Nirvana Live: Missing From Action Part Two

It’ll be no surprise to learn that a lot of Incesticide’s early material suffers from the limitations of our vision at twenty years distance. Yet, what is noticeable is more the centrality of some songs to Nirvana’s live identity in the early days. Mexican Seafood is remarkable, it’s present in every fully known set-list from March 1987 when the band first perform, until February 1989 just days before the band departs for their first gigs in California. Hairspray Queen and Aero Zeppelin have a similar dependability which elevates these three songs above the rarities described in Part One of this piece, as well as above a number of the dashed off last-minute additions to Bleach. It certainly looks like these three songs were held in higher affection than the barely performed Scoff or Swap Meet.

As an aside on those two songs, it’s fascinating how deep Nirvana’s collective memory was; they seem never to banish a song from mind; Scoff and Swap Meet are reprised in September 1991 and June 1992 respectively as cases in point. It’s a fascinating working practice specifically related to the way they play their live performances; songs are stashed away, like Vendetagainst, then after a year, two years, out of favour, they’re given an airing. It suggests that, at least from 1987-1992, there was substantial practice going on behind the scene to keep a solid grip on the lesser songs. On the one hand, it gives credibility to the rumours about songs like Clean Up Before She Comes, Opinion and Talk to Me springing to life in the Cobain basement in 1994 — no song seems to have been forgotten if there was any use that could be made of it. On the other hand, it makes one wonder why Mrs. Butterworth, utterly unseen, invisible, unknown (and actually unnamed) until the With the Lights Out box-set was erased so thoroughly alongside, according to Gillian G. Gaar, two other 1987 compositions. The song stands alongside Big Long Now as a genuine ghost in the catalogue; a song with a murky past, a gossamer thin presence, and no future.

Similarly, Beeswax looks ever more like a lucky addition to the January 23, 1988 session and doubly-lucky to still merit a place on Incesticide. The song receives just two work-outs in 1988 with only one intervening show at which its presence is therefore likely. This is a no more impressive record than Annorexorcist or Rauchola, Downer, If You Must and Pen Cap Chew are all given more visible shots as part of the Nirvana live experience.

While all of Nevermind gets its day on stage, the higher percentage of available set-lists makes the rapid fall off in appearances from certain songs at least noteworthy. Lounge Act is the very last of the Nevermind tracks to make it on stage and the quickest to depart; after that one show in Ireland it crops up just once more that year, returning only in 1992 to make inconsistent appearances in sets throughout the year.

When it comes to In Utero, the drawn out nature of the album’s creation is the greatest point of note. The first appearances of Milk It in January, plus Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol’s only known appearance, is slightly misleading given it was only a soundcheck appearance, it’s April before the band really give it a full live shot. There’s still an ‘outlier’, however, on the album just as Scoff and Swap Meet were on Bleach, just as Lounge Act was on Nevermind. Very Ape doesn’t make an appearance until late July, it serves a purpose on the album but fades from the live set only to be brought back in to pep things up for 1994. It’s curious that the song should follow the exact same trajectory as Lounge Act, again, it’s a positive feature that even on the In Utero tour there was some apparent desire to add at least some freshness to playing, the reappearance of Sappy after a long absence also bearing this out.

There is a persistent tendency to trial songs live, for a month, two months, at a time then move on. Thus tracks like Curmudgeon, Sappy, Talk to Me, Oh The Guilt, Verse Chorus Verse receive brief flurries of activity then either vanish permanently, or vanish until the next time the band are considering the need for songs for future releases. This fits with Kurt Cobain’s method of writing; most lyrics seem to be written in a flurry of inspiration, tweaked for a short period, then concluded – potentially with later rewriting before a recording session. He never seems to have mused on a song for lengthy periods (six months, a year…) even if a song remained unused for that long. Thus the appearances and disappearances mark renewed enthusiasm, keeping a song in mind, then putting it away again. He doesn’t seem to have ever wholly forgotten many songs though, especially after 1989.

On the other hand, in the late spell, the enthusiasm for working songs over seems to vanish. As someone commented the other week, there’s a rumour that I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, but no definitive confirmed sighting in 1993-94. You Know You’re Right appears once in full form (plus its main riff appears in an on stage noise jam), M.V. doesn’t appear at all, Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol makes it into a soundcheck apparently but that’s it. These songs were functional items fulfilling a need for extra material to be used wherever. Their absence from setlists simply confirms there B-Side status.

Nirvana Live: Missing From Action Part One

There were clear gaps in the live record, songs that showed up far later than seems realistic or that simply don’t show up at all. This post is just a brief look at those two circumstances.

The early days of the band were deservedly the core of Gillian G. Gaar’s latest book Entertain Us. Beyond the reprised tale of rags to riches, the early days retain a mystery. The band’s rising status and ‘most likely crossover success’ status in 1990 owed a lot to Sub Pop’s success at shoving a low-selling strictly local scene onto a global stage — in 1987-1988 this was just one band in a field of thousands. The live stats support this with just 7 of 30 set-lists known:

Set Lists 1987-1994

Understandably this leads to a raft of suggestive stats. As a first example, the fact that Annorexorcist appears in the set-list in mid-1987 and then again six months later in January 1988 suggests it likely featured at two further intervening shows. Likewise, given it was a leftover from Fecal Matter, there’s a possibility it may have appeared at the two shows prior to its May 1987 appearances. Raunchola (A.K.A. Erectum) flops into the territory of God knows — a first appearance in January 1988, a last appearance in March with just one intermediate show, yet then a space of sixteen performances until the next fully revealed set. There’s simply no way of knowing when either song died out. There is, however, good reason to believe there was more live life to them than there strictly limited edition status. Pen Cap Chew and If You Must also have a chequered history; they appear at the start of 1987, are excluded from the May gig (though Pen Cap Chew did make the KAOS Radio performance), then reappear in January-March 1988. In conversation with Jack Endino early in 2012 he stated, with regard to If You Must “…at the time we recorded it (Jan 88), they were opening their set with it. Much later he decided he didn’t like it, who knows why.” There’s a good chance that he’s correct and that both songs featured in the final two gigs of 1987 but then hard to discern if the January 23, 1988 appearance was their final showing or if they made some brief resurrection later in the year.

We’re looking at the gap between reality and posthumous truth. Vendetagainst (A.K.A. Help Me, I’m Hungry) exists for a brief appearance in 1987…Then a gap of 83 shows and 29 months until it pops up twice; November 5 and 8 with a gap of one show. Blandest, only ever seen on June 11, 1988 in studio, likewise appears for two shows in July. Blandest may have been present at the eight ‘ghost’ shows between March and that date, or the show a week later in Ellensburg. It’s also hard to believe that the song wasn’t featured at all earlier.

On a related note, it isn’t a surprise Chad Channing knowing Blandest, but it’s unusual that he would be aware of Vendetagainst, a song recorded a full year before his arrival in the band. I’m speculating but, in the month pause between their show in August 1989 and the commencement of touring in late September, the band seems to have decided to take stock of the songs they had left in reserve and trained up on them. During this phase the band are varying elements of their set almost nightly, it’s as if they’re keeping material alive with new releases in mind. The set is knee-deep in, as yet, unreleased songs; Token Eastern Song, Dive, Polly, Even in His Youth, Breed, Vendetagainst, Sappy, even a jam on Hairspray Queen. Nirvana were a very smart unit, already one eye to the future and a range of possibilities.

While unsurprising that the rarities are conspicuous by their relative absence from the live record, it’s fun to consider the fate of a certain portion of Bleach. Essentially the gaps in the known set-lists cast a veil over the likely presence of some songs. Blew, Mr. Moustache and Sifting were all given a first airing in June 1988 in studio, but eight set-lists are unknown meaning it’s October 30, 1988 before the songs are first seen. Likewise, it’s unlikely that Negative Creep and Scoff were first performed when they’re first ‘visible’ to us twenty years later, in April and May 1989 respectively given they were definitely finalised and recorded by the start of the year and there are ten shows leading up to the known displays.

The most remarkable disappearances from the Bleach sessions are Big Long Now (I dissect it’s likely performance in the Songs The Lord Taught Us chapter of the Dark Slivers book) and the way Swap Meet doesn’t appear at all until November 1990 — that gap for the latter just doesn’t ring true. A further curious feature is that, with the exception of Blew, the ‘late arrivals’ from Bleach into the Nirvana live record are all clustered toward the back-end of the album. Apparently Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman were involved in deciding how to sequence Bleach and it’s quite intriguing that those songs that were rushed into place to fill out the album, that weren’t ready for live performance until late 1988 or even later in 1989, were all shoved to the rear. The first side of Bleach places some of the band’s earlier recorded works (Floyd the Barber, Love Buzz, Paper Cuts) to the front of the album so it seems Sub Pop were aware at the time that certain songs were rush-jobs.

Nirvana Live: 1987-1989

Tail end of last year we started looking at a chart showing the first appearances of Nirvana songs in concert as detailed at the Nirvana Live Guide — shall we continue?

New Originals_1987-1988

Naturally it’s worth disregarding the tranche of new songs in March — anything they played was by definition a new performance given it was Nirvana’s first show. What’s most noticeable really is how many of the songs emerging in 1987 and the first month of 1988 were simply discarded; Hairspray Queen, Aero Zeppelin (these two until 1992), Beeswax (until 1991), Downer, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew, Annorexorcist, Vendetagainst, Erectum/Raunchola — most of an album is thrown away by the end of January 1988. The speed with which new songs were appearing would be impressive were it not for the fact that the band wasn’t exactly overworked at the time so there was plenty of time to come up with new songs. The issue was perhaps one related to the nature of the songs being created — Nirvana’s 1987 identity lay in relatively complex new wave songs, with extremely long-winded lyrics, hardly conducive to fast preparation. To be fair, Kurt Cobain was honest in saying that he was hardly a constant or prolific writer, he relied on catching the moments of inspiration and getting them noted down, recorded, before they burnt out. 1987 still relied on three year old songs refreshed and reprised from their Fecal Matter form to flesh out the setlist. On the other hand, wow, almost every month Nirvana perform (and for which a set-list is available) there’s a new song featured. The band were moving at speed.

Of course, particularly in the early years, we’re looking at a record with gaps — a particularly low percentage of set-lists from 1987-1988 are present, even in 1989 only just over 50%. Given Mr. Moustache and Sifting were present in vestigial form back at the June 1988 recording sessions for the first Sub Pop single, it’s likely they made it onstage for the first time during the seven-eight shows seen between that recording session and the next full set-list on October 30. Likewise it seems unlikely that the apparent appearance of Blandest in July 1989 was the first or only time the song received an airing before its abandonment:

New Originals_1989

What’s also interesting is the ‘late’ arrival of a handful of the tracks from Bleach. A good portion of Bleach was written long before the album session, however, there was significant rewriting of Blew, Sifting and Mr. Moustache after their first appearance and as late as mid-December (evidenced by the footage captured on the With the Lights Out DVD.) Meanwhile, the fact Negative Creep and Scoff don’t make any showing of any sort until April-May 1989, though partially a consequence of the long gap in the record, also suggests that those two songs specifically were last minute hurried additions to Bleach; the brevity of their lyrics likewise.

The nearly uniform month by month drip of new songs is quite remarkable in 1989, December is the first month in which the band play that year (even if only a smattering of shows) in which they don’t chuck either a fresh original, or a rarity into the mix. It says a lot about their desire to keep the experience of playing entertaining that they vary their shows so much. It made sense in 1987 through early 1989 when the band were repeatedly replaying Washington State venues (take a look back at the maps on this blog) — they’d be seeing the same audiences quite regularly — yet, from mid-1989 they were setting off on their travels, the audiences were brand new to Nirvana’s performances, the knowledge and trade of Nirvana rarities was minimal, the only people who would know it was a new song, or an abandoned track, were the band. I feel that it was for the band’s own pleasure that they made these efforts to vary their performances.