Smells Like Teen Spirit: Live n’ Left Out?

You may have noticed, but I have a particular fascination with using information to show that certain views and approaches may not be as cut-and-dried as they initially appear. To some extent we are all what we are trained to be and, in my case, I was taught to sift information, present a hypothesis then to test; then, at work, I saw increasingly that getting things moving effectively relied upon, firstly, having the information to back-up a course of action and, secondly, being able to present it in such a way that it could be readily digested. What has always stunned me, however, is the extent to which entire realms of decision-making were based on statements that had never truly been tested, could be shown to be untrue, and led to large-scale activity that ultimately was to no purpose.

As an example, one organisation I worked with argued that delegates tended to come to a conference every two years rather than annually, so we should be trying to persuade them to alternate with colleagues, then deploy sales and marketing contact with the former delegate when the second year arrived. The answer? Like Hell were they. Sitting down with the data from all the events going back five years meant it was possible to show annual attendance vastly outweighed the one percent or so who would skip years. The entire approach was wrong yet it governed almost a year of organisational activity and was very hard to batter down.

That’s where my approach to Nirvana coincides with my professional and my academic past; I enjoy finding the ‘chinks’ in the existing tale whether that means showing that Nirvana’s live shows are remarkably predictable entities, or that maybe there’s more to a particular statement or event than acknowledged, for example, that MTV Unplugged in New York wasn’t just a triumphant and beautiful and wondrous show.
In the case of Smells Like Teen Spirit, Kurt Cobain was certainly irritated by the feeling that a single song was expected of him and that he couldn’t take a stage without parading it. What I was curious about was whether that annoyance translated into any actual action. That Nirvana did react against the expectations that came with fame is clear from the refusal to play any Nevermind songs at their final radio session (The Netherlands in November 1991), the fact they had to be persuaded to play anything from Nevermind in the one before that (my discussion with BBC producer Miti Adhikari: “…they didn’t want to play anything from Nevermind, but they were persuaded by either their management or by me to do different versions of Nevermind tracks …”) and their attempts to avoid Smells Like Teen Spirit at TV performances. What happened on stage between 1991 and 1994?

The answer, in a broad-brush way, is “nothing.” Reusing the spreadsheets of complete set-lists (from Nirvana Live Guide) that I used for the Side A/Side B analysis its visible that Smells Like Teen Spirit was played 141 times out of 150 occasions available for us to observe from its debut on April 17, 1991 until the band’s denouement on March 1, 1994. I hadn’t expected any change to occur at first because the song hadn’t yet become the albatross hanging around Cobain’s neck. But there’s never, essentially, a spell when the song is ignored or neglected. The band skip it once on August 25, 1991; they skip it once in 1992 at the notorious October 30 show in Buenos Aires; they skip it five times out of 37 set-lists for 1993; then twice in 1994. That’s it.

What that immediately suggested was that Kurt Cobain’s protestations regarding the song never spilt over into refusing to generally please the crowds, play the hits and do what was expected. The degree to which is distain for doing so was a pose or a deeply held sadness and annoyance is a matter of debate — make your own minds up — but the song was rarely sliced.

If you look at the figure below you’ll note that the song goes from being part of the build-up of the set, to being part of the close, to being a mid-set number, but it switches positions so many times what it actually says to me is that though the song was certainly not despised by its creator, it didn’t build up the usefulness of say Drain You or Aneurysm (consistent and persistent components of the set opening) or of Blew (an equally persistent part of closing.) All it says is the song wasn’t cared about so much that it had to belong anywhere while others were.

Looking closely, however, at the occasions on which Nirvana didn’t play the song, there were occasions which seem deliberate. October 30, 1992 in Buenos Aires is the best known example. The sexist treatment of the opening band Calamity Jane led to Nirvana devoting an entire show to frustrating and being combative to the audience — but in a particular way. The band did so through music; they teased the audience with the Smells Like Teen Spirit introduction but never played it, Kurt fluffed the intros to most songs to burn stage time, he barely bothered with the lyrics to Come as you Are, he abandoned the stage leaving Krist and Dave to jam for spells. It was a quiet guerrilla war on an audience that didn’t deserve catharsis.

Strangely, there are two shows that coincide; Nirvana weren’t meant to be the opener for the August 25, 1991 Pukkelpop Festival, they were just a fill-in, meanwhile, the August 6, 1993 show was the Mia Zapata benefit event with Nirvana as unannounced special guests. With the pressure off in each case there’s a case to be made that maybe Nirvana felt less expectation. Supporting this, partially, Nirvana were unannounced guests at two shows in October 1992, a far more heavily weighted time in the band’s life, and in each case the parts of the set-lists that are known suggest Smells Like Teen Spirit wasn’t played. If people hadn’t come specifically to see them it seems Nirvana potentially weren’t as bothered about ‘pleasing’ the ticket-holders.

December 13, 1993 was akin to the two radio shows, wrecking Top of the Pops, switching on Jonathan Ross, refusing to play Teen Spirit then faking out MTV producers with the opening to Rape Me at the MTV Video Music Awards and the refusal to play more known hits for MTV Unplugged in New York. As described the other month ( Nirvana’s MTV Live n’ Loud appearance set-list was entirely revamped for one night only. As part of that revamping it stands out quite strongly that Smells Like Teen Spirit was eliminated; Nirvana simply wouldn’t play it to please the MTV administration.

And the other three occasions in 1993? My hypothesis was that perhaps Nirvana eliminated Smells Like Teen Spirit as a way to punish audiences — a continuation of the Buenos Aires approach and the antagonism toward MTV. Certainly the Halloween show on October 31, 1993 has a potential echo of it given an exchange involving someone throwing a shoe at Kurt into which he then urinated in retaliation — but it’s only a suggestion not proven. The November 4 and November 7 shows are united by one event which was that on November 5, the intervening show, the rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit involved dragging the support bands on to help trash it, a clip of it is found here:

It’s hard to tell if it was just coincidental that for those three shows, the conclusion of the tour phase during which The Boredoms and The Meat Puppets were on board, Smells Like Teen Spirit either didn’t appear or wasn’t fully realised; it’s just a short spell. One consideration is that the agreement to book Nirvana for MTV Unplugged in New York took place sometime in late October-early November and coincides with the October 27-November 5 spell during which Nirvana were accompanied by The Meat Puppets. What I’m suggesting is that being in conversation with MTV again provoked a small outburst and therefore Smells Like Teen Spirit’s elimination. An alternative is the way that Kurt retreated to drums on November 4, sometimes a sign of his annoyance or desire to escape the front-man role and also, at the same show, the fact the NLG lists him as ‘playing’ the In Bloom solo with his foot with the guitar dumped on the floor.

Again, it maybe points to a burst of annoyance and a resultant sarcastic response. Anyways, here’s the full show if you feel like analysing the performance:

Anyways, it’s clear that, of the nine shows at which Smells Like Teen Spirit wasn’t played, two were definite acts of aggression (Oct 30 and Live n’ Loud); two were because the band didn’t have to please an audience (Aug’ 25, 1991 an Aug’ 5, 1993); two took place within a single week of November with an intervening show at which the song also suffered chaotic attention even though the interpretation of what was afoot at that point is hard to figure out. This all lands us in 1994, the finale. And, in one of those coincidences that look absolutely wonderful in literary writing or media pieces looking for ominous conclusions, the two shows where Smells Like Teen Spirit was not played, were the final two shows of the tour when Kurt Cobain was tired, getting sick, was inquiring about cancelling. There wasn’t much spirit left in him, mirrored in the absence of Spirit on stage. Looks great ending these graphics with a double red underlining…

a-SLTS_Apr 91-Nov 6 1991

B - SLTS_Nov 10 1991-Jan 23 1993

C- SLTS_Apr 93-Mar 94


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