They come half an hour into Nirvana: Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!; those four chords that altered the course of more than one generation: F, B-flat, G-sharp, C-sharp. Then, as abruptly as they began, as suddenly as a shotgun blast, they end. “We’re not going to play that one tonight”, the leader explains, and for an understandable reason. They are seven months into the world tour that made them famous and the trio is sick and tired of playing that song, the one which put them in this position in the first place.
This is the irony of Nirvana’s existence. The band never asked for fame, nor did they enjoy it once it came. In interview after interview, the trio that stole music away from the heavy metal heads and provided frustrated, skinny, dorky-looking kids worldwide an outlet for their anger, claimed they wanted to be left alone. This sensibility, and success, took the greatest toll on Cobain, ultimately leading to his suicide.
Yet Live! Tonight!, a documentary that was conceived by Cobain in ‘92/‘93 and completed by Grohl and Novoselic after his death, depicts a different, almost playful side of Olympia’s finest. During the 15 songs (20 if you count a lackluster extra-footage concert), interviews and candid moments, every time Kurt explains, “we never, ever intended to [play in front of thousands],” there is a competing shot of the band goofing around, being kids and having fun. On one plane ride, Novoselic hangs out in the bathroom with a camera while Grohl sings strange noises into the handheld’s microphone. In a later interview, Cobain wears his jacket upside-down and on top of his head as the drummer makes faces behind him. Because of their positions as world-beaters, the subject matter was always serious. But the band themselves rarely were.
By juxtaposing the two sides of the band Live! Tonight!, which runs the gamut of songs from famous ones (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are”) to more obscure (“Love Buzz,” “Negative Creep”), makes a strong statement about fame versus reality. In a society that assigns immense cultural importance to rock stars and athletes for no reason other than the sheer fame, Nirvana stood out. As Live! Tonight! demonstrates, the boys never played along. They told “the Jonathan Ross Show” that they were playing “Lithium” and instead chose to rip through a wicked version of ‘Territorial Pissings”. They were the weird kids who cross-dressed at concerts, said the un-cool thing (such as Cobain admitting that he “really enjoyed Aerosmith”), and didn’t attempt to fit in. Yet ultimately, we created a culture around them, while they continued to have their fun.
Although the band appeared to be enjoying the concerts, musically Nirvana was never brilliant. Live! Tonight! features enough missed notes and muddled chords to make the Foo Fighters blush. But perfection was never the goal. Kurt opines that a band can be “as sloppy as you want, as long as it has passion”. Judging from the number of destroyed guitars, mics, drums and amps, that passion was never lacking.
Although he admits, “the lyrics are secondary”, Kurt’s explanation of how to interpret them warrants mentioning. When asked what his cryptic sentences meant, the shy, blond-haired star explains, “Whatever you want it to be…it’s your crossword puzzle.” Perhaps he was being intentionally mysterious solely for the sake of coming across as weird. Or maybe, just maybe, beneath that dark, tortured exterior, he understood what his band would mean, even to the “cool kids” and “jocks” he despised. Whatever the case, he left behind some damn fine songs and a wealth of video footage that helps fill in the blanks.
Two years after Cobain’s death, in a span of six months, TuPac and Biggie would fall in separate clouds of assassins’ bullets. Going out this way is “glamorous”, for sure, but it’s not poetic. Suicide, however, now that’s romantic. Picture Kurt, alone with his tortured thoughts, a pint of liquor and a single shotgun, saying a private goodbye to his daughter and wife. (Say what you will about Love’s current persona, but seeing her in Live! Tonight! is striking. Although she makes only one brief appearance, she’s stunning; the perfect foil to the diminutive Cobain. Much more Princess Di than Yoko Ono. It’s almost tragic what she’s become.) The frontman’s passing signified the beginning of the end. Call it the victory of style over substance. Not to belittle the brilliance of Pac and Biggie, but their glorious deaths sent us hurtling towards the current pop culture landscape, one littered with grillz and glamour, pop tart singers and Pro Tools. When Cobain died, romance did, as well.
On April 5, 1994, the day Cobain took a shotgun, stuck it in his mouth and pulled the trigger, I was 12-years-old. At that time, I was old enough to know of him and his band, but not aware enough of the music community to understand the revolution he, his two friends, and their four chords started. Twelve years later, as I write this sentence, I sit locked in my apartment, listening to Unplugged in New York. I didn’t choose the album because I think it’s fitting, but because when I discovered the band a year after Cobain’s death, I became hooked like millions before me. For me, and countless others, Cobain’s death was tragic in retrospect. Live! Tonight! doesn’t bring him back, but it provides us with a fuller understanding of the man whose voice currently fills my ears.
Even so, it’s no longer Nirvana’s world. But we still live in a world that the band was instrumental in creating. From the used copies of Nevermind sold at record stores around the country to the re-release of this DVD 12 years after the original, those four chords still exist and inspire. For one night, the trio chose not to play them. But they can’t stop us from pressing “play”, over and over, again.
In his suicide note, Cobain quoted Neil Young, writing, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Fair enough, but Nirvana’s done neither. And, from the looks of things, they won’t ever have to.