This review appeared in the NME on 28th September 1996
“Morning, darling. Tea?”
“HWWWUUUUUUGH! HWWAOUUUUGHH! HWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!”
“That’s nice, dear. Marmite on your soldiers?”
Oh, come now, wipe the sandyman out of your eyes, dear. Heroin on your cornflakes?”
One can only guess what kind of terrible inner demons are being scorched out of Kurt Cobain’s shredded soul as the first ghostly primal screams of this record tear a hole through history and carve themselves on your consciousness. And to think, he’s only gargling with a bit of honey and lemon between songs.
But we’re through with guessing now. It’s now two-and-a-half years since Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in a suitably violent, explosive, disgusting splattercore conclusion to an artist’s life spent trying to blow the pain out of himself. And now the morbid, gory details of his life and death have faded into biopic irrelevancy, maybe it’s time to look at what he and his band left behind. ‘From The Banks Of The Muddy Wishkaw’ is as precious and immortal a keepsake as any.
Nirvana’s most important legacy is, lest we forget, the legacy of a revolution. They turned both the mainstream and the underground of American rock music upside down. They forced the voice of the outsider, the great silent screaming minority of American music fans, the ones disenfranchised by MTV, corporate rock and Radio Ass-Kiss, on to the airwaves and into the national consciousness. Only trouble is, much of that legacy has turned sour through misunderstanding, media reinvention and history-warping fashion. But in the same way Bowie can’t be blamed for Gary Numan or romo, and Lou Reed’s greatness shouldn’t be compromised by thousands of terrible indie fringe-mumblers, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana cannot be held responsible for Stone Temple Pilots and Alanis Morissette, for the cult of the f- up, angstier-than-thou chic, or the po-faced melodramatic pomp rock that a few clueless fools would still call ‘grunge’.
Similarly, Kurt Cobain was anything but the figurehead of any slacker generation. He was fundamentally opposed to, and appalled by, the lethargy, apathy and complacency of his contemporaries. The difference with Nirvana was that they were determinedly, fiercely political, and that they gnawed right down to the dirty soul and raw, bloody essence of both punk and rock’n’roll.
They were punks because they gave a f-, because they were outsiders, and above all because the defining sentiment of their music is frustration. It’s invariably the sound of guitars banging against a brick wall of boredom, bland mediocrity and conformity. If ‘…Teen Spirit’ is their generational anthem, it’s not so much about boredom and nihilism, as frustration and anger, a desperate hunger for something more from this life, something honest, exciting, intelligent, energetic and real.
Within all that, there’s an incredible vitality and catharsis in despair, which is a paradox that strikes at the heart of what this band were about. See, Nirvana were always at their best walking across the burning coals of contradiction, even though it’s also probably what killed their singer. Kurt Cobain was a beautiful hypocrite when he wanted to be. Here was a man who wanted to be a rock’n’roll star from childhood, but who never ceased to profess his hatred and contempt for the rock’n’roll star system and the poisoned chalice it gave him. They signed to a major label and toured tirelessly, then apparently tried to stop people buying their records and trying to see them. Kurt professed to hate fame and the public spotlight, then married into a soap-opera with one of America’s leading self-publicists. The fact that he himself couldn’t come to terms with having to live such lies probably meant that his last source of solace or catharsis, rock’n’roll, finally ran dry for him.
Sign up for the newsletter
So Kurt Cobain was a fatally-flawed hero. But that’s because he was too 4 Real to care for his own myth, so we always saw Cobain the man, never the icon. But as such he gave fragile humanity, searing radicalism and an all too biting reality back to mainstream rock’n’roll.
We sometimes forgot what we had in Nirvana, distracted and disillusioned by the tabloid luridity and the tacky drama they were living out, by our own morbid fascination in it all, and by the marketing of a death wish as the ultimate rock’n’roll stance and suicide as the ultimate rock’n’roll statement.
Beyond all that, Nirvana were, above all, a great rock’n’roll band. They weren’t about genius as such – creatively, they weren’t that inventive, original or prolific – but as an artist and a band, they came within stagediving distance of God.
The evidence of this can be seen in more than just one-and-a-half great albums. This live album shows how much of the fruit of the greatness could be found in their natural habitat, onstage.
These recordings were chosen by Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, and to their credit they’ve lovingly cherry-picked the performances that most clearly exude the spirit of Nirvana live. Whether that be screaming anti-epiphany, gutt-shattering riffage and rhythm, emotional dynamics or swipes of black humour.
The majority of these performances, unsurprisingly, come from autumn 1991, as the ‘Nevermind’ roller coaster hits its thrilling high point in America and Nirvana fearlessly bit the heads off audiences across Europe. Within the first few bars of ‘School’ the dizzy, spine-shuddering thrill comes flooding back, and a timeless image fills your head. Of Krist Novoselic’s low-slung, loose canon fire bass lurch, Dave Grohl’s hair-flailing blizzard of chaotically tight rhythm, and Kurt’s splenetic, spluttering scattergun of skin-grafting emotional acid. The volume, the ton-of-lead gut impact, on the edge control, the edge of darkness and the edge of horrifying, edifying violence. And that was just the queue for the bogs.
These performances remind you how Nirvana made all those tired old rock clichés thrillingly alive and kicked the pricks to death. The trashing of gear, the punk thrash, the roaring vocal, riffs, bass, drums, volume, noise – this is basic rock’n’roll as we’d almost forgotten it could be played.
It would frequently end in chaos and carnage, in those days, before the crowds started demanding chaos as theatre. When they smashed up their instruments at the end of the gig Kurt would explain it as seemingly the only possible logical conclusion to the whole affair. By the same token, anyone who saw Kurt onstage at his angriest and most destructive might suggest the only other logical conclusion could be to smash himself to bits.
Then there’s Kurt’s voice, which, here especially, seems fit to be counted among the definitive voices in rock’n’roll, defining its stance and its cultural milieu in the same way as the likes of Elvis, Johnny Rotten and Chuck D. Not because it’s that recognisable, as such, or uniquely stylised like the others, but because of its raw expression, somehow piercing your consciousness much deeper than its contemporaries.
Here it’s probably represented more fittingly than on 1994’s ‘Unplugged In New York’, where it couldn’t help sounding fragile, torn and resigned. On ‘Drain You’ it scrapes jagged fingernails down the blackboard of your mind. On ‘Lithium’ it has a delicious, celebratory, eyes-on-fire roar to it. And on ‘School’ it howls along the threshold of tears, then tries to bite its own tongue in impotent fury. With the later recordings, though, you don’t need history to tell you it’s going off the rails. ‘Milk It’, from January ’94 sounds vicious, vindictive, sarcastic, drug-crazed and unhinged. During ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, from December ’93, he is shaking with almost croonsome feeling one minute, but echoing the hollow bombast of Eddie Vedder the next. Bizarre.
Grohl and Novoselic can be heard coming into their own here on the likes of ‘Aneurysm’, which sounds like the devil himself singing a corny pop serenade while boogieing with tenement blocks for dancing shoes. ‘Been A Son’ stomps like the heaviest pop song in the world ever, and ‘Blew’ is pure metal-crusher assault.
There are those supposed ‘pop tunes’, too, of course. Simple, and insidiously addictive, sure, but there are serious undercurrents crashing around below the FM airwaves here. The ‘Nevermind’ melodies have a weary melancholy to them, a bleakly pessimistic tone, but also a prickly, dangerously restless edge, and an explosive emotional turmoil raging to burst out. That’ll be that loveable inner conflict again, then.
It all comes together best here, believe it or not, on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It starts with an irritably urgent guitar intro, the “Hello, hello” build up sounds sarcastically simpering, menacing and depressive at turns, then it’s a screeching, psychotic hurricane of proclamation to wake up the world. Schizophrenic, impossibly energetic, tragic, comic, melancholic, cathartic and sublime.
It wasn’t always thus, mind, as slightly leaden, grunge-by-numbers 1989 versions of ‘Polly’ and ‘Breed’ prove. And a jokey ‘Spank Thru’, featuring a first verse seemingly sung in an Elvis voice by laughing boy Kurt, is merely tolerable, probably included as a favourite of Dave and Krist’s.
But let nothing detract from a gloriously electrifying aural photo-book of a truly legendary rock’n’roll band, the like of which burns across our skies all too rarely in this sterile, cynical and safely post-modern age. Meanwhile, don’t mourn the death of a man who spent much of his life and art trying to scream through to a better place. Instead, seek out the immortal spirit of his beautiful, incendiary music, and take it to heart.