This neat article by Brett Anderson of band Eggs, Eggs dwells on remaining worthy moments in the increasingly stripped bare record of Nirvana. It’s a great selection — I headed off immediately and listened/re-listened to all of them — yet noticeably fleshed out with a number of live jams. I’m not saying those jams aren’t each of interest, but they do lay bare the increasing absence of interesting, and glossier, leftovers as well as the minimal evidence of Nirvana’s improvisations evolving into full songs.
The primary evidence of the band’s talent as improvisers rests on only a smattering of officially released studio efforts. Endless Nameless constitutes the core item; it’s a performance so powerful that it churns on for its seven minute running time (nine minutes on the equally genius radio version) with permanent drama and interest, never outstaying its welcome. Later In Utero’s bonus track, Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip, alongside The Other Improv piece captured on With the Lights Out, both display an ability to pull together loose, but workable, pieces based around reasonably worked out Cobain monologues and screams.
Around those efforts the only other remains from Nirvana’s studio sessions are the longer slices, clipped from jams taking place on October 26, 1992 and January 30, 1994 respectively, featured on the With the Lights Out DVD’s title menus — and the first shot at Scentless Apprentice which we’ll mention in a moment. The jams are certainly energetic, fired up guitar-throttling but, though interesting, nothing really marks itself out as a product of genius. The only other notable studio piece lies in the bootleg domain with the track known variously as Horrified or Crisco (among other titles) from the VPRO Radio performance in November 1991. The band all changed instruments and it doesn’t exactly glisten with quality but it still shows the band pulling together something from nothing much, regardless of the fact that the end product still doesn’t add up to something much.
Sonic Youth’s deluxe reissues of Goo and Dirty (plus their rarities release The Destroyed Room) demonstrated the band’s extensive use of rehearsal jams to hone the structure of a song, to par multiple competing ideas down to core lines; a group of musicians working in unison to fashion the ideas each one brought to the table. With Nirvana, the rarest piece available is the demo take of Scentless Apprentice on With the Lights Out which shows Nirvana performing a similar process of familiarisation and then amendment. Unfortunately, as so little Nirvana rehearsal material is available, there’s no way of seeing how often this kind of group activity was enacted. That’s where the primary gap lies; while other bands have let their rehearsal space try-outs escape into the world, whatever remains of Nirvana’s are under lock-and-key.
There’s a reason, however, to believe that improvisation wasn’t the norm at all. The renegotiation of Nirvana’s publishing royalties in 1992 left Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Chad Channing with a percentage interest in only a dozen songs — it suggests they had a minimal involvement in writing or introducing musical elements. Instead, if one wishes to observe Nirvana’s process of construction, it’s the acoustic demos that are the Ur-text of Nirvana’s songs. Essentially they show Kurt Cobain had already plotted, in ragged form, the structure he intended each song to have. There was room for an on-the-spot solo, for bass and drum flourishes, but essentially he knew what was wanted to the extent of instructing Dave and Chad on how he wanted the drums. I suspect that the reason not much rehearsal material showcasing recognisable Nirvana compositions has been released, bar that one song, is because there isn’t much that became a part of their more formal legacy.
Positively, however, having laid down a song in pretty solidly concluded form, the live arena saw the band occasionally taking a song and dismantling it, using its components within wider compositions. Readily available examples are a jam from on-stage in Australia in 1992 where the band shoved Hairspray Queen into the colander sound of a ten minute session, or alternatively the revised version of Vendetagainst that sometimes goes under the name of Come On Death taken from a late September 1991 gig in New York. The latter sounds like a late attempt to wring fresh life into the tune, to make something of a song he seemed unsure of; it’s a shame there’s not more evidence of this destructive creativity in relation to other neglected Nirvana songs; he clearly had a good knowledge of what was left in the archive given the long gaps between appearances by certain songs. On the other hand, to be fair, besides echoes in the half-visible vocals, it’s the bass rhythm that is most clearly cribbed from Vendetagainst so there’s a chance credit should go to Krist Novoselic not Kurt for its reintroduction.
Alas, checking the readily available selection of live jams present on YouTube, it seems clear that, in the live arena, the always engaging noise breaks and finales were off-the-cuff disposables. There’s no evidence this was a band that sat checking its live outtakes to see if there were neat accidents that could be reused…But. Very late in the day, there’s the intriguing case of the December 1993 jams. On both November 12 and December 29, 1993 Nirvana closed out the set with a typical round of destruction, but in the midst of it wedged a recurring piece, with lyrics, that seems to be at least the fledgling beginnings of a song. Similarly, on November 10, 1993 Kurt inserted the riff from You Know You’re Right. While the link from that song’s late October unveiling, through that single stolen jam-piece, to the January 1994 session is self-evident, an intriguing rumour states that the Nov/Dec unknown piece resurfaces in the tiny snippet of Nirvana’s January jams present on the With the Lights Out DVD. It’s at least pleasing, if accurate, to see a hint of further musical thoughts at that late stage, a piece of potential circling in the Cobain mind. It also appears to indicate that, far from heading in an acoustic direction, Nirvana was still roaring into the louder, harsher, nastier sound seen at the Rio sessions back in January 1993.
But it’s just a hint. Ultimately we’re still left feeling that more evidence of Nirvana’s rehearsal work, of the progress of songs from first thought to final concept, would be welcomed.
As a post-script, it was pointed out to me yesterday that Kurt actually jammed briefly on the Black & White Blues tune at a show in 1990 (February 14, 1990 – San Francisco, Kennel Club) as seen here – thanks to David Willhauk on LiveNirvana for this information:
Which can be compared to the demo outtake of Black & White Blues seen here: