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.