What’s Left? Re-examining the Live Record 1993-1994

Working from yesterday’s material regarding the scale of the gaps in the live record of Nirvana, I want to lay some hostages to fortune, a few gambles on what I feel may still be there.

Firstly, an easy one, 1994 — there’s not much left to see. There are three incomplete set-lists but no unknowns. I’ve kept the songs in the order they appear in the Nirvana Live Guide — the guide makes a real point of keeping songs in the order of performance — but the spacing added to January 1, 3 and 6, 1994, the three incomplete sets, is my own. It’s fairly easy, in my opinion, to work out the missing songs:

29Dec1993-8Feb1994 Set-Lists

We’re looking for common patterns and regular ‘units’, by which I mean sequences of songs that are almost always played together in a particular order. There are quite a few to observe. Firstly, the opening salvo of fourteen straight songs on the seven surrounding dates we’re using for comparison here are identical. We can go further to reinforce our case, that sequence of fourteen songs varied only three times during the 14 remaining shows in 1994; Rennes in France (a minute and a bit riff on My Sharona then a brief noise jam), Marino in Italy (a brief jam on Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden) and Nirvana’s final gig in Munich (inserting The Cars’ My Best Friend’s Girl as the opener). In each case, the interruption or insertion ended then the normal pattern resumed. Looking in the other direction the shift is just as minimal; Nirvana play the exact same sequence right the way back through December 1993 with the only changes being they skip Lithium on one occasion, they skip About a Girl on another. There’s one other notable exception we’ll return to tomorrow.

It’s the ‘back end’ of any gig where we see the set-lists still flexing a little but there are still discreet units that we can see in the dates around the partially known set-lists. Firstly, the Rape Me/Territorial Pissings/Jesus Don’t Want me for a Sunbeam trio is a rigid feature fitting perfectly into the known details of January 3 and 6 — there’s nothing suggesting that unit would have changed. Likewise, the songs making up the ending are consistent, a combination of All Apologies, On a Plain, Scentless Apprentice, Heart Shaped Box and Blew. These songs do drop in and out — for example, the Nirvana Live Guide states that an attendee reports Scentless Apprentice wasn’t played on January 1, 1994 which would still be consistent with both December 30 and January 4. We have no way of knowing what combination was used but I’d put money on it being an iteration of these five songs on those three unknown dates.

The only unusual feature I’d be willing to gamble on seeing would be the possibility of a single song; we might see Where did you Sleep Last Night. The song was played only once in 1994, in Paris on February 14. That makes the December 31, 1993 performance the penultimate live rendition, unless, on January 1 or 3, that song makes its last but one appearance. That’s what might be hidden here if the available, comparable data indicates realistic possibilities.

Of course…There’s always room for unrealistic possibilities, for wish fulfilment and dreams. Maybe something unpredictable did happen, maybe one of these three shows saw the equivalent of the Off Ramp performance of 1990 where Nirvana hauled out every rarity they could think of; or maybe there was a single rarity or last hurrah (like the one-off appearances Sappy made at the start and end of February); or maybe the band, on a whim, decided to rewrite the entire set-list for one show only — we’ll talk about that tomorrow — but this puts us into the realms of fantasy. Cold weighing up suggests we know exactly which songs were played on those three nights; the first fourteen songs, in order, then the aforementioned trio, then some combination of the closing five possibly with a Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

What’s Left? Re-examining the Live Record

I hold out little hope of many genuine Nirvana originals remaining unreleased, though it’d be nice to draw together more polished versions via an official channel of the remaining pieces left from the studio record and to expand the rehearsal and home demo pool. I feel, however, that I’ve underestimated the live arena as a potential source of intrigue…

Firstly, a thank you to my comrade Shrikant for doing so much good work for me — the inspiration for this exercise and the data work required to visualise it and express it. The completeness of the record of Nirvana set-lists and performances is remarkable as demonstrated by a glance at the Nirvana Live Guide. It is not complete though. It’s the gaps between knowing that are of most interest here. The table below inverts one that I’ve used regularly and instead of showing how many performances are known it shows how many aren’t:

Unknown Shows_Number-Percentage_1987-1994

That’s a curious thought, that the two-thirds of known shows have exposed a wealth of unusual jams, covers, a few alternative versions — but that there’s a third of Nirvana’s shows, 128 gigs, that could, theoretically, still be found.

We can go further and actually suggest how many songs there are lost within that realm to at least a moderate range of possibility. The fully known set lists allow us to define an ‘average’ number of songs played per gig throughout the band’s career — of course the range from peak to trough is wider so an alternative is to look at the normal range to try and give a more stable indicator of what might be possible here. Discounting 1987 (the average is nine given the two known live gigs, not counting the radio performance, featured eight songs and ten songs respectively) we can work out roughly how many more Nirvana live songs are out there:

Average No of Songs_Range_1987-1994

So. If, by a miracle, it turned out that Nirvana had been scrupulous at retaining tapes of their own live shows or set-list records, and the Nirvana camp were willing to open up that archive to fans, there are three figures that we could consider to stoke or temper our fervour. If things stayed tight to the average we’d be looking at 1,971 as yet unknown song performances. If the remaining shows strayed toward the lower end of the range, then we’d only be dropping down to 1,506 songs, but if our dreams were realised and the treasure trove hit the higher end of the normal range then there could be the amazing sum of 2,445 unheard Nirvana performances waiting to be savoured.

It’s a comforting thought. It’s lovely knowing that whatever dissection and parsing I conduct here, there are still somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 ways my more gloomy conclusions could be proven badly wrong. Brilliant! In the meantime I’ll keep an eye on the Nirvana Live Guide and keep hoping for ever more people to come forward filling in the gaps.

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 and Live Covers: 1992-1994

After the happy peak of 1990-1991, it feels sad to bring this little series crashing back down. The following graph shows the sum total of Nirvana originals appearing in set-lists for the final two and a half years of the band’s existence:

New Originals_1992-1994

As pointed out the other week in a blog comment, there’s a rumour that I Hate Myself and I Want to Die was played in 1993 — I’ve stuck to the Nirvana Live Guide as it stood in December 2012 for the time being. It’s intriguing really to see the band revert to a pattern most similar to 1987 or 1988 where they weren’t playing many shows…But the reduction in workload also seems to have reduced the amount of new works being creating. There’s a idiom my mum uses sometimes “the less you have to do, the less you do,” that sometimes pressure helps get results. Nirvana’s live shows derail the pattern of 1989-1991. 1992 gives the impression of a rabbit in headlights, too scared to move in any direction for fear of what might happen:

Cover Songs_1992-1994

The work rate of 1989-1991 required a band that were practising solidly, working up new covers and so used to playing together night-after-night that they could readily lock into each new selection seamlessly. The band could still pull out a solid cover if they’d practiced (Seasons in the Sun, The Money Will Roll Right In, The Man Who Sold the World) but most of these covers are bare skin n’ bone. The January 1993 deluge in Sao Paolo was the result of Kurt barely being willing to play; the band had to swap instruments, Kurt on drums, and plod through covers just to fill their contractually obliged stage time with Krist lobbing his bass at Kurt and storming off in sheer frustration at one point.

While 1989, 1990 and 1991 were so busy each year required its own screen shot, the full summary of 1992-1994 is as follows:

New Live 1992-1994

Each year from 1989-1991 the band had been knocking out twelve new original Nirvana songs a year on stage, in 1992, they manage one, in 1993 they rocket up to eight…Then nothing. 1992 is a write-off, 1993 relies on cover songs to maintain the stepped momentum, 1994…

No words.

Another way of looking at it is to examine how many new songs or covers Nirvana knocked out in how many shows:

Nirvana New Live Divided

Of course 1987 is irrelevant given how skewed it is by their first performance (all new!), also 1988 suffers from the extensive gaps in the set-list record. The pattern across the succeeding years are fairly solid, however, Nirvana were cranking out a new song ever two/three shows 1989-1991, even the large number of set-lists available for the extensive touring in 1991 can’t substantially dilute the result — this was one hard-working band. It does make 1993 look like a resurgence, heck, Nirvana are pulling fresh originals on stage at the same rate as they do in 1991, roughly one new song for every five shows. The cover number is buoyed up to a ridiculous level by Sao Paolo and MTV Unplugged in 1993. In fact, removing those two shows, each a special circumstance, from the equation and just looking at their ordinary gigs would bring the stat down to 0.14, a fresh cover appearance every ten shows or so, the same as 1992, the same as 1994.

As usual, it all depends how you look at things, how you want to see things…What the hey. It’s fun to play with the point of view.

Nirvana Live and Live Covers 1990-1991

The live record shows the lengthy gestation period leading into what became Nevermind. Polly arrived first as part of Cobain’s acoustic ‘experiments’ from 1987-1988, then Breed as part of the fuzzy sounding punk tunes appearing in late 1989. The 1990 record shows two distinct phases, firstly, the flurry of Lithium, Stay Away and In Bloom in March-April, then the first appearance of Something in the Way later in the year.

 New Originals_1990

Seven of Nevermind’s thirteen songs were then drip-fed into the set between January and August 1991:

New Originals_1991

That single November 1990 show at The Off Ramp in Seattle tops LiveNirvana’s Overall Best Shows list for good reason given the cornucopia of thrills on offer. The show was a real statement from the band with new songs and rare old songs flung into the set with abandon. It looks like Nirvana’s victory lap; it must have really stretched and tested them performing so much material that was so rarely a part of their shows, or that had only just come into existence. With thirty-one songs performed in total it’s also the longest show the band ever performed barring the far less cheerful occasion of Sao Paolo in January 1993. This was their party and listening to it now, the enthusiasm, the “we’ve made it!” happiness is so audible.

The overall trend commenced in 1989 remains solid throughout 1990 and 1991; there’s a new Nirvana original entering the set every single month. Still accepting the limitations of the record (64% of 1990’s set-lists are known and 75% of 1991’s) the regular refreshing of the pool of songs is remarkable. These were the peak years of Kurt Cobain’s writing and each year 1989-1991 twelve new Nirvana songs can be proven to have entered Nirvana’s set.

Looking at the 1990-1991 live arrivals also shows the transition in Nirvana’s sound very clearly. In 1989 Bleach’s grunge dirge phase passes away to be replaced by a lighter tone, yet still the Nirvana ‘formula’ verse-chorus dynamic hasn’t yet clunked into place. The three tracks that appear in early 1990 inaugurate the spell during which the stereotype ‘Nirvana sound’ holds sway. Usually one thinks of Nevermind and In Utero as separate objects but listening to the songs appearing in the spell from March 1990 through November 1991 brings a lot of similarities into tighter focus. The furthest the band went from the norm in that time was going quiet (Something in the Way, Dumb) or going all out noisy (Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Curmudgeon.)

Cover Songs_1990

The record of covers being played over these two years continues to show the musically omnivorous nature of Nirvana —  they’re grabbing at songs from across the spectrum of rock; their punk tastes are a firm presence in 1990; they’re chucking brief snatches into the set-list spontaneously alongside more practiced and full renditions.

Cover Songs_1991

Despite the break in performance in late 1990-early 1991 the band continue almost as if this two year spell is all one long trek, there’s no change in the patterns. One intriguing decision is to start using either Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam or L’Amour Est Un Oiseau Rebelle as the set-openers. It seems to be a way to defuse the craziness in the moshpit, starting with mellow songs to calm everything down before ratcheting things back up as the performance proceeds.

These years were the pinnacle of Nirvana as a live experience and as creative musicians. The sheer quantity and quality of what they were throwing on stage, this is a million miles from the bands that tour a single barely shifting set-list across a hundred shows. The band are showing such complete enthusiasm and love for performing and for music, it’s part of the buzz around Nirvana, the much-vaunted ‘energy’ that they were bringing to stages at this point in time. It also shows their self-assurance, that they were such skilled masters of the stage by this point that they could deviate from the script at will, could shift gears at a moment’s notice. It’s such a busy two years it takes me two screen shots to capture it:

New Live 1990 New Live 1991

This was a band that could do anything.

 

Nirvana Live: Covers 1987-1989

Cover Songs_1987-1988

The regular arrival of fresh covers reinforces the point made in yesterday’s blog that, particular in the early days, while new songs may not have arrived too swiftly in 1987, the set could still be spiced up a little. What is noticeable is that, though accepting that there are gaps in the record, there’s no evidence of the band displaying the punk side of its tastes — they stay solidly reliant on hard rock and pop despite the inclusion of quite a few late Sixties-early Seventies oddities. This seems in part a fair reflection of the band’s own taste and also a crowd-pleasing match for the Led Zeppelin worship prevalent in the Seattle scene of the day.

Cover Songs_1989

Nirvana’s work is full of wonderful symmetries, some coincidences, others not. One I particularly like is that Do You Love Me’s performance in June marks the passing of that early hard rock spell in Nirvana cover songs. November then marks the new life, Lead Belly arrives in the set-list, The Vaselines; the songs that would mark the alternative identity the band was happier to place on vinyl after that time. A second passing took place at the same time, however. In the early spell, with the exception of the tribute to Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick, the band were playing mainly full, if ragged, covers. With certain key exceptions over the years to come (i.e., the songs that made it onto Incesticide or that were reprised for MTV Unplugged) an awful lot of Nirvana’s live covers became brief bass jams, or snippets covering up restringing, retuning, other on stage logistics and live administration.

Seeing the first two years, originals and covers altogether, emphasizes how hard-working this band was in their performances:

New Live 1987-1988

Similarly, 1989 — this was a band working exceedingly hard learning, practising and performing new songs month after month. It can’t have come easy, this was a triumph of will and the desire to excel in performance. They could have simply whacked out the same set-list over and again but instead there’s a visible striving to do more:

New Live 1989

Nirvana Cover Songs 1987-1994

This week we’ve been looking at the graphs showing the trends in Nirvana’s introduction of new songs to live performances. To be fair, the sheer quantity of material Nirvana are pulling out of the hat, the amount being created or learned in a relatively tight period of time, it’s unsurprising that sustaining the pace of 1987-1991 would prove difficult if not impossible. Some other time we’ll compare Nirvana’s live touring to that of other bands but, as a statement of belief, Nirvana never exactly spent a vast amount of time on the road, they had many breaks, plenty of time off. That perhaps allowed them the time to learn more material than the average band so while their live ‘presence’ might be lower than that of other bands, the originality of those performances was untouchable for a long time.

In terms of cover songs, the band introduced some 64 songs to their known performances though shreds of other songs did appear (i.e., The Who’s I’m a Boy, Bette Midler’s The Rose for example.) The table below shows every cover song listed on NirvanaGuide.com:

Nirvana Cover Songs_Total

Given the sheer number of songs the band attempted live it’s likely that the unknown set-lists and missing recordings actually conceal a significant number of other renditions. I don’t have that faith that many unheard Nirvana originals are hidden there, but I’m fairly comfortable believing that the band attempted other covers — they seemed to use cover songs as a way of covering up the ‘logistics’ of stage performance whether restringing guitars, checking equipment and so forth. Many of the performances are just snatches, not full songs, but the quantity is impressive. On the other hand, reading the list, it’s hard to equate the hard rock orientated direction with the declarations of punk or alternative rock fidelity — The Wipers, Fang, The Knack, Viletones, The Clash, Black Flag, Melvins, that’s it on the punk front, the rest is firmly mainstream, solidly pop rock.

Sao Paolo, sadly, features as both the most extensive set of covers the band ever did live…But it’s famed as a concert the band could barely be bothered to play. One element I’d draw attention to is that, once fame hit and the Nirvana experience went sour, quite a few of the covers were increasingly sarcastic, sneering jibes aimed at the band’s own success; My Sharona, the whole of the Sao Paolo event, The Rose and The Star-Spangled Banner, The Money Will Roll Right In. It’s a shame the use of cover songs lost so much of its happiness. MTV Unplugged in New York was also another performance of that year that depended on covers but we’ll discuss it later today.

Nirvana Covers_1987-1994

The sheer quantity of songs the band introduced is incredible. At first there’s a cover used in every early month for which a set-list exists which suggests the band was bulking out their set with covers. But the run the band goes on from late 1989 through 1991 is impressive; half of the live covers appear between November 1989 and December 1991.

Nirvana Originals Live: Month-by-Month 1987-1994

Nirvana Originals_1987-1994

Nirvana played some 67 original Kurt Cobain/Nirvana compositions in the seven years the band performed live. Yet it becomes very clear how low on fresh material the band were getting in the years post-fame. A grand total of 58 of those new additions to the set-list came prior to the end of 1991. To borrow a phrase from the British monarchy, it emphasises that 1992 was Nirvana’s annus horribilis with only Tourette’s, a song that almost counts as Nirvana’s only officially released instrumental (the lyrics aren’t exactly a priority with that track), entering set-lists. 1993 rapidly ran out of steam too but that’s well-known; post-October not a single new Nirvana original. What concealed the weakness of Nirvana’s archive was the way so much material was carried over from prior to fame, enough material to fuel half of the In Utero era releases. It also emphasises how many of the new songs developed in late 1992/early 1993 were considered throw-aways even by the band, jammed together at the last-minute thanks to an album deadline; Moist Vagina, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die never enter the set as far as can be seen.

It’d be more understandable if performances of new songs in the early years were missed; there are greater gaps in the available record of set-lists. Post-1991, however, at least 75% of set-lists are known for each year – it’s far less likely there’s an error or that fans have overlooked a song. As the clearest example, as described in the book Dark Slivers, it’s highly likely that Big Long Now was played sometime in the first half of 1989 given other supporting evidence and despite the absence of an actual live recording.

Nirvana were also comprehensive in their use of the live arena to road-test material. In fact every Nirvana song released on a compilation or single appeared in concert…Until 1993 where we’re missing Marigold, Moist Vagina and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die – only the well-known (and persistent) Sappy reappeared. In the early years it’s only the songs that Kurt never shared with the band – Don’t Want it All, Beans, Creation/Bambi Slaughter/Bambi Kill (unknown real name) – that don’t appear though Mrs. Butterworth never, apparently, made it out of the rehearsal room. That desire to enliven the band’s own experience playing live, by playing songs they hadn’t attempted before or often, was a very strong feature of the ‘fun years’ of Nirvana. But it apparently went missing on the In Utero tour…The stability and lack of freshness is so clear.

Nirvana Live: New Songs By Month 1987-1994

Around May I started working on a spreadsheet showing each month in which a Nirvana song appeared. Understandably other priorities (i.e., writing, re-writing, re-re-writing Dark Slivers) took over and it was unlikely I was ever going to finish.

…Until that is my friend, Mr. Shrikant Kabule, took a shot at it. My absolute gratitude to Shrikant for his hard work on this! I was thrilled to see it! He focused on one objective – showing when Nirvana played a new song or cover:

Songs_Live_By Month_1987-1994

As you might be able to tell, we’re going to have to take it piece by piece, but what I wanted to focus on today was the overall pattern; essentially Nirvana played a new original, or a new cover song (or slice thereof) almost every month during which they performed live throughout their entire career for which a set-list, or part thereof, exists.

Using the stats at the Nirvana Live Guide (check it! It’s brilliant – thanks to Kris and Mike) its amazing to see how many of Nirvana’s setlists are known in full (241 of 369 shows):

Set Lists 1987-1994

The gaps in the record of the early years make it likely that covers and originals have been overlooked (see Dark Slivers chapter Songs The Lord Taught Us for discussion of Big Long Now) but the later years are heavily covered, particularly 1992 and 1994. This makes the trend stand out even more – up until 1992 there had only been two months (December 1988 and March 1991) in which no unheard material was performed. Suddenly in 1992 the band perform in seven months yet there are five months in which they play no new songs. In 1993 there’s at least a fresh flush of covers and originals but again, it tails off until, from December 1993 onward the covers of My Sharona and My Best Friend’s Girl are the only things they can come up with.

The Most Popular Kurt Cobain Photos

This is a light-hearted inquiry for a Sunday AM. I was wondering what people felt was their favourite Kurt Cobain/Nirvana photo. I decided to use Twitter and Facebook as sample groups; I studied 377 profiles on the former, 275 on the latter — that seemed a more than ample number. I was expecting more of the ‘Vandalism: Beautiful as Rock in a Cop’s Face’ (credit for that line goes to The Feederz a band I recommend), a few of the Charles Peterson shots from the Sept 1990 show at the Motor Sports International Garage, the Niels Van Iperen shots from Nov 1991…

My immediate realization was that the desire to differentiate and distinguish their pages meant people were using an astounding variety of photos. It was clear that, even when paying homage and pledging allegiance to the memory of Nirvana, the desire to stand out as an individual drove even something so simple as the chosen profile picture.

What really stood out is that the period of photos used most rarely were those from the 1992 spell of Kurt with short hair when (frankly) he looked extremely ill indeed. Perhaps that explained the scarcity of the Martyn Goodacre Oct 1990 NME shot — you know the one, eye make-up, saddest expression in the world, big open eyes straight to camera. There seemed to be a desire to avoid the mournful images in favour of photos that still possessed either stolid handsomeness or a certain dreamy-eyed wistfulness.

So, the number one and number two respectively were:

They’re both from a late 1993 shoot with Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone. Variations on both of them abound in the sample group and I counted them as one entry. I was surprised how often the actual Rolling Stone magazine cover itself was used — this exact shot. There was genuinely a greater uniformity among non-English language sites. It occurred to me that outside of the U.S./U.K. markets that Rolling Stone is still one of the key music magazines distributed — when I’ve been abroad it’s a near guaranteed presence on the news-stands. This familiarity maybe accounts for how common it is. It also seems likely that the photos people selected were bonded to their own early memories of the band; hence the preponderance of these shots and of, as we’ll see, MTV photos. This isn’t to underestimate the fact that the Seliger photos captured Kurt at possibly a peak of sheer beauty; this is a very photogenic young man:

This is the rest of the top ten. I was surprised by the prevalence of the With the Lights Out cover but, again, access and familiarity seem to be crucial factors in the popularity of a photo; this was a rare Nirvana release in the sense of having a very clear photo of the band on the cover, plus as the last highly-anticipated, genuinely exciting Nirvana release it formed the high point of many people’s musical-engagement with the band.

What was far rarer were casual early or amateur photos. People seem to prefer the more formal photo shoots presumably for the crispness of the images. Likewise, I didn’t see one photo of Kurt with Frances Bean anywhere in the 600+ sample. The degree to which the Nirvana cult is actually a Kurt Cobain cult was very clear — even band photos were a rarity, let alone letting Courtney into a shot. The preference was also for shots from after Nirvana achieved fame; the oldest photos here are precisely Oct-Nov 1991; right after Nevermind. Again, I’m simply guessing that it’s a combination of being the closest match to people’s memories, the best quality, the greatest access. To be fair, Kurt Cobain was certainly a man who ‘grew into one’s looks’; his gawky teenhood and early twenties aren’t the hallowed images of a latter-day saint.

I’m unsure of where the photo at top left comes from, the next (plus the one at the end of top row) are from a Michael Lavine shoot for Sassy magazine, the next is from MTV’s Live and Loud performance. On the bottom row, A.J. Barratt’s shoot for NME in November 1991; MTV Unplugged in New York; the Hilversum radio session in November 1991.

A final comment would be to note the focus on eyes open to camera photos. It seems a bolt of the blindingly obvious to say one doesn’t remember people through photos of their forearms or their ankles. As human beings we’re conditioned to seek out connection, emotion, a sense of a person — photos as memorials are precisely that. If it was simply an attempt to preserve the physical person then a photo of any part of their body would be equally satisfactory. The simple fact that in a sample of over 600 chosen photos it was always the face to which people felt the connection indicates that it’s that attempt to meet the personality, the mind and soul that drives people when handling and observing photos.

In Kurt Cobain’s case, people didn’t choose smiles but they didn’t choose unhappiness. What was chosen was the inscrutable expressions, the apparent openness found in the eyes balanced against the closed mouth. It’s far rarer to find photos of Kurt smiling in general but it seems the ‘unknowingness’ of these images appealed — the man we’ll never know deeper.