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During their brief existence Nirvana served as the lightening rod for the Seattle scene and Kurt Cobain with his shaggy blond hair, three day beard, worn and torn jeans and tennis shoes was the Grunge poster boy. But it was those eyes that drew attention. At first glance they seemed vacant and expressionless. Empty. But they were anything but empty. The look was a mixture of pain and anger which only found release in music. Very loud, extreme music.
Aberdeen, on the Washington State coast, less than 100 miles from Seattle, was Cobain's home town. It's a place of endless rain and lashing winds with low gray clouds ominously rolling in. Pretty depressing. Fishing and timber drove the local economy. Both were in decline when Kurt Cobain was growing up. Very depressing. Cobain's parents got divorced. His mom worked as a cocktail waitress and they lived in a trailer park. Extremely depressing. Always feeling an outsider, Cobain deliberately tried to separate himself or at the very least insulate himself from the rest of the world. He took up drums but his first musical contribution was hauling gear for the Melvins. That gig led to meeting Kris Novoselic. Their initial effort had Cobain on drums and Novoselic playing guitar. When Melvins' drummer Dale Crover joined, Cobain moved to guitar and Novoselic to bass. Starting out as Ed, Ted, Fred and later, the Fecal Matter, they finally settled on Nirvana.
The group performed Cobain composed songs and roamed the Northwest club circuit, building a large and dedicated following. That, in turn, led to Nirvana's signing with the Seattle based Sub-Pop label. Their first release, despite Cobain's numerous compositions, was a Shocking Blue cover "Love Buzz." Bleach" followed and became a college radio staple. "Silver" came out in mid '90. After a series of drummers had come and gone (Crover, Chad Channing, Dan Peters), they found David Grohl. They also had a demo that caught the attention of producer Butch Vig who ran the boards on "Nevermind." It was nothing short of being a landmark creation with Rockers "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "In Bloom," "Lithium" and "On A Plane." But the best song was "Come As You Are." Starting with a hypnotic, reverb drenched guitar riff the song built until it exploded with Cobain screaming "No I don't have a gun." Of course, he did. Fame, fortune and all that noise descended on the group, and on Cobain in particular.
Nirvana performed on the '92 MTV Video Music Awards at just the moment when they seemed to be the biggest band in the world. As "Lithium" came to a crashing conclusion, Novoselic tossed his bass into the air. It came down square on his back and smacked his head. A decade-and-a-half later, presumably having healed, Novoselic insisted that his botched "bass-toss" wasn't as painful as it looked. "I always try to get good air -- I bet I hit over 25 feet, easy!" wrote Novoselic on a Seattle weekly newspaper's blog. "The only time I've ever dropped it was then in front of 300 million people. Ouch! I was fine, but I faked like I was knocked out." That was a minor and humorous mishap for a band that always seemed plagued by mishaps.
Riding on "Nevermind's" coattails, "Insecticide," released in '93, was an excellent collection of early Nirvana live and studio recordings.
Also that year, "In Utero" arrived. The album was not as driving, hard-edged or sonically dense as "Nevermind." Some attributed this change to Cobain's growing heroin problem. The brooding "Heart Shaped Box," the self-reflective "Dumb" and remorseful "All Apologies" were the best tracks. The album's production was fraught with several false starts and sudden stops. Nirvana also recorded an Unplugged session for MTV. This performance generated significant praise for Cobain's songwriting and the band's playing. It showed Nirvana was not totally reliant on Grunge's wall of sound.
When things unraveled, it all went too quickly. Maybe it was life with Hole's Courtney Love (Kurt and Courtney married in '92 with Francis Bean born later that year). It could have been the pressures of Rock stardom. Or troubles with heroin (Cobain had been in and out - mostly out - of rehab). Maybe there was just a big hole that nobody or nothing could fill. On April 4th, 1994 Cobain's mom filed a missing person's report. A few days later Cobain's body was discovered at his Seattle home (ruled suicide by shotgun).
Years later, the furious mud hurling battle that had Grohl and Novoselic pitted against Love and a fleet of attorneys subsided long enough to get the papers signed allowing the release of a retrospective simply titled "Nirvana" featuring the group's last recording, "You Know You're Right." That wasn't the end of it, though it probably should have been. When money's involved, logic often takes a hike.
Doesn't matter that you're long gone: Images last forever - just ask Jim Morrison (The Doors). Cobain became a playable character in the '09 Guitar Hero 5 video game. His avatar played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a previously unreleased live version of "Lithium." That was probably OK, but it didn't stop there.
Shortly after the game's release, Novoselic and Grohl issued a statement expressing their dismay over the use of Cobain's avatar to perform the Bon Jovi song, "You Give Love a Bad Name."
"It's hard to watch an image of Kurt pantomiming other artists' music alongside cartoon characters," read the statement. "We feel he deserves better." Jon Bon Jovi wasn't enthused about Activision's actions either. "I don't know that I would have wanted it either," Bon Jovi told the BBC. "It sounds a little forced."
On a more positive note, a remastered "Bleach" celebrated the 20th anniversary of the '89 album. It was available on two formats - an expanded CD and a double-vinyl LP. Then came "The Live At Reading" CD/DVD, chronicling the band's '92 headlining show in England. Sanctioned by Grohl and Novoselic, the DVD had the band's entire Reading set in remastered in 5.1 Surround Sound, plus never-before-seen bonus footage.
Another 20th anniversary came around in '11. "Nevermind" was reissued in a box set with all sorts of extras (demos, alternate takes and previously unreleased songs). VH1 premiered the concert movie Nirvana: Live At The Paramount. Filmed at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on Halloween in '91, the concert featured several songs from "Nevermind," plus non-album cuts "Sliver" and "Aneurysm." The film was later released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
In a break from reliving their past glories, Nirvana's surviving members - Grohl, Novoselic and touring guitarist Pat Smear - got to share the stage with Paul McCartney when he played Seattle's Safeco Field in '13. As a surprise, McCartney brought them out during his encore. They rolled through "Cut Me Some Slack" (a song McCartney recorded with Grohl, Novoselic and Smear), Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" and The Beatles "Get Back," "Helter Skelter" and "The End."
Full-Length Studio Albums:
1993 In Utero
MTV Unplugged In New York
From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah
Live At Reading
Nirvana wasn't around all that long but they sure made an impact. "Nevermind" is a Grunge classic. "In Utero" is neither as forceful or fierce as "Nevermind" but it is still a great album with "Heart Shaped Box" and the self-defeating "Dumb." Those two CDs are probably the group's best known studio work but there's more. "Bleach," arriving in '89 gives every indication Nirvana is a group to be reckoned with. "Incesticide" has some great songs, and some not so great songs.
The highlights of "Unplugged In New York" include "About A Girl" and a cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World." "From The Banks of the Muddy Wishkah" there's the blasting "Aneurysm." This is Nirvana live and loud. It just doesn't get any better.
"Nirvana" is a fourteen-song set, released in late '02 (just in time for holiday shopping), that covers their brief career and, as expected, focuses on their most popular period. It's a nice tidy package - something the group never was. This may be the only place (other than downloads) to get "You Know You're Right," but the original albums are still greater than the sum of their parts.