After all the rumours of sheer catastrophe, the latest additions to the audio/video record of Nirvana’s performance in São Paulo in January 1993 actually didn’t seem so bad…But. It took me some time to realize that it’s only just over thirty minutes into the performance before Cobain gives up on playing and more-or-less goes on strike. For his comrades on stage it must have seemed like no time at all before things fell apart.
Making it worse, this isn’t a situation where it’s NIRVANA as a unit wrecking things, Buenos Aires back in October is the obvious contrast where they’re all sabotaging the show in one form or another. This time around it’s Cobain, on his own, ignoring Novoselic and Grohl and doing precisely what he feels like doing with no consideration for them. Throughout the rest of the show there are moments where they both seem to be coaxing him along, encouraging him – when Grohl insists on them playing Rio it sounds so enthusiastic but simultaneously looks like a way of keeping Cobain playing something, anything. It’s a tragedy that the existing record doesn’t show the moment when Novoselic walked off or where Kurt started mashing a watermelon into his strings. It does make one wonder whether the performance was as bad as stated given the moment where Cobain sang “we will f*** you” during the Queen classic isn’t clearly present either.
This is the first time they’ve been on stage together since Nirvana had witnessed an audience tear Calamity Jane to shreds in Argentina so, though the noise is muted on the recording, the audience are unlikely to have been passive recipients of whatever was going on. Imagine tens of thousands of revved up locals staring down the band – is it any wonder no one is willing to call it quits and step off stage? If the legal/contractual threats that stopped Novoselic from quitting part way through weren’t sufficient then a relatively buoyant audience certainly must have helped keep the tension levels elevated.
I admit I marveled at how functional Cobain is while high. Later the same year he overdosed in New York and was still on stage later, even if it did create a poor performance he still staggered through it. Here in Brazil the reports from backstage emphasise that Cobain was visibly drugged up before he went on, heck, he’s certainly no zombie even if there are so many moments where it’s obvious something isn’t right – the foul-ups in Teen Spirit where he can’t even hit the two notes of the verses quite right are a fair example. His voice is certainly not at its best, he sounds strained and hoarse at numerous points – even more grainy than his regular approach and loses the note entirely at the end of Teen Spirit. Whinging about the lighting twice over inside the first fifteen minutes of the recording isn’t anything, stage lighting blinding musicians isn’t exactly uncommon, but this is a guy who barely has his eyes open and doesn’t interact with crowds a whole lot – what’s he planning on looking at?
Negative Creep has that same tentative vibe as Buenos Aires where the first minute or so of each song felt like he was trying to remember it, tuning, preparing at a time when the band had plenty of guitars all tuned and ready to go. His yelp of “is everyone having a good time tonight? Rock n’ Roll!” has the same feel of sarcasm his applause at the conclusion of Live and Loud does – that he knows it’s not amusing, that it’s not going well. “I could shave on stage and you’d eat it up,” within a very ad-libbed (enjoyably so) rendition of Something in the Way sums up his feeling that he feels he’s faking it and no one’s noticing – it’s followed by the line about Brett Michaels and Poison then a reference to Guns n’ Roses/Led Zeppelin, I usually take his references to hair metal bands as points where he’s feeling self-critical or conscious of reasonably made comparisons given his band has stepped over into that pop-rock sphere – in this context that interpretation, that it’s his inner issues on display, makes sense.
Of course, he’s been through these songs so many times that he can’t fuck up hugely, most of the set are tracks he’s played in concert right the way back to 1990 if not before – there are four tracks from Bleach, Polly/Breed/Dive/Been a Son/Molly’s Lips he’s been rocking since 1989 – yet he’s still not putting much into them. It isn’t, however, a disaster at first – just lacklustre. It emphasizes how deliberate a choice it is to go from pausing, tentative performance to simple destructiveness – that’s an aspect I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned before, that it isn’t just a bad performance, it’s a deliberate refusal to cooperate. The solo in Blew is just bizarre, there’s not even an attempt to work within the confines of the song.
And that’s it, off he spins. Krist and Dave do their best to set down some kinda base but Cobain just ignores them and crunches the most cackhanded chords and directionless note runs without any reference to attempting musical cooperation or performance. There are moments when the band try to lock in behind him and he just spirals off to wherever – I love noise records and the ten minutes or so from Blew onwards certainly qualify. Staging the kinda guitar-wrecking he normally saves for the finale at this early stage is a declaration that the show is over.
I’ve always wondered about the presence of TV cameras and their effect on Cobain; think back – Top of the Pops (takes the piss), Jonathan Ross show (plays a different song to the one intended), first MTV live appearance (finishes early), MTV VMAs (refuses to play Teen Spirit and annoys them with Rape Me), Live and Loud (eliminates Teen Spirit again and spends fifteen minutes making noise and harassing cameramen), MTV Unplugged (plays barely half a set of Nirvana originals and avoids any ‘hits’ – questions about the ability to play some of those hits acoustically to one side for a moment), Rio de Janeiro (‘mocksturbation’ to cameras of Brazil’s largest TV network)… TV seems a guarantee of non-cooperation from Cobain. Why? It’s certainly the clearest indication that he’s moved to a different level of fame, it’s definitely showing he’s been moved into the “TV musical light-entertainment” category which may have itched and it’s showing him that whatever he’s doing is now acceptable mainstream music. Did that worry him? No idea, but the chain of less than cooperative behaviour is telling.
I’ll leave you to work through the covers – he at least sounds like he’s having more fun, they’re pretty competent renditions. Apparently around the time of the Mia Zapata benefit Cobain was deeply into a drug spell – noticeable that, again, the show revolved more around covers and casual fun. Part of me thinks a rendition of the Stooges’ classic “No Fun” at this show would summarise the decision to just stop, give up, surrender and do something more enjoyable – playing sappy covers almost flaunting the unwillingness to please the audience even if the band weren’t willing to risk legal action and financial damage by finishing early.