with a sledge hammer. This was a band that literally crawled out of the basement, three junkies filled with so much rage and anger at everything and anyone around them, it was the most relate-able music ever made. It was made organically and by accident. You could hear it. Posers beware.
The word “angst” is thrown around frequently when discussing Nirvana, but that is the apt usage of the word to describe their sound. The depressive and isolating angst felt by millions of people that were told they were weird for feeling was shot out of a cannon, and that angst climbed the pop charts, kicked Michael Jackson in his teeth, and threw him from the number one spot. The flag was planted. The weirdos were now in charge. The spokesmen of the culture belonged to the disenfranchised, and they were really fucking angry. Suddenly, everyone wasn’t so alone.
But it wasn’t until November 18th 1993, when in a small studio in NYC in front of a few hundred fan club members that Nirvana, and their symbolic face delivered what would be the finest and final testament to their greatness.
The show might have never been made. MTV Unplugged was already a smash commercial hit, and of course MTV would welcome the band that had helped put them on the map with their dark and brooding hit videos. But it would prove not be easy, just the way Nirvana liked it. The band’s clear goal to avoid all and every hit they had released from two monumentally successful album terrified producers. It was said that it wasn’t even insistent or stand offish. They simply had no intention to include the songs into their vision of the setlist. In an article written years later, one producer recalls the show’s controllers contemplating on how exactly they would convince the band to play more popular songs. “If you want to be the one to tell them to play ‘Teen Spirit’ be my guest”, she recounted, “because I wasn’t going too.” Cobain demanded his vision of the stage, lilies and black candles, be done, difficult enough without the fact it was nearly winter. Flowers needed to be found states away. The dress rehearsals were a mess, with Novoselic unable to play acoustic bass effectively, Grohl struggled to tame the force of nature he was behind the kit, and Kurt himself seemingly withering away in front of everyone’s eyes. The vomiting of blood and acid from the various and numerous stomach ailments Cobain suffered from was not made better by his withdraw symptoms coming and going in storms and swells. The show was simply holding on by a thread.
Until the actual night.
Maybe it was the hours alone in his hotel room pounding away to simplify and quite the bass lines of the set had finally payed off for Novoselic that made the difference. Maybe it was that Grohl was able to tame the violence he was famed for via numerous soft sticks and brushes provided in wrapping paper – present like- by a sound director. Or maybe was the amount of Valium Cobain had supposedly choked down the night before to get himself in a decent enough shape to play. Whatever secret the band had found, no one was prepared for the outcome.
They took their seats, and after joking with the audience that no one owned the album from which they were about to play (meaning Bleach, predecessor to Nevermind), Nirvana began to remind us all what sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of their fame and prowess: by that moment in 1993 they were truly the greatest band on earth.
Without the aggression, the noise, and the sheer power the Nirvana instilled through their sonic volume, the result became something completely unexpected. It became beautiful. Krist and Dave cemented their place as a truly legendary rhythm section, which became often over shadowed by their front man, but was truly the glue that held the wild and lucid guitar melodies and solos of Cobain to the line they needed to walk. Krist was flowing and melodic. Grohl did not miss a second of time. The added addition of Lisa Goldston, a cellist and rhythm guitarist Pat Smear, they all provided the spine Kurt needed to be Kurt.
Which brings us to center stage, in the middle as always, was Kurt Cobain. Maybe it was that he dressed in a large and fluffy cardigan on top of numerous other shirts (but though while most knew otherwise) he did not seem wafer thin or frail. He seemed bright and present. He joked with the crowd, he smoked cigarettes, he ribbed and teased the camera crew. But the most instantly noticeable thing about the entire live performance was something constantly mis-remembered then and now in the frontman’s own legend. Kurt Cobain could write a fucking song, lyrically both whimsical and gorgeous, and Kurt Cobain could sing, heartfelt and heartbreakingly. It was a gasp out loud moment, a reminder of why these misfits had crawled out of the afore mentioned basement to begin with. He was a generational-ly talented artist and singer and songwriter and guitar player. He was a visionary. They all were. The world had never seen Nirvana like this, the emotion and thought put into what it was. To the TV crew it became clear that the vision of the band was something they had been foolish to question. The stage, the set list, the aura that was surrounding that they were filming grew more and more apparent by the song. It was then obvious to everyone there that something was happening. They were not just there to record a TV special. They were there to bear witness.
Through a semi-known back catalog, a David Bowie cover, three Meat Puppets covers (joined by Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the band themselves), Nirvana over the 14 songs recorded made the most crushingly beautiful and hauntingly touching live recording of a generation, perhaps of all time. Over the hours played the audience was less of spectators and more of members of the show. The few hundred in attendance, some there with their parents, got to do more that night then watch a performance. They got to feel it, to live it, and then mold into it, becoming something completely different. However, the crown jewel of the performance is the last song, and again it was a cover. This was of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” a traditional folk song, made popular in the early 20th century by blues man Lead Belly, who was Cobain’s professed favorite artist of all time. Here is where we see the band, and especially Cobain, go from something special to something transcendent. The harrowing ache in Cobain’s raspy coo envelopes listeners and in turn lifts him higher. The show runners called the performance after that, in their hearts they rightfully believed in could never be touched. When Cobain afterward was nervous and upset that performance could have been better, that it was simply not good, and the audience did not like it, on producer told him in a dead pan that the kids in that crowd has seen more then their favorite band, that had just seen “their version of God three feet in front of them.” Five months after the recording Kurt Cobain would be dead by his own hand.
The album that was intended to be another stone in a long-storied career instead became a posthumous eulogy, going on to be regarded as one of the greatest live performances ever. It also, because of proximity to Cobain’s suicide, began to take a new life. Its slowed and quiet tempo grew eerie. The interpretation that Kurt’s death may have even been premeditated even at this point, that this was a final somber goodbye, became widespread. Those who were there however, remember it differently. It was joyous. It was uplifting. It was intimate, and emotion filled. But the feeling can’t be ignored that there is almost an other-worldly energy surrounding Nirvana’s unintentional last recording. Which adds to the magic and mystery itself. If you are prone to believe fully in destiny, you can see the circumstances surrounding the last statement of the greatest band of the 1990’s. When putting together the beginning show notes, the set designer from MTV met with Cobain to go over ideas. “Lilies, and black candles. Lots of them.” Cobain requested. “set them all around and we’ll be in the middle.”
The idea startled the other man. “Like…a funeral?”
An un-phased Kurt Cobain: “Yeah exactly. Like a funeral.”