Live! Tonight! Sold Out! Cobain’s Video Composition

Posted: July 29, 2013 in Overarching Nirvana Trends 1987-1994, Unreleased n' Posthumous Nirvana

From the self-mocking double entendre in the title, its very clear that the finest of Nirvana’s video/DVD releases had the hands of Kurt Cobain all over it.

It’s never been clear precisely how much work was still required in the hands of Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic but they certainly acted as fair stewards of their erstwhile comrade’s vision. So many of the elements of the video tie back to previous desires of his work. Cobain’s Journals contain brown sample pages from a ring-bound journal; there are several pages of description for each In Utero song including a future tense in the description of Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, “boy, this will really get the A&R man’s blood boiling” that seems to date these pages to somewhere between Pachyderm and In Utero’s release, mid 1993 efforts – there’s no proof this is accurate, however there’s no footage used from after January 1993 and barely any time in 1994 for this to have been a major focus. A page onward and there’s a letter to Kevin Kerslake describing a treatment of “the long form” listing footage he wants using. The mention of Kerslake also appears to mesh with his early role in preparing treatments for Heart Shaped Box in mid-1993 prior to leaving that project and subsequently suing the band.

Certainly the treatment described in the Journals differs from the final result; why would be a matter of speculation but it certainly avoids some royalty problems by not dipping back beyond the Grohl years (i.e., not using the Rhino Records in-store footage with Jason Everman and Chad Channing) and not featuring other musicians and their songs (the desire to have Molly’s Lips performed with Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines from Reading).

Certain ideas are already clearly in place, however. Firstly, the use of jumbled non-song footage is in place with his notes describing having Dave talking about bands, Kurt asking the director to “start my rant just as I say Black Flag, Flipper…” Likewise a demand for visual distractions is added at the foot of the page consisting of “the scene where I hand the guitar to the audience” and continuing by asking for the scene where he harassed the cameramen in Rio by spitting on cameras and waving his penis in front of the lens. He asks for the word ‘Bronchitis’ to be flashing on screen throughout Aneurysm but instead has to settle on the final rendering for a substantial quantity of foreign subtitling throughout the video that ultimately serves no function bar defacement.

The interest in slicing one performance into another is also in place and not a new Cobain technique. The Montage of Heck was built around such cuts between related and unrelated material and looking back at the Nirvana In Bloom video the visual drama is created by the break-away from the clean-cut image into the dress-wearing, stage-wrecking conclusion. Cobain links explicitly to the latter by asking for it to be included in this video and replaying the precise same cut by asking for the juxtaposition of the Top of the Pops (“equivalent of US’s American Bandstand”) performance with the In Bloom video which parodied American Bandstand. It went further in the precision of his vision; he asked for the Top of the Pops performance, the parodic ‘straight’ miming the band did that evening with Cobain virtually swallowing the mic, to replace the ‘straight’ half of the In Bloom video with only the back-half, the dresses and destruction piece, to feature. The curtailed and restricted real-life performance would replace the curtailed and restricted homage component.

The cutting between statements and musical realities seen on Montage of Heck is best exemplified by Come as You Are. In the Journals Cobain already notes “Rock Star Lesson: when your guitar is out of tune, sing out of tune along with it” – in the video his last statement in interview before they cut into the song reiterates “play whatever you want, as sloppy as you want, so long as its good and has passion.” The subsequent song rendition is snarled, roared, ruined…Beautifully so. One of Nirvana’s known ‘soft’ songs is turned into a feedback n’ scream fest.

The song cuts are apparently already planned if the “keep Amsterdam audio when first change happens” statement in Journals clearly refers to the movement between the intro of Reading ’92, then the performance in Amsterdam – with the statement ‘first change’ implying he’s already clear that there’ll be a further cut which fits the move to the Rio performance.

The undermining of Nirvana’s media image is a given throughout the video; the constant presence of the subtitles emphasises that all the interviews used are media productions and trustworthy/untrustworthy on that basis, they’re product, not necessarily honest conversation. Having emphasised the artificiality of the interview portions, Cobain and the band insist on using the most overt confrontation between camera and band with the spitting and flashing from Rio. The ‘blinding’ of the all-seeing cameras, the chasing of cameramen who are normally chasing him, the deliberate unveiling of that which the cameras will not show even though the media considers every other element of his life fair game…It’s a series of serious games each of which has a point. The band even wraps its other most flagrant media confrontation – the opening of Reading ’92 when the rumours about the band and Cobain’s health were at their worst and Nirvana responded with one of their longest and most impressive shows. The visual joke of Cobain shrouded in a wheelchair is the most obvious but alongside that he chose to sing a sliver of The Rose from the Bette Middler film of the same name which is about the self-destruction of a media star under the pressures of fame.

The video, therefore, continues Cobain’s fixation on the media, his long-held liking for wedging different elements together and the desire to evade and damage the rock star macho image by ensuring the footage of Nirvana in lingerie appears within five minutes of the start and reoccurs later. I have great difficulty believing that the insertion of the version of Love Buzz from Dallas, Texas that ends in a fight with a bouncer isn’t another case of Cobain pulling surprises and adding another uncomfortable moment to a brilliant video collage.

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