Nirvana 1989-1991: Not a Seattle Band, a Californian Band

Seattle this, Seattle that…What a sweet way to call an end to the Nirvana Tour phase of the Nirvana Legacy blog, by telling everyone that Nirvana stopped being a Seattle band long before they hit fame.

The reality of the U.S. music industry is that it, like most industries in most countries, is centred on particular locations. For bands wanting to make a successful career in music they have to go with both the demographics and access to the business; its how they make money. The ‘rootedness’, the idea of a band’s origins, is a crucial component of establishing their identity but isn’t necessarily key to understanding them as product. Initially its about creating a sense of the exotic, something new and different – “a Seattle band” circa 1988-1989 was a shorthand way for the media to easily emphasise difference in the same way that tagging something as southern hip hop in the mid-to-late Nineties was a way of establishing a different identity with consumers overloaded with East Coast/West Coast ID.

It’s an extension of a basic human urge of course, to belong. Most people identify themselves as their origin or birthplace rather than by their day-to-day living space. Nirvana, despite the origin in Aberdeen, despite living and playing in Olympia, despite being tied to Tacoma for a while, were indelibly tagged as ‘Seattle’. This is because they were part of a specific commercial strategy by Sub Pop that meant instead of marketing one band at a time they could market a whole scene at once and thus create a wider halo effect on each band’s sales and audiences that they would have had trouble achieving on the budgets available – definitely the Motown ‘hit factory’ effort. It meant that as Nirvana toured the U.S. and Europe the Seattle stamp associated them with a particular sound and style regardless of the differences between the bands under the banner.

This is the second use of geographic tagging in music; to create associations and similarity rather than difference. Once the new archetype (i.e., Seattle, Southern, Hyphy from San Francisco, whatever) is established new bands and artists adopting or being lumped beneath the tag are no longer establishing themselves as an alternative – it becomes a pledge of allegiance and tells consumers “if you like X, then you’ll like us/me too.” Again, it’s a shorthand alongside style, gender, genre that makes it easier to sift, categorise and define.

In the case of Nirvana, it was inevitable they would spend less time playing in State of Washington once they started proper touring from mid-1989 onward. Yet, it isn’t just that Nirvana ‘spread out’, it’s that their activity was strongly centred on the state most likely to give them the break through and industry attention that was required to give them a shot at the big time. Plus, being fair, the band were making barely any money for the majority of their peak touring era, it made sense to go the nearest state containing the greatest number of large cities and thus the greatest number of opportunities for large audiences in the smallest possible space. The answer was, of course, California.

From the commencement of Nirvana’s first U.S. tour on June 21, 1989 at The Vogue in Seattle until the break after the show in Salem, Oregon on January 2, 1992 Nirvana played 31 states. It wasn’t just about covering as many states as possible, however. Eleven of those states only received one visit each, three received two visits – an awful lot weren’t visited at all. There were rational decisions being taken about where to bother sending Nirvana and where might be worth it.

Nirvana Touring by State 1989-1992

It wasn’t just about proximity though, yes, Oregon was close but so was Montano (not visited even once in those two and a half years), Idaho (two visits to Boise) and Nevada (one trip to Las Vegas.) Neither Sub Pop nor Geffen was arranging Nirvana gigs in states just because they were easy to get to, they were arranging gigs in cities with decent audiences for the band hence the seven visits to Oregon (six to Portland, one to Salem) given its combination of proximity and alternative rock friendly audiences. So far so what?

Well, essentially, all I’m saying is that from mid-1989 until the close of 1991, Nirvana played twice as often in California as they did in State of Washington. This was a significant switch, instead of being the heart of the band as a performing entity, State of Washington became the retreat, the hideaway that they headed back to when they wanted to get away from the quest to become rock stars and its actuality. It was California not State of Washington that offered them the largest audiences because there are so many decent sized cities there – Nirvana played twelve cities in California compared to only three in State of Washington, the nearest competitors were Texas (on five) and Ohio, Massachusetts and Philadelphia (each on four).

Nirvana Touring Cities Visited

The total domination of California as the crucial location for Nirvana as an up-and-coming band and as a band to be ‘developed’ on a major label (remember that no one expected Nevermind to make them megastars, the late 1991 touring was set up to raise profile and try to ensure a healthy return on the band before deciding whether to continue with them or drop them – basic economic realities of the music industry) is clear. It combined the size of population, the density of that population and the presence of the most crucial U.S. music industry and U.S. music media hubs.

Undermining me neatly, however, and reminding me not to take numbers TOO seriously…Seattle was still the single city where Nirvana played the most but only by a couple of shows…

Nirvana Touring Cities Visited the Most

Ack! Restore the crown to Seattle…Go on…Do it.


Nirvana Tour Hits Olympia: Inside Kurt Cobain and Tracy Marander’s Former Home


Yeuch, I think I’m going to have to apologise immediately; the title today is very ‘tabloid expose’, how horrible…Read it more that I’m still slightly stunned by good fortune’s turns. Genuinely the most important word these past few days has been serendipity — the moments where the world has clunked together like a Lego kit only for me to realize it’s a Mona Lisa level of Lego beauty. Tomorrow I’ll rewind to Tacoma for a while, there’s more to say about the place.

Today though, the day commenced with a well-earned hangover courtesy of Ryan’s truly excellent homebrew and when the mist departed and was replaced by scorching heat, I discovered immediately I had at least two layers too many on and that towing 25-30kg of luggage with me was going to add a certain piquant delight to my time in Olympia. The bus network in State of Washington is actually superb. $3 dollars got me from Tacoma to Olympia on the 603 bus from Commerce Street, less than an hour’s ride with an extremely cheerful and chatty driver and general comfort. There also turns out to be about three other bus options too.

The bus station in Olympia has a real convenience about it too, a store owner explained to me that the area around Fourth Avenue is the central shopping area; quite a closely clustered and well-packed set of streets. Olympia lived up to its reputation for having an artistic vibe — antique shops, arts and crafts stores, a couple of record stores, a milkshake bar, relaxed cafes. The proximity of the waters (the Budd Inlet) made for a pleasant hour or so chilling in a park in sunshine looking at the trees lining the hillsides on the other side of the inlet.

So, it had to be done. Walk along Fourth Avenue, cross Plum which is a fairly big road, then Pear Street is next up. Number 114 Pear Street NE being literally one block up and within sight of Fourth Avenue. No prizes for recognizing the photo at head of page.


This is where fate decided to play some games. I was lining up a photo which I never got to take because I noticed this young bloke walking toward the house. Realising he wasn’t just another fanatic cult worshipper (like me) and that he actually did mean to be walking toward the front door my gut took over and I hollered. Thus I met Jeff.


Jeff is a student at Evergreen State College and a thoroughly pleasant fella — and Jeff just happens to share 114 Pear Street NE with a number of other student housemates. Hearing what I was up to, about the book and so forth, he was totally wicked and gave me a brief tour in exchange for a copy of the Dark Slivers book. He explained the set up of the house is that its divided into three premises hence when you approach you’ll see a series of numbered boxes at the door with the separate entrance to number three being round at the side in a passageway.



The understanding of the flat-mates is that the young couple lived together in one of the front two sections then Cobain moved into the back area accessible via the side doors – the little side section of the house being where he lived for a time.


We sat in the lounge for a while, chatted on a bit, Jeff explained that on February 20 each year the residents are really used to finding gifts and offerings on the front door — there’s even one that now has pride of place up on one of the ceiling arches in the lounge. Jeff let me look around, I tried to be considerate of the fact this isn’t some museum, nor is it a public space, it’s home to people who are as bemused by the twenty-five year old history of the house as I was to be allowed to walk through its front door — not something I’d planned on or even imagined!


Here’s perspective; though Cobain recorded at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard, there’s no evidence that between January 1994, when he moved in, and his death in April, that he wrote even one song — Do Re Mi may have been recorded that year but there’s no evidence whether it was written in those short days too. 114 Pear Street, on the other hand, can be definitely linked to the writing of around 46-50 songs, a full 75% of Cobain’s total creations.


That’s how significant this house is — its where he writes everything from Smells Like Teen Spirit to early versions of All Apologies, its where he writes the first shot at Big Cheese and probably Beeswax too. Even the Montage of Heck was likely fused together here. It’s a surprisingly lovely home. Large windows let a ton of light in, its south facing, plenty of floor space — just a decent place. The present residents have kindly heaped luggage and junk all over the front room to give it that ‘Cobain clutter’ feel though without the creepy meat collages or the old crosses!


Across the road is the apocryphal Washington State Lottery building that Cobain (and Grohl) used to shoot the windows out of with an air-gun. The flat-mates say that a while back they had a knock on the door and Dave Grohl was stood there with a camcorder and said he was filming a documentary, used to live there and would they mind…? Gee…Did they mind?!


The awareness of the history of Nirvana was heartening, to meet someone and ten minutes later they’re mentioning the video experiments Nirvana attempted at Evergreen State College, or the gig at the library, asking questions about Calvin Johnson and K Records — the new generation knows the past history of creativity in the area just fine. Jeff introduced me to the music of Naomi Punk while he was at it:

I took my leave eventually and headed back toward town; there was no way I was going to make it out to the Evergreen State College, or to Library 4300, so I stuck to town and spent time over at the Capitol Lake Park where Nirvana played support in 1988 to Soundgarden alongside My Name and Swallow. A picturesque place, quite funny imagining grunge bands playing in blissful State of Washington summer on a day like today.




I eventually headed back to the bus station where the lady at the counter laughed openly when I announced my destination — “its not that, I just think your accent is the cutest thing!” Ah bless. Sitting around waiting for the next step on the travels, definitely didn’t see much of Olympia but to be fair it’s a small centre, I’m unsure what more I needed to see and in that heat the walk to the college would potentially have caused frazzled nastiness and sunstroke. My “Tacoma: Love it or Leave it” t-shirt (worn with pride) was already clinging to me. Plenty of small incident in the next twenty minutes; tragically a genuine moron was riding a bike with his dog in a rucksack on his back when the dog slipped out while they were going up a curb and he proceeded to run over the dog’s leg — sad, dog alive but clearly in pain going by the extensive howling. On the other side of me a guy was negotiating to exchange substantial quantities of marijuana in return for some tattoo work from a fella. Life is full of curiosities if one doesn’t mind eavesdropping.




And sometimes it bestows real treats, like getting to shoot the breeze with a cool bloke on the sofa in Kurt Cobain’s house from spring 1987 until mid-1991. Wow. Day over.

The Grand Tour Part 3: Nirvana in Tacoma


There is one site only of major interest to Nirvana fans visiting Tacoma: 5441 South M Street, otherwise known as the Community World Theater. Mike Ziegler, a major name among long-time Nirvana fans online, has the most detailed resource regarding CWT: including a picture of the short-lived site back in its heyday while there’s a first hand discussion at this blog (from which I took the photo above – credit where due!)

This is a picture taken from Flickr (credit to and photographed in May 2012 of the former building – funny thinking how many identities this place has had. Compare it to Mike’s photo at the head of this page.


Incredibly, the venue had only opened in February 1987 but its all-ages-policy and willingness to put punk on stage meant that in a brief eighteen months of existence the venue staged some 130 shows including a significant number of underground stars. If the venue hadn’t closed in June 1988 Nirvana were scheduled to perform there in July with The Fluid and Blood Circus — a show that instead became Nirvana’s inaugural Sub Pop Sunday show at The Vogue in Seattle.


D.C. Hardcore — Salad Days Film: the Ubiquitous Mr Dave Grohl Guesting


For the record, Ian MacKaye is on my list alongside Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain, Michael Gira and Thurston Moore as one of the most epoch-making figures in punk rock over the past thirty years. I make the judgment not on record sales or temporary tabloid worthiness but on being a catalyst for numerous bands and resulting strands of musical endeavour. A sincere salute.

The gentlemen behind this film have entered the production phase but, as they’re essentially self-funding this, I can only encourage and support their request for donations toward the conclusion of this work.

The film seems to provide the cinematic counterpoint to the excellent Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. The surprising quality of the footage, the slivers of revealing interview…And yes, Dave Grohl lines up to discuss his time in DC stars Scream.

By synthesising two guys tied to the North-West grunge scene, with their new drummer from the East Coast hardcore scene, Nirvana essentially placed a full-stop on the underground scene of the Eighties. While various bands and outfits dragged the overall genre in new directions at various points of the decade, the defining geographic entities were Washington DC and Seattle, the defining labels became Dischord and Sub Pop.

There’s a fair argument that the latter learned from the former. Their impact came from tying themselves so firmly to a specific location, they were not just labels based in a particular location, putting out bands who happened to be from a certain place; they made their identity synonymous with the city from which they were from and during their defining days they bound the bands on each label to that same specific identity.

The more open geography of labels such as SST or Alternative Tentacles gathered up many of the best bands playing but never unified those bands. The DC/Seattle identities gave the illusion of a gang, a home turf, people known to each other and gathered round the label flag. That sense of intimacy made each label stand out and makes it impossible to separate the label from the city and the bands from either. It’s comparable to the way bands are regularly portrayed as ‘bands of brothers’. That united front can equally apply to a label or a place and seems equally attractive; a community of people choosing to believe in and support a sound, an approach, a philosophy. It’s, to some extent, illusionary, a projection of external desire for something to belong to onto the bands/labels/people at its centre, but it retains huge power as an idea.

So! Salad Days! Take a look, support, encourage…And sometime soon I hope we’ll see the finished product. Here’s the Facebook group for further updates and beyond that…Scott Crawford and Jim Saah? I salute thee.

Song Survival: Nirvana’s Early Hits in the Late Age

Songs die, as is the way of all things. Playing a song year-in and year-out becomes stale, bands may have favourites and crowds may have favourites but performers tend to desire freshness until, that is, they reach the ‘greatest hits’ phase of their career where the artist’s music isn’t moving forward sufficiently and/or the audience becomes happy with a dose of nostalgia.

In the case of Nirvana, they never reached that era of their career — it ended barely six months after their latest album, barely two-and-a-half years after they’d be catapulted to fame. While the band were barely playing together outside of fulfilling their live obligations — making it very easy to see the near defunct level of creativity present behind the scenes — they had enough that audiences were still only just gaining familiarity with that it would have been quite a while before anyone not studying details of recording sessions, set-lists and practices would have noticed.

This means Nirvana, while certainly feeling an obligation to play chunks of Nevermind, didn’t have to prise songs from the pre-Geffen era into the set-list unless they felt like it. Yet certain songs kept showing up, specifically: School, Blew, About a Girl, Love Buzz, Floyd the Barber, Negative Creep and Spank Thru — even Sliver endured.

Just for amusement I simply want to look at their longevity today, when did they arrive in the set-list, when did these songs hit their peak, and when, finally, did they drop out. For starters, tragically for those of us who like poetic coincidences, there’s no song that is present from start-to-finish of Nirvana’s career; the nearest candidate is Blew with its first known appearance in March 1988 and its final appearance on March 1, 1994 some six years later — the song certainly deserves greater credit in the record of Nirvana’s songs. It also makes me think that the tale that Sub Pop told Nirvana to arrange the songs on Bleach by simple order of preference from favourite to least favourite may have some truth to it — Nirvana clearly love Blew.


Spank Thru is also a great survivor. Already notable as the most significant composition to be ripped from the Easter 1986 Fecal Matter demo, Nirvana loved the song so much they made it their second original song to be released, they played it on radio both in 1987 and late 1989 and reissued a live version of it on the Sliver/Dive single in 1990 (U.S.) and 1991 (U.K.) In virtually every month in which Nirvana played (and for which we have evidence) the song is played only finally being relegated to the reserve at the end of 1990 with periodic returns. Love Buzz has an even more imperious (and deserved) run with appearances in the live catalogue all the way into 1993 — I’m more surprised that the band didn’t feature it often in the In Utero tour than that it lasts so long given its popularity, catchiness and fun vibe. This leaves Floyd the Barber as the last of the 1987 Nirvana songs to live out an extensive live life. Again, taking note of the Bleach running order and the apparently rigid thinking behind it, it’s an early track that, despite its wordy nature and story-telling style (something that died out relatively early in Cobain’s career) doesn’t vanish until the end of the Asia-Pacific tour. What’s sadder is that it stops flat with no known reprises at any time in the final two years of live performance — done. Listening to it at first I used to notice the lurching discomfort of the song and its relatively low pace…Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate its bright guitar tone, the catchy guitar-drums interplay and the climbing bridge — it’s a truly great track and I can understand its survival.

For the In Utero tour Nirvana’s set-list became relatively stable compared to earlier years — songs tended to appear in the same positions, next to the same companions, the majority of shows featured the same songs in the same order from the start right through until somewhere close to the final songs (I believe that in posts examining the ’93-’94 live record I identified anything up to 14 songs in a row matching show-by-show). There’s a sense that on paper the band felt they needed to whip in a few Bleach songs to balance the set-list, not that they didn’t like the songs they chose, but there’s a feeling they needed something to leaven the Nevermind/In Utero heavy sets, that they didn’t have much new stuff to add in, or rare material that they liked enough to play (IHM&IWTD, MV, Gallons…) so had to reach back to songs that had been in the set-list forever. That isn’t dismissive of those songs quality; About a Girl, School and Blew are all top class.

Guitars and the Nature of Live Performance

Flaky blog service this week I confess, purely down to work pressures; would you believe me if I told you I was in this chair yesterday from 8.55am until 1.30am this morning minus bathroom breaks and a 30 minute lunch outing? Then back up to do it again!

I’m presuming everyone has read the interview with Jason Everman in the New York Times by now?

And in another aside…Not that I’m fixated on making the comparison, but today I’m musing on one more factor making a crucial difference between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose; guess what it is? It’s 1962 versus 1967. Earlier this week we were looking over and considering the well-known list of Kurt Cobain’s Top 50 albums and it was very visible that the peak of his musical revelations came between 1981 and 1984 – somewhere in amidst his teenage years from age 14 to 17. That five year gap between February 6, 1962 and February 20, 1967 pushed Cobain into the era of the emerging punk-influenced alternative scene. Axl Rose, by contrast, hit age 14 in 1976, the year of Aerosmith Rocks, of Led Zeppelin releasing Presence, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, Elton John Blue Moves…The Sex Pistols hadn’t even made it over to the States or released an album yet. Basically the generational shift placed each man at one side or other of the great punk divide, one as both the last great hard rock showman and a genuine fan of interesting twists on rock music, the other steeped in punk rock and also gravedigger to the hard rock superstar. The next shift was to the Seventies babies (Fred Durst, August 1970 – Jonathan Davis, January 1971 – Billie Joe Armstrong, February 1972)…What a difference time makes.

Anyways, recently I’ve been thinking about the nature of performance. Despite the near complete (and ongoing) relegation of guitar-based music to a ghetto underneath the avalanche of electronics, or to a hybridised status designed to make it fit for the dance floor, the reality is that it is still guitar-centred bands who are making the money in the live arena. I believe the nature of live performance inherently favours live instrumentation…Why?

As an audio experience, as pure sound, let’s be honest, music will always have greater clarity and detail on a stereo or over headphones. But we go to live shows because the physical kick of organic sound on vast speakers in a room full of juiced up fans is what makes the difference – the human buzz. Related to that, the visual factor in live music is sorely underrated. Music DVDs fail to capture the connection between humans, that’s why they’re such disappointing objects; there’s a flatness to them. Similarly, at venues, seating can kill the mood because it removes a lot of the proximity and press of actual flesh – likewise seats and positions with restricted views will always be cheaper because the absence of sight strips away a crucial part of the live experience; a live performance is about music as it is performed not just about sound as a singular sensory avenue.

With laptop based music and mixing decks, the relative absence of motion from the performer, the relatively static nature of their role makes it a very pure audio experience – which in turn makes it completely unexciting. It’s why most laptop artists perform against video backdrops; they’re aware that something is lacking within the experience. It’s why dance music is still the primary realm for electronics/computer based music because the action and activity of the audience substitutes for the absence of a true performer or performance and reinstates the buzz of human connection.

The predominance of what are, now, traditional instruments (whether in classical performance, rock-derived modes, jazz and so forth), despite their relative death in terms of commercial audio home/portable listening sales, is because they remain absolutely crucial to observed performance. The ‘buzz’ people describe in live music is about the presence of living breathing humans and is at its most intense when one can see those creating the music meaning one’s mind associates the motions seen on stage with the sounds assailing the ears. To quote a friend of mine “if you’re singing, your lips, face, and chest all move; and if you watch the best singers, they tell a story with their eyes as much as with gestures; if you’ve got an instrument then you’re physically interacting with it, your arms, fingers, and whatever else you use to get it to make a sound.” Laptops and table-bound articles obscure movement and involve only limited motion. They’ll never compare to a singer stretching out to catch a high note, a guitarist wrenching notes from the guitar or throttling a riff from it, it’s nothing like seeing a drummer deluging their kit with blows in a spray of sweat.

The best laptop performance I saw was a guy who performs under the name, The Caretaker. The two preliminary acts were fairly traditional laptop acts, cool but not visually that interesting – watching films with some music over the top. The Caretaker (Leyland Kirby being the guy’s name) stepped on stage, chatted to the audience, then asked to be allowed one self-indulgent tradition from his wilder musical days – so commenced a mental karaoke version of “Here I Go Again” the Eighties rock tune by Whitesnake which concluded with him having rolled himself off the stage altogether and being in a heap in the middle of the audience. It was deliberately parodic, undermined the audience/performer gap, wiped away the po-faced chin-stroking aspect of his present music (he manipulates classical music and old 78 RPM records)… Next, he put up a video that commenced with a message explaining it was a video diary of his time living in Berlin and the collapse of his relationship with then girlfriend which gave it a humanity and a poignancy it was hard not to look for…He meanwhile, departed entirely from the ‘performer’ script and simply sat down by the desk on stage, set the laptop going, got a full bottle of whisky and proceeded to polish three-quarters of it while sat on stage watching with us. The initial five minutes of sound were a full blown assault – genuinely nasty – drove the pop fans out the room altogether…And THEN finally he commenced with the softer material he’s been known for recently for those left behind who had been OK to accept the deviations… He was totally and deliberately amateur, genuinely unwilling to stick to the increasingly rigid script to which musicians must work live (i.e, turn up on time, respect commuters, be nice to those bringing their kids, play the hits, be good…) and utterly wonderful for it. It was that rarest of things; a genuinely unpredictable and unforeseeable show. Not many about these days; commoditised performance for ease of consumption.

Guardian Newspaper Article: 25 Years of Sub Pop

Quite a decent essay over at The Guardian detailing the ongoing history of Sub Pop. Rather like it for paying more attention to the post-Nirvana era and what happened next given how much work has been lavished on the pre-1990 history of Sub Pop’s first flourishing.

Album Dominance: Which Album did Nirvana Play the MOST?

How could I possibly let a week go by without taking time to play with a spreadsheet at some point or other? This would be a surprising, nay, shocking occurrence. Today’s question is rather a simple one; based on the data available at which album did Nirvana play most on stage?

I’ve talked before about album dominance in terms of how long it took for the number of songs played from Bleach to decline ( and about the total dominance of side A of each of Nirvana’s albums on stage ( This time it’s a more detailed, yet also simpler comparison of the thirteen songs on the 1992 CD of Bleach, versus the thirteen songs on the 1991 CD issue of Nevermind, versus the thirteen songs on the 1993 (European) CD of In Utero — plus sidebars on Incesticide and non-album Nirvana originals while we’re on the topic:

Songs Played Live_By Album

I wish, to be honest, I’d had this data put-together when I wrote the Dark Slivers book last year regarding the Incesticide album — it’s a notable point that the songs making up the Incesticide album were a far more significant component of the live history of Nirvana than those on In Utero which, entirely due to its late positioning in the history of the band, ends up being a relative rarity. The overall trend, quite visibly, is one based on longevity; Bleach, the earliest album is played more than Nevermind, which is played more than the pieces that came together on Incesticide, which is played more than the final studio effort In Utero.

On the other hand, the lengthening set-lists of Nirvana’s later period does have an influence in that, despite being released a full two and a half years after Bleach, Nevermind’s songs make only forty fewer appearances than those of its predecessor. In Utero would have caught up, at least to Incesticide, relatively quickly given the 20+ set-lists of 1994 in which Incesticide was racking up only single appearances, Bleach only three at most per show.

I think of this less as data and more as a reason to cherish certain songs’ rare appearances.
And what of the non-album tracks…? It’s always been very clear that Nirvana’s live selections were substantially guided by their degree of satisfaction with the songs. The result is that those songs that never made a Nirvana album don’t even make significant appearances live:


In total, buoyed substantially by Spank Thru’s 31 appearances, the overall total is still a paltry 72; lose that one song and we’re down to 41 known appearances in seven years by the fifteen other Nirvana non-album original compositions. That’s how clear Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were about how strong or weak their material was — and also how professional they were — nothing that needed major work stayed outside of a studio rendering for long nor survived long if not up to scratch. Given the existing ratio of appearances — album tracks appeared twelve times for every one appearance by a non-album track (72 versus 927)— there’s little reason to expect many unseen performances of these songs. Cherish them.

Just as amusing, showing the relativism inherent in any game with data on the move, if Nirvana had kept touring, Bleach would have been superseded by Nevermind as the most played Nirvana album within just eight more performances given the fact that throughout 1994 Nirvana were playing nine songs from Nevermind per night in comparison to Bleach’s three:

Nevermind_Catches Up

Which Songs Did Nirvana Play the Most? The Top X

As mentioned last week, it was Sappy that received the most notice in studio with multiple takes across four separate sessions placing it in a class of its own when it comes to Nirvana songs. Meanwhile, in another category of records, I was curious which songs were the staple diet of the Nirvana set-list between 1987-1994. The result was that, thanks to my colleague Shrikant Kabule, we created the full table of how many known performances were made across the years. This selection is the list of those songs known to have been played more than one hundred times.

Examining set lists had already identified Blew, About a Girl and School as the three tracks that survived from Bleach right through until Nirvana’s 1994 shows. School is the most impressive performer after all only 241 of Nirvana’s 369 known gigs possess full and complete set-lists; essentially, from the time it was written School featured including on quite a few partial set-lists. Tales of how nervous Kurt Cobain was of playing About a Girl don’t stop it being a similarly highly featured and beloved song for the band.

In past months I ranted about the way Nirvana gave near complete primacy to Side A rather than Side B of their albums when playing them live. The table below of most played songs shows that pattern holds in relation to Bleach where, of the six songs from that album that are played more than one hundred times, all are from Side A. The picture with Nevermind is slightly more mixed but not unsurprisingly. Firstly, the popularity of Drain You in concert is absolutely clear, in fact it’s only just behind Smells Like Teen Spirit, secondly, Territorial Pissings surprised me a little more but still, there it is as the seventeenth most played song. Just as noticeable though, the whole of Side A of Nevermind features on the list — Polly, Breed, SLTS, Lithium, CAYA, In Bloom.

Songs Played More than 100 Times

To some extent it’s still true that age makes a difference — the Bleach era songs, written prior to the big gap in set-lists in early 1989, are the only ones with sufficient opportunity to feature 200+ times — Polly was written as far back as 1987 and played from May 1989, Breed came along later in 1989. Yet, the tangle of creativity, Kurt Cobain’s peak writing years in 1990-1991, coincided with an explosion of touring allowing the appearances of his other songs to evade mere chronology; preferences begin to play a role. This, for example, explains why SLTS and Drain You, relatively late productions, should appear more than Lithium or In Bloom which, though featuring on the same album, made their first appearances a full year earlier — April 1990 as opposed to April 1991.

The gradual increase in Nirvana’s average set-list length also influences the results; head-liner status meant that even while many older songs were squeezed out to accomodate the In Utero era songs, a lot of songs survived because the set-lists in 1993-1994 were more than half a dozen songs longer than in 1990. The shorter set-lists and lower expectations in the early era made it more likely for songs to be flipped in and out regularly. Despite the lower number of shows after 1991, the set-lists had a greater regularity (particularly on the In Utero tour) so a core set of songs were able to rack up large numbers of appearances.

The table also emphasises how firmly focused on their albums Nirvana were; Spank Thru and Been a Son are the only non-album tracks to enter the list of songs played more than one hundred times. The popularity of the relatively slight Been a Son remains a mild mystery to me; it’s a song with the most solid presence on Nirvana posthumous releases on top of its multiple releases during Nirvana’s lifespan.

Bad News: Jonathan Poneman…

Some sad news affecting another of the crucial figures in the Nirvana/Sub Pop story.

It’s a reminder that, beyond the abnormal mortal end of Kurt Cobain, we’re entering the era where more and more regularly the people who lived through the age, who contributed some part of the tale, are going to leave us. Naturally first thoughts are a hope that Mr. Poneman is well looked after, comfortable and also feels a deep satisfaction with his life works so far.

Ultimately, while this blog is centred around Nirvana and the figure of Kurt Cobain it’s also intended to celebrate the many others who have some small piece of the story.