No Evidence: Nirvana Songs Never on Stage

Posted: July 17, 2013 in Overarching Nirvana Trends 1987-1994

A couple weeks back I was examining the table of Nirvana songs showing the songs we can demonstrate were played the most/least. One category that I didn’t get to was the matter of songs for which we have no evidence at all that they were played — though I like to believe in miracles I genuinely believe there’s a number where there’s next to no chance of there being lost Nirvana shows where they were unveiled:

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One could also point to Beans and Escalator to Hell but realistically they are all tape/home studio experiments making little sense to even attempt live. The sliver of music known as The Landlord (or “The Landlord is a Piece of Sh** from Hell” to give it the full line) falls into the realm of Krist Novoselic fronted joke-songs so while, theoretically, it could have been worked up for a stage performance its unlikely to have had much time or commitment expended on it barring what might well have been an ad-libbed, improvised piece during an early practice session.

The most surprising songs on the list are slap-bang in the middle of it; Opinion and Old Age. In the case of the former, the song seemed well-evolved and well-worked by the time it appeared on Calvin Johnson’s radio show in September 1990 but this is belied by Cobain’s statement that “I just wrote most of the lyrics this evening.” While that may have been an exaggeration it’s unlikely to be too far from the truth given the utter absence of any sign of the song in any other form during the preceding months. Nirvana had barely been playing or practising given the temporary nature of their drummers since Chad Channing’s departure in a few months earlier; there was the short tour in August with Dale Crover, then the one-off show with Dan Peter’s three days before Calvin Johnson’s show but otherwise plenty of time for Cobain to prepare the music and tweak, re-tweak and re-write the lyrics. Old Age meanwhile seems to have been at a very early stage of gestation during the Nevermind studio sessions — another period with relatively few live shows taking place — then ignored during the craziness of the end-of-year tours and Nevermind’s explosion. What’s unusual about those two songs is that they’re they only songs between Big Long Now (January 1989) and the In Utero leftovers (Jan-Feb 1993) to not end up road-tested live at some point. Nirvana had reached their live peak, they were able to tweak set-lists and toss in songs in a wild fashion night-by-night, yet neither song seems to have been well-liked enough to be given an unveiling; a bit of a commentary on the status of each song and perhaps making it understandable why Cobain would give one of them away.

The Fecal Matter songs are a curiosity as it’s probable that at least some of them were played in amid the smattering of pre-Nirvana shows (three.) The discarding of identities in the early years of Nirvana was a crucial feature and, just as the new wave styling would hit the rubbish bin almost as soon as Sub Pop brought the band on board, so the garage punk version of Kurt Cobain’s music, the most overtly Melvins material he ever wrote, was a face he was fed up with in the two years before he properly took to the stage. Mrs Butterworth sits in the realms of “God Knows what happened” but if I was theorising the song belongs more to the Fecal Matter era than the Nirvana age. It’s quite similar to Downer in terms of the fairly ‘square’ structure, the relatively uncomplicated guitar riffs and the wordy approach — but, like a lot of the material recorded later in January 1988 it features experimental elements (most specifically the spoken-word interruption) so the song feels like a half-way house. The problem with it is that Cobain was already writing far more complex and interesting songs and it sounds more like a training exercise by comparison to Aero Zeppelin and such like.

Opinion should perhaps be considered primarily alongside Cobain’s experimental material from the 1988-1990 period. People forget that acoustic guitars were one form of experiment to a player who hadn’t spent much time with one and wouldn’t use one in a studio until the April 1990 version of Lithium, let alone on stage. In this category we can rank the song now known as Creation (still wrong but what the hey), Clean up Before She Comes, Opinion, Don’t Want it All and even Beans too (I’m ignoring Black and White Blues which sounds like a technical exercise or piece of whimsy) — Polly made it into the live arena because it was easily electrified as was Dumb (note first appearance in Nov 1990: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_EQsUqlqno). Very few acoustic tracks made it into full Nirvana performances or onto albums — the MTV Unplugged performance has warped the view people have of Nirvana when really acoustic guitar was the realm of practices and messing about but rarely of ‘real’ songs.

This leaves the In Utero era foursome; is it strange that these four songs never made it onto the stage at any point? I think it says much about the way the songs were created. Again, like most of these songs we’re discussing, there’s very little evidence of extensive work on these tracks, at least two (Gallons and The Other) are an improvisation around pre-prepared slivers of lyrics, the other two sound like they were jammed together by Nirvana during or just before the January 1993 practice session with little more than riff and a few ideas from Cobain to work around. All four songs, despite their rough edged charm and original features, seem unloved fillers at best, songs that aren’t necessarily needed but might come in handy. Nirvana’s high standards are clear in the way that even some of the songs that made it onto In Utero itself didn’t receive many airings — with so many songs to choose from, and relatively static set-lists during the 1993-1994 touring, it was rare for any rarities to make it on let-alone these half-formed songs. Perhaps if there had been more touring then we might have seen something more but it’s unlikely. The rumours of a sound-check performance of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol may be true (or maybe not) but I can’t imagine it being a word perfect rendition — more a loose jam around the theme perhaps?

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