Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
The 'Days Between Stations' columns, Interview magazine 1992-2008: Nirvana unplugs the new order
Soundtrack for the day after the congressional elections, and the days after that:
Led Zeppelin, “When the Levee Breaks”
Fastbacks, “In America”
Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come” (set on replay and leave the house)
Bob Dylan, “Memphis Blues Again”
Rod Stewart, “I’ve Been Drinking”
Eleventh Dream Day, “It’s Not My World” (set on replay and lock the door from the inside)
Destroy All Monsters, 1974-1976
Anything by Nirvana
Some of these numbers may be hard to find. The Rod Stewart heartbreaker is a twenty-seven-year-old track from a Jeff Beck album. The Destroy All Monsters material is a three-CD compendium of experiments by a Detroit antirock band that included since-celebrated visual artist Mike Kelley—I like the group's sound, but these days what I'm really playing is their name. Listening to Nirvana is no problem, unless listening to someone who isn't here is a problem.
Last April 8, the day Kurt Cobain's body was found, a friend's roommates came home to find her sitting on the floor amid what looked like the residue of a party; there were empty bottles lined up all along the wall. "Who was here?" they asked. "Just me," she said. Cobain's strange suicide left a lot of people feeling that alone—that isolated, stranded, exiled in rooms locked from the inside. He committed the ultimate solitary act and, by means of a suicide note addressed in part to his fans, made it a public act. In his note he mapped the void between fandom and stardom, the void that forces everyone to one side or the other, that forces each of us to play one role or the other; the only way he could refuse the choice the void demanded, he said, was to choose the void itself. He thus became, as critic Howard Hampton wrote so cruelly, with such sorrow, "for the first time anywhere the self-assassinating rock star, John Lennon and Mark Chapman as a one-man band, doing a command performance of that old Sonic Youth favorite: 'Kill Yr. Idols."
"Come as You Are" has been on the radio ever since Cobain died—standing in for everything else Nirvana ever did, it seems—probably because whatever it is that makes a medium into a medium can't resist the kick of making Kurt Cobain shout, "I SWEAR THAT I DON'T HAVE A GUN," all day long. And a little more than a half-year after his suicide cut off whatever history Nirvana might have still been able to make, the group is back in the front racks.
Recorded November 18, 1993, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York is merely as unique as the group was. With cellist Lori Goldston swaying in the background, the set creates an odd drama of resolute, self-deprecating, almost casual daring—a band daring demons to come down and mess up the music that's being made. The sound on Nirvana's own songs is hollowed out; it's less that a dimension of the music is missing than that it's been sucked into what remains. On the songs by others that Nirvana plays—the Vaselines' "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam"; David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World"; the Meat Puppets' "Plateau," "Oh Me," and "Lake of Fire"; Leadbelly's shattering, beautifully written "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"—the music grows, expands, fills any room, and you glimpse a person who plainly believed he could never make anything so good himself, a star who, singing these songs, is their ultimate fan.
Much cheesier, and finally more powerful, is the video Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! ("I think if you make money," bassist Krist Novoselic said as Nirvana's Nevermind hit the top of the charts, "and you start voting Republican, because you'll get tax breaks and they're the party of the rich, I mean, that's sold out.") Directed by Kevin Kerslake, who also directed such Nirvana videos as "In Bloom," it combines reams of live footage, onstage and in TV studios, with interviews; most of the footage is indifferently shot, on the cheap. For the first half the video seems conventional enough, your basic rockumentary, despite opening with Cobain onstage in front of an enormous crowd in a black slip, the bust bulging, and behind him drummer Dave Grohl stripped to the waist in the classic macho-drummer pose, save for a padded black bra; despite the moment when Cobain dives into a crowd and the crowd lifts him back onto the stage, whereupon the huge guard smashes Cobain in the face, knocking him to the ground, and then kicks him hard as he lies prostrate; despite the clip of Novoselic and Cobain appearing on MTV's Headbanger's Ball, Novoselic in street clothes and Cobain in a flowing yellow ball gown. "He wouldn't wear his tux," Cobain complains of Novoselic. "He didn't get me a corsage, either."
By the second half of the video, the accumulation of events like these makes you see Nirvana's performances differently, and you are given different performances to see. As Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl speak—as equals, with different points of view, with no deference, with a mutual affection and respect so strong and easy you can't believe it couldn't last—the fundamental Nirvana drama takes on new shape. Again, it is a dramatization of the satanic gravity that pulls stars toward fans, and fans toward stars, until all cease to exist as people who in any given moment might be able to step aside and say no to anything. With increasing desperation and violence—across a whole montage of the destruction of instruments and equipment, until this old cliché seems like a play about to spill out of the theater and into real life—you see the band seeking that no, demanding it, and finding it only in abjection. They're flailing wildly, hopelessly. Singing is turned into half-human squawks, masks are broken in an attempt to appear naked before the crowd, to turn the crowd back into individuals. Cobain pulls down his pajama pants to his underwear; Novoselic exposes his pubic hair, until finally the video ends as it began, with Cobain in his black slip. He drops to his knees and crawls off the stage. Even out of sight of the crowd, in the wings, he remains on his hands and knees.
The weight of all of Nirvana's songs is on his back; their uncertainties and doubts are woven into the flimsy fabric he wears. Cobain has sung Nirvana's awful antirape ballad "Polly" in a woman's garment, acting out the solidarity of abjection. You can imagine that, someday, he might have sung Leadbelly songs in blackface, in the same spirit. As the sort of people he hated, and who would have hated him, bask in triumph, it is a drama we could use.
Originally published in Interview Magazine, January 1995