Archive for December, 2012

Quick (bad) Nirvana pun – it’s 9am… “I’m on a train, mmmm-mmmm, I can’t complain, mmmm-mmmmm” and all apologies that I could resist this line. Anyways, well, the blog made its first entry on October 30, and in the 53 days since then there have been a grand total of 81 posts including this one.

My basic rules have been clear throughout; firstly, I’m not arrogant enough to believe my life is of interest to anyone other than me — here I spout Nirvana thoughts, no life stories, no “look at me” reminiscences. A friend had to point out to me that I hadn’t mentioned my own name anywhere on the blog during the first week and a half — not even in the About section.

Secondly, there are enough biographical or opinion based pieces out there. Yes, these are still my opinions, but what I’m trying to do is gather evidence and data to make the argument and place them before people so they can make their own minds. It’s the data that makes the difference. For similar reasons I think there are plenty of sources for photos of the band, I won’t be doing anything on that score.

Thirdly, I get things wrong, I’m argumentative, I enjoy proposing ideas and seeing where they lead. Correct me! I’m very sure that I’ve completely misinterpreted Been a Son, I’ve become too caught in my own theory. I welcome anyone who has taken the time to engage with me and inform me. The LiveNirvana community (alongside the ever invaluable Nirvana Fan Club and Nirvana Live Guide) has been invaluable.

Finally, I just hope you enjoy reading it. That, in summary, is the only reason to do this. Perhaps if you like the blog enough you’ll consider taking a look at my book, Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide — if not, what the hey! I still hope you enjoy what’s here.

Running the stats…Those eighty-one posts include:


Favourites? For sure! My favourites, the ones I’m proudest of, would be the following:


Anyways, enjoy. I’ll be back on here after Christmas (before New Year), I’ll pop on when I can in the meantime as I definitely owe more pieces of the latest spreadsheet I’ve been toying with. To those of you reading the book (I know the copies to Europe and UK have been arriving, can’t imagine the U.S./Canada copies will be there until late next week at the earliest) just so you know my favourite chapters are; The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape about the structure of Incesticide, Family Man regarding unifying themes in Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, Coda for the analytical bits, Post-Mersh for having been so much fun to write and for feeling inspired to write something that’s definitely argumentative, oh, and Big Black Songs About… because I feel it’s an original way of looking at Kurt Cobain’s approach to writing lyrics.

But in the meantime, if you’re reading the blog, thank you!! I’m honoured you consider this worth reading, worth a few minutes diversion. Have a great Christmas and my absolute best wishes to you wherever you are in the world.

Earlier today we focused on the subject of Nirvana cover songs and pointed out that in 1993 there were two performances strongly dependent on cover songs; Sao Paolo and then MTV Unplugged in New York. The latter show is, of course, a triumph — it’s funny, beautifully performed, featuring some of the vocal performances for which Cobain will always be known. It also led to the CD release which is the Nirvana album that anyone who doesn’t really like rock music has in their collection. The quality of what took place on stage is undeniable and I have no wish to deny it, I love the performance same as anyone else.

…But. I don’t wish to be a killjoy but all the talk of how the band ‘wanted to do something different’, or how ‘most Nirvana songs don’t really sound good acoustically’ feels a little like press statements to put a positive gloss on what occurred. Six of fourteen songs performed were covers, there’s no reason at all why the band couldn’t have worked over their extensive catalogue and brought a few more originals to the blend. The With the Lights Out box-set indicated that a surprising number of the late era Nirvana songs started off as acoustic tracks, so did Sappy, while other songs had been attempted in acoustic format at one point or another (see LiveNirvana’s guide to Rehearsals to see the band trying to work out songs acoustically in July 1993.) With that in mind it wasn’t that the Nirvana catalogue couldn’t be adapted…It was that they weren’t willing to take the time required to do so.

Instead, Nirvana played every single acoustic, or at least QUIET, song they ever placed on an album; there was nothing left unless they wanted to do some more work — a handwritten set-list mentioned at states Marigold and Old Age were also under consideration just one day before the band were due on stage, apparently Been a Son was considered. The band went on stage nervous about a lack of practice and comments, for example by the Kirkwood brothers, indicate Kurt was hardly a meticulous attendee at the rehearsals, nor a sober one. The last-minute nature of their practicing doesn’t indicate an enthusiastic desire to engage with the performance.

The band clearly didn’t put deep thought into the shows. The Meat Puppets toured with Nirvana for seven shows in late October-early November so their inclusion seems to have been dreamt up on the spot during the negotiations with MTV, barely a few weeks before it took place. Their three songs in the Unplugged set are beautiful, and gorgeously performed, but there’s genuinely no reason to speak of them as anything more than rock star level karaoke on a batch of tracks Cobain had known for years and with guests handling the instruments. Likewise the claim that the acoustic format meant they couldn’t play most Nirvana songs is belied by the fact that Nirvana’s performance was quite clearly amplified (particularly on The Man Who Sold the World) so it’s not like they couldn’t airbrush some volume over their songs.

The band added precisely one new song — The Man Who Sold the World — during their preparation for the show. Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam and Where Did You Sleep Last Night had been honed and perfected years before. While a revelation for audiences who hadn’t witnessed those songs, for the band there was little fresh or new about what they did on stage. Though I’m happy to give credit to the band’s explanation that they wanted to ‘break the mould’ of the MTV Unplugged series, I’m still unsure that it truly explains why the band could barely pull eight originals, all predictable choices long practiced as acoustic or semi-acoustic renditions, together. Plus, the series had only commenced in November 1993 so why did it require ‘its mould’ breaking? Surely Springsteen’s all electric performance the next year was far more daring? If they’d been willing to practice they could have adapted a few more originals. Kurt’s refusal to play an encore, explained by how well he’d done on Where Did You Sleep Last Night, could just as readily be about the fact that there was nothing else that they had bothered trying.

Rather than seeing Unplugged as ‘the Phoenix rising from the ashes’ one last time, perhaps look at the show as very much apiece with the overall trajectory of Nirvana in 1993-1994. The concert featured no new originals — neither did any of the sixty shows from October onward. There was an unwillingness to practice or dedicate time to the band — precisely as Kurt exhibited at their studio visits from 1992 onward, he was going through the motions and doing the minimum required. The band only played one cover that wasn’t long perfected — just like their voracious appetite for on-stage covers collapsed after 1991. The band resisted playing their best songs — just as they tried to avoid Nevermind’s core songs in their final radio performances in 1991 or tried to insert Rape Me into the 1992 VMAs.

I think what we’re seeing is a far more curmudgeonly set of decisions taking place; firstly, to stubbornly refuse to give MTV even a sniff of a hit; secondly, a refusal to spend time working hard on music prior to the show; thirdly, a lack of desire to spend time on Nirvana or creating music as a band. The deliberately funereal stage decoration has been commented on before but I think it was a very stark and deliberate comment by Cobain, who had a tendency to incorporate art and other creative elements as self-expression. Nirvana really was dying by November 1993 and he knew it. MTV Unplugged in New York came wrapped in songs mentioning death, dressed as death, wreathed in bad vibes amongst the band itself…The show was a quiet death.

This week we’ve been looking at the graphs showing the trends in Nirvana’s introduction of new songs to live performances. To be fair, the sheer quantity of material Nirvana are pulling out of the hat, the amount being created or learned in a relatively tight period of time, it’s unsurprising that sustaining the pace of 1987-1991 would prove difficult if not impossible. Some other time we’ll compare Nirvana’s live touring to that of other bands but, as a statement of belief, Nirvana never exactly spent a vast amount of time on the road, they had many breaks, plenty of time off. That perhaps allowed them the time to learn more material than the average band so while their live ‘presence’ might be lower than that of other bands, the originality of those performances was untouchable for a long time.

In terms of cover songs, the band introduced some 64 songs to their known performances though shreds of other songs did appear (i.e., The Who’s I’m a Boy, Bette Midler’s The Rose for example.) The table below shows every cover song listed on

Nirvana Cover Songs_Total

Given the sheer number of songs the band attempted live it’s likely that the unknown set-lists and missing recordings actually conceal a significant number of other renditions. I don’t have that faith that many unheard Nirvana originals are hidden there, but I’m fairly comfortable believing that the band attempted other covers — they seemed to use cover songs as a way of covering up the ‘logistics’ of stage performance whether restringing guitars, checking equipment and so forth. Many of the performances are just snatches, not full songs, but the quantity is impressive. On the other hand, reading the list, it’s hard to equate the hard rock orientated direction with the declarations of punk or alternative rock fidelity — The Wipers, Fang, The Knack, Viletones, The Clash, Black Flag, Melvins, that’s it on the punk front, the rest is firmly mainstream, solidly pop rock.

Sao Paolo, sadly, features as both the most extensive set of covers the band ever did live…But it’s famed as a concert the band could barely be bothered to play. One element I’d draw attention to is that, once fame hit and the Nirvana experience went sour, quite a few of the covers were increasingly sarcastic, sneering jibes aimed at the band’s own success; My Sharona, the whole of the Sao Paolo event, The Rose and The Star-Spangled Banner, The Money Will Roll Right In. It’s a shame the use of cover songs lost so much of its happiness. MTV Unplugged in New York was also another performance of that year that depended on covers but we’ll discuss it later today.

Nirvana Covers_1987-1994

The sheer quantity of songs the band introduced is incredible. At first there’s a cover used in every early month for which a set-list exists which suggests the band was bulking out their set with covers. But the run the band goes on from late 1989 through 1991 is impressive; half of the live covers appear between November 1989 and December 1991.

The only person that would be… with Kurt as of June ‘94 … and would still be…Was Pat. They broke UP.” Quite a quotation from Courtney Love, never exactly short of words worth chewing over. Though her ungenerous attitude is sad to behold, I admit I really can’t doubt the truth of what she says — as usual, Courtney’s problem is being far too sharp and intemperate in her comments, not that she’s inaccurate, unintelligent or a liar (she’s rarely any of these things.)

In 1994 the only person Kurt invited to collaborate, while out on tour, was Pat Smear as described in an exclusive interview on The Internet Nirvana Fan Club from 2002. As an aside, the suggestion that Pat should add a guitar part to You Know You’re Right seems to indicate that the song might have been intended for release in that form and as a Nirvana song; but March 1994, the last collaborations, look like nothing usable or worthwhile being achieved.

The decision to simply ignore the deadline for deciding on Lollapalooza is a very consistent behavioural pattern of course. In past years, having decided to essentially sack people from the band, Kurt’s approach had been to avoid the conversation altogether unless it became essential. In 1994, the idea that he simply sat on his hands and waited for everyone to draw their own conclusions is an entirely normal way of behaving, for him. The fact he continued to invite Pat Smear to be present says everything — this was not a guy who continued to hang around with discarded band members or associates, when they were gone, they were gone.

The tense incidents within the band; absence of substantial collaboration 1992-1994, the falling-out between the Cobains and the Novoselics in early 1992, the argument over royalties in mid-1992, Krist’s disgust at Cobain’s low effort in Sao Paolo in January 1993… It doesn’t look like a functioning unit. Courtney is, sadly, right as far as the evidence shows.

Anyways, in the meantime, at least the surviving members of Nirvana remain on cordial terms though the chances of a more formal collaboration has been ruled out:

Nirvana Originals_1987-1994

Nirvana played some 67 original Kurt Cobain/Nirvana compositions in the seven years the band performed live. Yet it becomes very clear how low on fresh material the band were getting in the years post-fame. A grand total of 58 of those new additions to the set-list came prior to the end of 1991. To borrow a phrase from the British monarchy, it emphasises that 1992 was Nirvana’s annus horribilis with only Tourette’s, a song that almost counts as Nirvana’s only officially released instrumental (the lyrics aren’t exactly a priority with that track), entering set-lists. 1993 rapidly ran out of steam too but that’s well-known; post-October not a single new Nirvana original. What concealed the weakness of Nirvana’s archive was the way so much material was carried over from prior to fame, enough material to fuel half of the In Utero era releases. It also emphasises how many of the new songs developed in late 1992/early 1993 were considered throw-aways even by the band, jammed together at the last-minute thanks to an album deadline; Moist Vagina, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die never enter the set as far as can be seen.

It’d be more understandable if performances of new songs in the early years were missed; there are greater gaps in the available record of set-lists. Post-1991, however, at least 75% of set-lists are known for each year – it’s far less likely there’s an error or that fans have overlooked a song. As the clearest example, as described in the book Dark Slivers, it’s highly likely that Big Long Now was played sometime in the first half of 1989 given other supporting evidence and despite the absence of an actual live recording.

Nirvana were also comprehensive in their use of the live arena to road-test material. In fact every Nirvana song released on a compilation or single appeared in concert…Until 1993 where we’re missing Marigold, Moist Vagina and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die – only the well-known (and persistent) Sappy reappeared. In the early years it’s only the songs that Kurt never shared with the band – Don’t Want it All, Beans, Creation/Bambi Slaughter/Bambi Kill (unknown real name) – that don’t appear though Mrs. Butterworth never, apparently, made it out of the rehearsal room. That desire to enliven the band’s own experience playing live, by playing songs they hadn’t attempted before or often, was a very strong feature of the ‘fun years’ of Nirvana. But it apparently went missing on the In Utero tour…The stability and lack of freshness is so clear.

Around May I started working on a spreadsheet showing each month in which a Nirvana song appeared. Understandably other priorities (i.e., writing, re-writing, re-re-writing Dark Slivers) took over and it was unlikely I was ever going to finish.

…Until that is my friend, Mr. Shrikant Kabule, took a shot at it. My absolute gratitude to Shrikant for his hard work on this! I was thrilled to see it! He focused on one objective – showing when Nirvana played a new song or cover:

Songs_Live_By Month_1987-1994

As you might be able to tell, we’re going to have to take it piece by piece, but what I wanted to focus on today was the overall pattern; essentially Nirvana played a new original, or a new cover song (or slice thereof) almost every month during which they performed live throughout their entire career for which a set-list, or part thereof, exists.

Using the stats at the Nirvana Live Guide (check it! It’s brilliant – thanks to Kris and Mike) its amazing to see how many of Nirvana’s setlists are known in full (241 of 369 shows):

Set Lists 1987-1994

The gaps in the record of the early years make it likely that covers and originals have been overlooked (see Dark Slivers chapter Songs The Lord Taught Us for discussion of Big Long Now) but the later years are heavily covered, particularly 1992 and 1994. This makes the trend stand out even more – up until 1992 there had only been two months (December 1988 and March 1991) in which no unheard material was performed. Suddenly in 1992 the band perform in seven months yet there are five months in which they play no new songs. In 1993 there’s at least a fresh flush of covers and originals but again, it tails off until, from December 1993 onward the covers of My Sharona and My Best Friend’s Girl are the only things they can come up with.

It seems the collaboration was a positive experience for all involved – so much so that they did it again for Saturday Night Live, have released the studio audio recording and are featuring the song on Dave Grohl’s upcoming Sound City documentary soundtrack…Gosh. Plenty going on.

There’s a certain poetry to it; a survivor of the first supergroup of the rock n’ roll era working with the survivors of the final supergroup of the rock n’ roll era (before the steamroller of electronic music took full control). Similarly, those who had to suffer through the death of their friend in one of rock music’s first gun-related shocks (Lennon’s assassination) teamed up with those who endured the decline and ultimate annihilation of their friend in rock music’s last great gun-surprise (Cobain’s suicide.)

The nicest thing, however, is that their response to it hasn’t been to let bad things decide who they are. The response of Paul McCartney and the Nirvana’s guys always seems to have been life-affirming and positive – they look happy.

…OK it’s still a shame there isn’t more ‘edge’ to the recording but still…It’s nice.