That Great Big Final Denial
It sucks that Nirvana has largely been turned into a mythic gas, this band that came armed with slingshots to single-handedly “save” rock music from candy-coated pop tarts and manufactured hair bands, before dissolving via drugs and suicide into a cautionary martyr tale. And it’s too simplistic and misses the point widely to say any of those things and nothing else: awful, empty bands and prefab hacks existed before, during, and after Nirvana’s quicksilver moment, and their pop dominance is unprecedented today.
And, to be fair, Nevermind opened the door for Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, and Nickleback to become household names more than it did for Yo La Tengo, Sebadoh, or Pavement, which is obviously horrible and wrong (not the band’s fault, but the truth nonetheless). And, to be fair two times, it’s not like Kurt Cobain is the first person in the history of rock ‘n’ roll to wreck himself James Dean-style and, ahem, burn out rather than fade away.
None of this is to undercut what Nirvana actually did do. While they might not have completely flipped the shitty script mainstream music follows, they definitely made some heavy revisions during their tour of duty (when’s the last time you saw Shonen Knife open for Limp Bizkit at a 15,000 seat venue in Anytown, USA?). They’re one of a handful of overhyped bands actually to be fifty times better than their hype promised (unlike, say, The Strokes); they’re the last rock band to be the best and biggest band in the world at the same time; and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (still the same incredible thunderclap 100,000 plays later) is maybe the only rock ‘n’ roll song besides “Like a Rolling Stone” to break every radio rule and still be a huge, career-defining hit—and it was their first single.
And their first video. Obviously, MTV played a huge role in breaking Nirvana because MTV plays a huge role in breaking any pop music phenomenon from Madonna to Korn to Britney to Jimmy Eat World. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its nightmare pep rally wouldn’t have burned itself into the insides of so many eyelids if MTV didn’t play it every 40 minutes back in 1991. We wouldn’t have seen Krist Novoselic brain himself with a bass guitar during the 1992 MTV Video Awards if they hadn’t have invited Nirvana to play. I wouldn’t have watched a somber and pale Kurt Loder tell me about Kurt Cobain blowing his head off on 8 April 1994 while I was sitting in a sports bar with my family, eating dinner before a hockey game, if MTV hadn’t made him a People magazine-sized star.
MTV is ultimately as responsible for turning Kurt Cobain into “Kurt Cobain” as he is (the man “hated” MTV in the press to score punk points and then called his managers, whining when he felt the station wasn’t playing his videos enough; remember, he liked Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin as much as he liked Black Flag). MTV played mythmaker and moneychanger with equal ease, moving on to the next big thing as soon as producers found it, so seamlessly that the majority of MTV’s core audience today probably doesn’t even know Nirvana existed, unless their dads watch VH1 or listen to the classic rock station in the car.
Which is what makes the decision to present Nirvana Unseen so weird. Good weird, but weird. The first of three concert performances the band taped for the network between January 1992 and January 1994 (the other two being Nirvana Unplugged and a special New Year’s Eve concert to close out 1993), Nirvana Unseen aired as the centerpiece for MTV2’s “Let’s commemorate the 8th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide with a mad Nirvana-thon,” on Friday, 5 April. Unseen is about as no-frills an MTV product as you get. (I guess MTV2 got the call because big brother was too busy prepping J. Lo and Ja Rule for their guest VJ spot Saturday night—how quickly we forget!)
With no song titles pasted on screen, a bare minimum of camera swoops and swings, unobtrusive black fade outs in between songs, long stretches of guitar tuning left in, two false starts, and a set that looks more like the inside of a factory than a rock stage, the experience is as close to being at a real concert as MTV gets. The stripped-down approach reminds you of why all that hyperbole seemed necessary in the first place: Nirvana was a great fucking band.
Like, a really great band. They rocked harder, had better songs, and were more captivating live than any other band in their peer group, by far. Nirvana Unseen, a machine gun set recorded live at MTV Studios in January 1992 the week that Nevermind dislodged Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as the #1 album in the country, is as solid a testimonial to that fact as any. Opening with Nevermind‘s “Drain You,” a Cobain favorite that manages to be a standout track on a nearly perfect album, Nirvana blows up in your face in 45 seconds flat and leaves your eyes wide and your jaw slack.
They come off like a circus show, with Cobain’s dark pink hair, pinned eyes (he was floored on heroin during the filming, according to Charles Cross in his book, Heavier Than Heaven), and thrift-store wardrobe, Novoselic looking like a punk rock Jesus with gigantism and an impossibly low-slung bass, and Grohl’s furious barrage of hair and arms. “One baby to another says, I’m lucky I met you,” Cobain starts, and then drums and the fuzz-box explode the song skyward, where the band stays for the next 30 minutes.
Oddly, they spend that 30 minutes facing the camera with the crowd behind them, which appears vaguely confrontational: on one hand, it’s almost like Nirvana can’t be bothered with their audience, to the extent that they turn their backs on them; on the other, it reads as, “We’re all ‘us,’ and you on the other side of the camera are ‘them,’ so like us or don’t, oh well, whatever, nevermind.” What the camera captures definitely looks dated. The film is fuzzy in a very late ‘80s/early ‘90s kind of way, like an episode of Club MTV invaded by 120 Minutes fans, and the crowd bears all the earmarks of grunge rock, at points to an embarrassing extent (I’m sure the guy in the bright flannel, rocking out and fixing his hair to the right of Dave Grohl, isn’t super-amped about his jackass antics).
But period pieces are period pieces, and the soundtrack to this one is remarkable. The band don’t play their hit until six songs in, opting instead to follow “Drain You” with a bruiser from their indie-label debut that no one in the crowd has ever even heard of (“School”—15 words, screaming, brutal drums, just a steamroller), a Vaselines cover (“Molly’s Lips”—who the hell else would do that, with the #1 record in the country?), a to-that-point unreleased live staple (“Aneurysm”—“I love you so much it makes me sick” is still one of the best lyrics ever), and a harrowing semi-acoustic anti-rape song (“Polly,” no less than Bob Dylan’s favorite Nirvana track).
The band is in top form. But it’s a head-trip because MTV would never let a band do something like that now, and even then, the challenging, hit-lite setlist was probably the reason the network didn’t run this into the ground once it was taped.
Our loss, I guess. Cobain’s jagged scream, all barbed wire wrapped up in featherbeds, is dead on, as is his guitar work, impossibly thick and tasteful, reminding me that the same traits that used to make me mistake him for a bad guitarist because he didn’t play like Slash, now make me realize how remarkable and innovative he was (most people couldn’t play those parts stone sober with 20 years of practice, let alone on enough heroin to kill the Denver Broncos’ offensive line). Grohl is just an animal, mercilessly beating the crap out of his drums and making all kinds of sick faces while he does it, constantly reminding me why I’ve always held him up as an untouchable paradigm for rock ‘n’ roll drummers everywhere. And Novoselic balances the bass on his knee and pulls off sloping, connective, melodic bass line after bass line, tying the whole thing together like the unsung hero he was.
“Teen Spirit” sounds feral, the alien verse melody and propulsive chorus of contradictions building steadily to that great big final denial. Even though it’s like hearing “Stairway to Heaven” or “Imagine” or something now, it still resonates. “Teen Spirit” is the one of the eeriest records ever to hit the Top 10, so full of rage and noise and unrelenting minor chords, so obtuse lyrically, so distressed vocally. Here, the band get into it in spite of themselves and the performance is a peak, all the way through the feedback that punctuates it, with Cobain looking resolutely embarrassed for writing and liking such a big song (yeah, we know, it’s a Pixies rip off, Kurt, and you hate it because we like it, all apologies).
“Territorial Pissings” is the response to “Teen Spirit,” pissed off and uncompromising, in a fast, fun, lighter sort of way. Nirvana reaches a fever pitch here, all flailing limbs and raw throats and blitzkrieg bop. And then Cobain breaks his guitar, grinding it into the ground expressionlessly (here’s Iggy’s nihilism and no fun), Grohl is climbing scaffolding into the crowd behind the drum kit, Novoselic is kicking broken pieces of instruments around, and we fade to black. The revolution will not be televised.
And if, eight years later, it is, especially by MTV, is it really a revolution? Nirvana represented a sea shift in what could sell 10 million albums, but the other garbage that they “killed” never really went anywhere. It was just nice that for a few years we had some other options on the radio and on television. But those few years turned Kurt Cobain into a piece of copyrighted imagery just as cartoonish and pixilated as the icons he and his railed against, just as much as his foolish Christ pose turned him into a rock n’ roll clichi.
Maybe unleashing Nirvana Unseen is MTV’s guilt-response to all that, the station’s way of turning the floodlights back on the music and doing its part to deconstruct its own legend. Or maybe it’s MTV milking a graying cash cow while it still can. Either way, Unseen is a sterling document of how staggering the band was, and makes clear why Nirvana inspired those myths in the first place.