So I just watched Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York on DVD. This is a classic concert – an important concert to me. I’m not sure how great it is as I have a rather biased view towards Nirvana. I’m not their biggest fan. I think Kurt Cobain was often a bit of a twit. But I grew up during grunge’s peak. I remember buying Nevermind on tape – and listening to it (on tape!) on my walkman. It was a Saturday. I can remember heading in o Hastings (I wasn’t old enough to even drive at the time it was released). I got a ride into town, bought the tape and was frustrated that I had no real time to listen to it before cricket that day. So I took it with me and sat, trance-like listening to Kurt roll a bunch of marbles around in his mouth (aka singing) while I waited to bat. I remember I hit a six. And was caught on the boundary shortly after. That was a usual Saturday. Swing and a miss. Or caught by the ropes. I should have played softball.
But I digress.
Before that ever happened I remember visiting a family friend in Auckland. He was a drummer. With a double-bass pedal. So that made him cool to an aspiring drummer. He liked bands like Metallica and Suicidal Tendencies. I was still buying things like MC Hammer. But I was interested in all sorts. I remember he played me a vinyl copy of Nirvana’s Bleach. It was heavy. And I loved it.
Flash back forward.
By the time In Utero was released I was driving. I remember buying it from the same music store in Hastings; the one that has always been a music store. It was HMV. It was ECM. It was Sounds…oooh – I wonder what it will be next? (“Tonight Matthew I’m essentially a shell, an empty building with a few handfuls of remaindered stock in place of my soul…section…”)
I bought that inbetweener album, Incesticide from there too, actually. Same shop.
When Kurt Cobain died I was still in school. It meant a lot to me and a few of my friends. We had a memoriam, a wake. We all drank beers in the garage (it was essentially That Nineties Show – only not as many cameras, often only the one – held by the shaky hand of the guy who slept in said garage). A life-sized face of Kurt Cobain was cut out and pasted over the face of a life-sized poster of Hulk Hogan. We drove to Napier and gate-crashed a party where some bogan band was playing some bogan-song covers. Ah, we were young.
And I listened to the CD of Nirvana Unplugged a lot when I was at university. In fact I was often listening to it when I should have been attending classes.
I had seen the concert on video, of course. But it was a real blast to finally see it on DVD. It’s not a great visual feast, but it’s a cool set of songs. I still love the fact that Kurt chose to play, by my count, six covers in his set of 14 songs. He chose to highlight The Meat Puppets in the middle of a set by his own band. And he has this detached look, like he knows it’s all for crap, he’s a sell-out, selling grunge to people who drive convertibles. But he is like a wonderful post-modern folk singer (backed by a hippie-rock backing band) at the same time. He pulls it off. He sells out. But he pulls it off.
I have written a lot of poems about Kurt Cobain. Well, when I say a lot, I mean two or three. But that’s more than he perhaps deserves (if you ask some people). And it’s possibly not enough. I remember writing that “when Kurt Cobain put his brains/to the wall/with a shot-gun shot/he got a better reception/then at any concert…” (hey, I was young – and stoopid. I only have the one excuse these days…)
I also wrote a poem, a few years on, my own collaboration with Kurt Cobain. I took many of his words and shaped them in to a poem. I was rather proud of it. Hey, he got to collaborate with William S. Burroughs – I am certain he would’ve liked to collaborate with me, right?
But when all is said and done, I don’t love Kurt Cobain. But I like his songs. I love the fact that he was a fairly crap guitarist, with a raw, real voice – and yet he was a cool songwriter. Nirvana songs aren’t that different to early Beatles songs. Just listen. It’s the same simple ideas framing a version of innocence. There’s an anger and an energy. And just ask John Lydon, that’s what good rock music – and/or punk – needs.
There are extra features on the DVD, you can watch some rehearsals, there’s an interview with the band. Blah, blah, blah. Don’t buy (or rent, or borrow or stream) it for that. Watch it for the fact that it’s a time-warp, it is (for better or worse) the encapsulation of an era. And it is far better than watching a Smashing Pumpkins DVD or a Pearl Jam set could ever be. Fact.
I know Kurt has come a rather distant third in the tortured-touchstone stakes. Both chronologically and emotionally. He will never be Jim Morrison (lucky him, I say). And he’s closer, just, to Ian Curtis. But he’ll never hold a similar space as a rite of passage.
But have a watch of this DVD if you ever liked his songs or liked Nirvana. Just look at Dave Grohl, looking a lot like something he’d parody now in a video by his over-inflated band Foo Fighters.