Posts Tagged ‘nirvana unplugged’

The Atlantic Gets It Mostly Right On Nirvana Unplugged

December 16, 2013


Earlier this week, The Atlantic published an article commemorating the 20th anniversary of the airing of their MTV Unplugged in New York (Unplugged) album. It provides a great overview of the concert, some of which is transferred to the album, and some of which is only visible on the live show. However, I believe the author gets it wrong, as most do, when it comes to the subject of Kurt’s solo performance of “Pennyroyal Tea” (video above).

If you listen to the banter before the song, you could surmise that the solo rendition of the song was a spur of the moment decision made by Kurt, and the band was in such a bad place by then, that they had no choice but to listen for fear of a public melt-down. That is not the case, at all, though. Certainly, Nirvana was in a bad place. Dave had already been looking into a new band (what would become Foo Fighters) and Kurt had talked in interviews about a life after Nirvana. The album containing “You Know You’re Right”, assuming it would have been completed, could have easily been their last. However, this tiny exchange was not a micro-cosm of the bigger problems.

Nirvana had planned to play “Pennyroyal Tea” as a Kurt solo. They rehearsed it solo. The author of the Atlantic article jumps to several wrong conclusions.

Watching the video of the performance only heightens the effect. At the end of the first song Kurt looks at the camera and gives a gnarly forced smile. He later told the producers to make sure it was edited in because, “My manager tells me I need to smile more.” It’s a rare glimpse of humor from an agitated and prickly soul. Even Kurt’s closest allies seem wary of him. Dave Grohl sits quietly throughout, with only a stripped-down kit and a pair of brushes to protect him from Kurt, who repeatedly spins around on his chair and glares at the drummer over hunched shoulders. At one point Kurt passively tells Grohl to not play on “Penny Royal Tea,” [sic] saying, “Am I going to play this, alone?” Dave immediately understands that it’s not a question but a command and lays down his brushes on his snare: “Do it alone.” Grohl then nervously turns to guitarist Pat Smear, asking, “Do you have a smoke, Pat?”

Kurt goes on to play the very personal song alone with his eyes closed. As it ends Grohl shouts out “That was really great!” Kurt responds, “Shut up.” It’s a sore moment revealing a singer uncomfortable in his own skin, through addiction and depression, and a friend who seems to only want him to pull through.

The “nervous” conversation between Grohl and Kurt was more of a “should I really do this by myself?” with Dave answering “sure, why not”. The only question was if Pat would also help singing backup vocals.. As you can see from the setlist, it was always going to be jsut Kurt and Pat. The insecurity of Kurt show throughout the show. Right before he played “Pennyroyal Tea”, he starts of “The Man Who Sold the World” by saying that he “could screw it up” and after the song was over, with almost a surprised relief, he states “I didn’t screw it up, did I? OK, but here’s another one I could screw up…”

He then launched into “Pennyroyal Tea”. The song was rife with errors. He screwed up the second verse and subsequently, the second chorus. He also screwed up the chorus in the third verse. He did not screw up the guitar solo by not doing it. It was planned that he would not do it. Perhaps, it was a sign of his insecurity, perhaps he just didn’t feel like playing it. We’ll never know. He knew he screwed the song up, and Dave knew it as well. It seems that Dave was trying to ease the tension and anger Kurt felt after that performance.Kurt also did not, as the article states, play the song with his eyes closed. He played it the same way he played every other song during the performance.

Going into the Unplugged concert, Kurt was really nervous and anxious. There were at least two reason for this. This would be a stripped down set where everything would be exposed, and Kurt was keenly aware of his limitations on guitar; which is why Pat Smear was added to the lineup. The anxiety was also because of the setlist they chose. Nirvana had seen other bands play this concert and they were disappointed that they would play their hits. No one in Nirvana thought it was the proper venue to do that. There was a lot of pressure on Nirvana by this point. They decided to do the “Unplugged” concert because “In Utero” had not reached the commercial success of “Nevermind” and they weren’t selling out arenas anymore. “Unplugged” was a last ditch effort to breathe some new life into the band. All of this played into Kurt’s attitude and demeanor during the show.

All in all, The Atlantic piece is a great tribute to a great show, it just gets a few things wrong, reads into situations incorrectly. The “Pennyroyal Tea” myth has been persistent since people first saw it. The reality, however, is not as sex as the myth which is why it has persisted. To hear what the song should have sounded like at the show, listen to the demo version that was released on the box set. Because Kurt ended his life so shortly after the show aired for the first time and before the album was ever released, it has become the final portrait of a tortured soul. It has stood on it’s own merits for 20 years, and it will last the test of time.

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Nirvana Pt. 1

September 16, 2008

Let me start out and state, in my opinion, there would be no Nirvana without the Melvins. Would Kurt have started a band? Probably. However, the chances of that band being with Krist Novosellic, and Kurt getting to record a demo would be extremely low had it not been for the Melvins. Now then, let’s dice right in.

The year was 1985. Kurt Cobain was in high school without hardly any friends and was being shuffled around relatives for a place to stay. He had heard of the band called the Melvins and went to a practice of theirs (a common hangout place for music people). He saw a really tall guy (6’7″) that he recognized from school. This guy was Krist and he listened to punk rock and could play bass guitar.

Kurt really wanted to start a band with Krist, but Krist showed little interest. He went down to Reciprocal Recordings with Dale Crover (100% of the reason Endido gave this Kurt guy the time of day) and they recorded a demo called “Fecal Matter”. Kurt gave this tape to Krist and he was finally convinced. All they needed now was a drummer.

They had simple requirements – someone who was willing to practice 5 days a week. They found a Chad Channing. He had a goofy drum set, and he didn’t do everything exactly the way Kurt would’ve liked him to, but he was there 5 days a week. Now that they had all the pieces in place, they were ready to rock.

They performed at a few clubs under numerous names (Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew…etc) until they finally settled on a name – Nirvana. They felt pretty confident about their songs and started shopping themselves around to labels. They sent tapes to Touch & Go, K Records, and Sub Pop. Sub Pop was the only label to bite and signed Kurt. They went into the recording studio with Jack Endido.

They recorded their first single, “Love Buzz” and wanted the song “Blandest” to be the B-Side. However, Endido thought the title resembled the song and balked. Nirvana decided to go with “Big Cheese” instead. So the first installment of the Sub Pop Singles Club was Nirvana’s Love Buzz b/w Big Cheese. the 7 inch vinyl’s were hand numbered to 1000 and were quickly snatched up. Nirvana was pissed because they were at shows and people wanted their stuff, but they had nothing to give them. the ploy worked though because there was so much demand that when Bleachwas finally released, there was a lot of underground hype for it.

When Nirvana was recording Bleach, they had to come up with $606 dollars to pay Endido for the studio time. Well, being completely broke, Nirvana did not have that kind of money. Enter Jason Everman. They struck a deal with Everman. If he paid the money, he could join their band. They even gave him a guitar credit on Bleach despite not playing on it. After Bleach came out, they went on tour to promote it. They were living their dream. Kurt noted that the tour was great, but wouldhave been better if “Jason wasn’t such a prick”. Everman was kicked out of the band shortly after the Bleach tour.

After the Bleach tour, they had another problem. They grew increasingly frustrated with Chad Channing, so they wrote him a letter effectively kicking him out of the band. So now they had no drummer again. They played shows with Dan Peters, but h had to go back to Mudhoney. They played some shows with Dale Crover, but he had to go back to the Melvins. They let Aaron Bruckhard play with them, but he still wasn’t what they were looking for. Buzz, from the Melvins knew a guy.

DC Punk band, Scream, was touring LA and their band literally fell apart, and they broke up in Los Angeles. Kurt called their drummer, Dave Grohl, and told him to come to Seattle to be in their band. Grohl had nothing to lose so he went up to Seattle. He was everything Nirvana was looking for in a drummer, and now in 1990, 5 years after “Fecal Matter”, they were complete.

To be continued…

Todd


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