What else is there to say about Nirvana? Any ink that went unspilled during the band’s short, tempestuous reign at the top of the world’s rock heap was likely spent on the unfortunate event of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994; surely by now, during the 20th anniversary frenzy of Nevermind, everything that can be said about the band has been said.
Maybe so. But what’s left, after all the talk is done, is only this: this band rocked, and they put on a hell of a show.
They didn’t rawk the way Guns ‘n’ Roses rawked, with elaborate staging and cartoonishly outlandish personas. They didn’t rock with the cerebral coolness of REM or the surf-punk caterwaul of Jane’s Addiction; and they sure didn’t rock with the arena-filling bombast of U2. Nirvana were always like some neighborhood kid’s angsty little brother: loud, intense, and thoroughly unguarded even as wise-ass irony leaked through the veneer. They were—and this has been said many time already—game changers.
Watching Nirvana Live at the Paramount, one is struck immediately, again, by Cobain’s voice. It’s been said before but it bears repeating: Kurt Cobain’s voice is the reason Nirvana went huge. Sure, there’s a nice fuzzy sheen to the hammerheaded guitar thrashing, and yes the drumming is relentless and the bass ties everything together nicely. So what? The same can be said of a thousand other bands. What set Nirvana apart was the hurt in Cobain, the same hurt that eventually ended his life but which, before that sad day, had made thrashy rock into something as nakedly confessional as an Anne Sexton poem.
The DVD wastes little time getting to the set, opening with The Vaselines tune “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”, which the band would later reprise on Unplugged. It’s an oddly introspective choice to open this fire-breathing set, but it pushes Kurt’s voice front and center, which is where it belongs. Subsequent tunes amp up the ferocity with “Aneurysm”, “Drain You” and an incendiery version of “School”.
And so it goes, with the music taking center stage and minimal stage banter. Newer songs like “Polly” and “Breed” alternate with older rave-ups like “About a Girl” and “Been a Son”. The concert took place just after the release of Nevermind, so it’s interesting to watch the crowd response, which is biggest and loudest for early songs like “School” and “Negative Creep”. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” earns a roar as well, presumably because it was already known to this crowd even in its early days of taking over MTV, radio, and the world.
The audio on the disc is excellent, at least when heard through quality headphones or home-theater speakers. Nirvana were never about high-fidelity audio reproduction, especially in a concert setting like this one, which likely had lousy acoustics. Nonetheless, the sound here is just fine, with Kurt’s cracked warble floating clearly over the midrange guitars and the thrumming bass and drums. The camera remains solidly focused on the band, utilizing primarily close-ups from the stage, while mixing in a good number of audience-eye-views. There are only occasional cutaways to the moshing crowd or the inexplicable, thoroughly annoying faux-dancers bracketing the stage. There’s irony for you.
The final part of the 19-song set includes “Rape Me”, a song that wouldn’t see studio release until 1993’s In Utero, followed by a viciously severe “Territorial Pissings” and the noise-sculpture of “Endless, Nameless”. Then there’s just the mandatory equipment-bashing to get through. The crowd howls, cheers and moshes through it all, but it’s unclear whether they have any idea that they’ve just witnessed a band poised to take over the world. (That’s no exaggeration—in 1995 I moved to Morocco, and every second teenager on the street was wearing a Nirvana T-shirt.)
There are relatively few extras here, but the disc doesn’t suffer from their lack. Music videos for four tunes are available—“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Come As You Are”, “Lithium” and “In Bloom” are the only features on the DVD apart from the concert itself. Given the raucous nature of the live show, the videos are pale in comparison.
So is the DVD crucial? Maybe not as much so as the band’s albums, but this document comes as close any anyone’s likely to get to an in-concert experience. Nirvana was one of those brief supernovas of creativity that burned brightly and faded fast. Here’s proof. The band is long gone, but this document remains for anyone who wishes to stand, however briefly, near the fire.