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Icame home from work on Friday, April 8, tired, but not sorry. I had called my friend Doug several times throughout the day to remind him that he should be kicking himself for missing the Raincoats at the 9:30 Club early that morning. But Doug hadn’t taken the rock ‘n’ roll nap and shown up for work late, so he got home before I did and heard the news first. He left a message on my machine. While I was watching, in a half-empty club, the best show of the year (made possible by Kurt Cobain’s insistence that Geffen reissue the Raincoats catalog), Cobain had been lying in the room over his garage. It had been the last night his death was a secret.
It didn’t hit me. Cobain’s overdose in Rome the month before had gotten me used to the idea of his not being around. But the next day, I knew it. I was driving around downtown when WHFS played Tori Amos’ cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When I heard that wispy, pretentious, misbegotten tilt at hipness transformed into a powerful memorial, I knew something had gone horribly wrong.
What was right was the timing. Eight-and-a-half months is ample time to develop Christmas product, a fact that was lost on nobody. Not on the bootleggers, who have filled indie shop bins with overpriced discs of Nirvana outtakes and European tour dates. (One enterprising concern has even come up with a $120 boxed set.) Not on the publisher that has cannily printed a jewel-box-size band bio, to be sold alongside the offerings of Sub Pop and Geffen to customers who might not otherwise think to shop for a book. And certainly not on Geffen itself, which brings us an inelegantly but descriptively titled CD, MTV Unplugged in New York, and a video, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, nor on the editors of Rolling Stone, who offer what they call their “final tribute to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana,” a book titled Cobain.
The real surprise here is the video, which is anything but the weepy reminiscence-cum-houserockin’ tour-de-force you’d expect from an industry giant cashing in on a young star’s self-destruction. That’s because Sold Out!! is Cobain’s own project. He started it in 1992-93; Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl are credited with “completion work.” Cobbled together from interviews, video clips, and assorted concert footage, Sold Out!! shows the band doggedly mucking up the machinery of fame.
Any young, principled, and suddenly successful band must eventually confront the lip-sync show. In 1984, Michael Stipe high-mindedly refused to mime the band’s songs on Solid Gold Hits. When Top of the Pops came calling, Nirvana was considerably smarter. All Stipe got was a straight live vocal; Nirvana’s decision to play along with the format was far more subversive, not to mention funny. Understanding what Tori Amos didn’t (I’ve again gotten used to the idea of Cobain not being around, so Amos’ version has reassumed its proper status), that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is unscalable, naturally huge and incapable of being shrunk without collapsing, Cobain, who at least gets to sing live, disembowels the song. He intones the lyrics in a gloomy parody of Jim Morrison, even assuming the requisite crucifixion pose on the chorus; he plays guitar like an animated Disney mannequin, in complete disregard of the backing tracks. The rhythm section is in on the joke too, as Grohl thrusts his sticks into the air against the beat and Novoselic twirls his bass over his head like he’s Stevie Nicks with a flaming scarf. The studio kids storm the stage, but no one misses a note.
Nirvana takes another stab at British TV on The Jonathan Ross Show. The smarmy host announces the hit, “Lithium,” but the band, packed onto a ridiculously small, round riser, thrashes into “Territorial Pissings.” And in perhaps the most justifiable instrument trashing of their career, they topple their stacks and stalk offstage, forbidding an encore.
Most of Sold Out!! comes from 1991-92 material surveying the dizzying and absurd ride to the top. The only 1993 footage is from a stadium show in São Paulo. Cobain is fetchingly attired in a tiara, black negligée (he stuffs), and cutoffs, but he still looks like hell. He sounds it too, painfully screaming his way through a “Dive” that is excruciating just to watch. Anyone who has attempted a home version of Cobain’s fuzzbox-larynxed howl knows that it’s impossible to last a chorus without regretting it. “Dive” shows the effects of months of such abuse.
Sonic extremism was only half of the Nirvana equation, though. However satisfying it was to hear Cobain scream in tune over the band’s squeal-and-thump, Nirvana would have remained an underground sensation were it not for exceptional songs. This has less to do with the words than most people think. Cobain was only a passable (and at times a truly embarrassing) lyricist. (Try reading In Utero‘s lyric sheet without thinking about the melodies—you encounter lines like “Every wet nurse refused to feed him/Electrolytes smell like semen” or “I have very bad posture” and wonder how they could ever be made into music.) What Cobain understood was the weird symbiosis of word and tune that makes for a great song, and it is this that is highlighted on Unplugged.
Not that Cobain was vain enough to insist on a celebration of his own pop muse. Part of his gift was an ear for the great song hiding inside the good one, even if it was someone else’s. Always generous in his support of obscure but deserving bands (had he ever decided to chuck just his job, instead of his life, he could have been the coolest A&R man in the business), Cobain covered two songs by the Vaselines on Incesticide, and they’re among the album’s strongest cuts. But “Molly’s Lips” and especially “Son of a Gun” are terrific originals. “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” on the other hand, is silly and snide as it appears on The Way of the Vaselines. Having no Catholicism to automatically reject, Cobain senses that something larger is at stake. When, backed by Novoselic’s accordion and Grohl’s vocals, he sings, “Don’t expect me to cry/Don’t expect me to lie/Don’t expect me to die/For thee,” he’s referring to something he can’t do, rather than something he won’t—the darker flipside of “On a Plain” ‘s “Love myself better than you,” which comes off half-cocky even in its Unplugged form.
The Nirvana originals selected for the Unplugged session (recorded in one unbroken take, it got them out of Sony Studios faster and allowed them to thumb their noses at any naysayers who said they couldn’t pull it off) prove particularly adaptable to acoustic (or at least semi-acoustic) treatment. Cobain’s edgy yelp is foregrounded on “Come As You Are” and stands alone, supported only by his guitar, on a beautiful and aching rendition of “Pennyroyal Tea.” But you expect these to be superb. What you are completely unprepared for, even by album’s end, is Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (also called “In the Pines”), a song apparently picked up from Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan when Cobain and Novoselic played on his 1990 solo record, The Winding Sheet. Lori Goldston’s cello blows like a slow wind through the jealous lover’s accusation, as it builds to the final verses, which explode with Cobain’s murderous shriek while Grohl’s cymbals tap out a funereal tattoo.
There is also a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” that merely finds the good song in a mediocre one, as well as a suite of three songs from the skewed country/punk gem Meat Puppets II, which features the contributions of the Kirkwood brothers themselves, and that goes past homage all the way to advocacy. (It’s in selections like these that Cobain further reveals himself to be the anti-Stipe; rarely is the curious listener disappointed by Cobain’s picks, whereas chumps who at REM’s urging picked up, say, Downy Mildew or Hugo Largo or the Clique’s original version of “Superman” surely consider themselves unlucky indeed.)
Cobain, however, is a disappointment only if you’ve made the mistake of expecting much from the sentimental hacks at Rolling Stone. There’s a lot of biography and on-the-scene soul-searching, even recourse to the zodiac, between its covers, but little about the music (much of it contained in Alec Foege’s page-long The Musical Legacy), and very little worth re-reading. (I know this because I have re-read many of these articles; they first appeared in the June 2 commemorative issue.) The writing is peppered with the usual howlers, which range from serial-killer chic (“Nirvana comes off sounding like the Sweet fronted by Jeffrey Dahmer”) to half-baked millennial pronouncements (“As the Aquarian Age seeps into our collective consciousness, we’ll need to be a nation of messiahs…”) to the ever-present portentous elegy (“You can learn a lot of bad things when you are made to sleep under a bridge in your homeland, and some of those things can stay with you until the day you die,” writes Mikal Gilmore) that makes this book such a burden to read.
Giving verbal offense is apparently not enough, however, because Cobain also manages to be visually reprehensible. “Featuring heavy stock, uncoated paper, and experimental typography,” as the press card puts it, “the design captures the visceral excitement of Nirvana’s music.” Well, no. The paper seems to have been chosen with absorbency in mind. No doubt there will be many tears shed, drinks spilled, and joints smoked over this volume, and RS wants all of this to enter the book’s aura, its “collective consciousness,” as it were. The uncoated paper will also appear less gritty when Cobain starts showing up at parking lot flea markets a few years from now. As for the “experimental” typography, it might be better described as “space-filling” or “illegible.” Insipid photos and hamfisted illustrations also serve mainly to lengthen the book. To worsen things, the designers have given many of the pages lightly burnt-looking borders (a form of artificial antiquing, like beating a sideboard with a chain) as if to confer the gravitas of loss upon their contents. Actually, it’s more reminiscent of the fake-parchment “Map to the Big Catch”-style menus in a motel fish house.
Perhaps the one thing that is slightly less offensive than it would seem is the Seattle Times photo of detectives surveying the death scene, although a full-bleed two-page spread does seem extreme. The reason for the wide distribution of The Photo, as well as for Rolling Stone‘s stylish bedside-table tombstone of a book, is not that we want answers to the suicide. For if there’s one lesson to be drawn from RS‘s questionable but inevitable tribute, it’s that Cobain’s was a particularly unenlightening death, pointing only to the obdurate, unacceptable, and virtually intransmissible fact of just how bad pain is.
What we are looking for is some clue to the extraordinariness of the music. As anguished as he was, Cobain was no mere avatar of self-expression. It wasn’t just the example of his parents’ failed marriage or his being stifled in a hick town or even his appalling battle with smack that made him great; all were commonplaces of his cohort. The question raised but never acknowledged by all the “spokesman for a generation” blather is why, if we had an entire generation, was Cobain the only one to come out of it who could twist its mundane traumas into such transcendent music?
In sifting the facts for an answer, who hasn’t abjectly tried to crane around that window frame, craving a glimpse, but not wholly wanting to see the blast-scattered pulp that for a couple of years was the godhead of rock and roll?