Nirvana Concerts Could Be Beautiful Wrecks

Written By Unknown on Rabu, 15 April 2015 | 16.43

Photo Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain at Beehive Records in Seattle on Sept. 16, 1991. Credit Charles Peterson

In the unrelenting new documentary "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck," Nirvana's frontman can be seen abusing his body in both public and private. While battling drugs and depression at home, Cobain was a tattered rag doll onstage, hurling himself into drum sets, flailing off speaker stacks and writhing in waves of guitar feedback as if possessed.

For the film, written and directed by Brett Morgen, Nirvana's expertly sloppy live performances function less as plotted points on the band's ascension to the rock stratosphere than as visceral representations of Cobain at war with his own psyche. Not grounded in time or place, the clips form a collage of attempted catharsis.

Cobain's performances with the band have rightly become essential viewing for colliding physical chaos and serene melody. From dingy Seattle bars to the "Saturday Night Live" stage, Nirvana concerts were a beautiful wreck, with more and more gathering to witness until Cobain's death in 1994. Here are some of the group's most memorable live moments.

Photo Cobain on "MTV Unplugged" on Nov. 18, 1993. Credit Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Central Saloon, Seattle

APRIL 10, 1988

Seattle's oldest bar, known to locals as the Tavern, hosted the Aberdeen, Wash., band's debut in its adopted hometown. "Based on that show we decided to sign them," said Bruce Pavitt, the founder of the Sub Pop record label. Nirvana had "no stage presence and no songs," he said. "Kurt was very shy and just stared at his feet the whole time. But he had a great voice, and their vibe was right." The standout was a cover of "Love Buzz," by the Dutch band Shocking Blue, which would become Nirvana's first release as the inaugural record in the Sub Pop Singles Club.

Astoria Theater, London

DEC. 3, 1989

After a disastrous concert in Rome days earlier, during which Cobain had a nervous breakdown and briefly broke up the band, Nirvana regrouped for a label showcase, featuring the Sub Pop stars Mudhoney and Tad. Billed as LameFest U.K., the show was "the turning point" in Nirvana's career, Mr. Pavitt said. "They totally raged it in front of 1,600 jaded hipsters and blew everybody away." Cobain ended the set by pitching his guitar to Krist Novoselic, Nirvana's bassist, who "hit it as if it were a baseball and completely destroyed it," said Mr. Pavitt, who chronicled the tour in his book, "Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989." The British music bible NME declared, "Nirvana are Sub Pop's answer to the Beatles."

OK Hotel, Seattle

APRIL 17, 1991

After the underground success of its debut album, "Bleach," Nirvana signed with a major label, Geffen Records. On a bill with Bikini Kill ahead of recording what would become Nirvana's breakthrough, "Nevermind," Cobain opened the show with a characteristically wry message — "Hello, we're major label corporate rock sellouts" — before the debut of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kim Warnick, an early Sub Pop employee, recalled a friend asking her what the song was. "I think it's a Pixies cover?" she replied. "Then the chorus came in and I said: 'Sheesh, this is not the Pixies. This is big time.' "

Beehive Records, Seattle

SEPT. 16, 1991

What was supposed to be an acoustic in-store performance ahead of the release of "Nevermind" turned into a full-band onslaught, with fans moshing in the store. Ms. Warnick recalled the band's earlier celebration at Re-bar in Seattle. "They had a food fight," she said, "and got kicked out of their own record release party."

'Saturday Night Live,'

New York

JAN. 11, 1992

With "Nevermind" taking off, the band brought its rough edges to television — with predictable bumps. On "S.N.L.," with "Nevermind" having just replaced Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" at the top of the Billboard chart, the band members finished their performance by trashing the stage and kissing one another. "The fact that they were on national TV was a huge deal," Mr. Pavitt said. To have an alternative act in the mainstream "was like the fall of the Berlin Wall."

Reading Festival, Reading, England

AUG. 30, 1992

While Nirvana had become the hottest band in the world, Cobain's increasingly public struggles with heroin addiction had rumors of the group's demise swirling. In front of 50,000 people, he mockingly took the stage in a wheelchair and hospital gown. "This is our last show," he said at one point. "Until the next one." Michael Azerrad, the author of "Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana," said: "They had something to prove. Everyone thought Kurt was a hopeless drug addict and the band was falling apart. And then they got up and played a truly transcendent show, one of those times when you felt like your feet weren't touching the ground."

Cow Palace, San Francisco

APRIL 9, 1993

A benefit for rape survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the concert found Nirvana at the height of its influence and hoping to use that power for good. "The Cow Palace show combined a bunch of things that were really important to Nirvana," Mr. Azerrad said, including the opening bands, the Breeders and L7, "both led by empowered women who came from the same musical community." The cause, he added, "touched on both Krist's Yugoslavian ancestry and Kurt's outspoken feminism."

'MTV Unplugged,' New York

NOV. 18, 1993

This stripped down performance, which included covers of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," has helped to cement the band's legacy as performers of substance, not just style. Lori Goldston, a cellist who played with Nirvana that night, recalled the MTV taping as a "hype fest," with celebrities in attendance. But it was also seen by Cobain as "an opportunity to branch out," she said.

Terminal 1, Munich

MARCH 1, 1994

In Nirvana's final stretch of shows, the mood was more dour, Ms. Warnick recalled. "It's not that it wasn't good — it just seemed like the heart had been taken out," she said of the band's final American show in Seattle. In Munich, at the last Nirvana show — Cobain canceled the tour afterward, citing throat problems, and killed himself the next month in Seattle — the band opened with an impromptu cover of the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl," recalled Dale Crover, the drummer for the Melvins, who opened for Nirvana on that final tour in Europe. "We didn't even stay for that whole show," Mr. Crover said. "We said to ourselves, 'We'll see them tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.' "

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