Beyond The Thrash-hold Of Cobain: Nirvana: Roseland Ballroom, New York

IT’S DEAFENING. Thurston Moore has his fingers in his ears. Lee Ranaldo’s son Cody is wearing ear muffs. Even Courtney Love looks a little taken aback. Yes, the silence that meets the end of Nirvana’s first show in six months is deafening.

This is because the majority of those assembled seem unsure if the band that has just departed the stage by getting up off their chairs (eh?) and laying down acoustic guitars (what?!) and a cello (eeeek!!!) really was Nirvana; you know, The Nirvana, the Gods Of Grunge, the Saviours Of Rock, the Punk Rock Band Your Mum Would Like.

But then, this had all seemed a little unreal. Initially billed as a hush-hush “club” gig during the New Music Seminar, the return of the ’90s’ unlikeliest rock phenomenon proceeded to dwarf all other events in this dollar-drenched schmooze-up from hell. For a start, the 3,500-capacity Roseland is a club only inasmuch as it has a roof and isn’t a basketball arena; such is the reality of Nirvana’s infamy, where one is forced to regard affairs like this as intimate. And it had never been much of a secret, either: The New York Post‘s entertainment section trailed the gig four days previously, causing much walling and gnashing of teeth among NMS staff worried that most of the 10,000 delegates would try to get in via their snazzy laminates. With only the first 200 NMS pass-holders guaranteed entry, chaos on West 52nd seemed assured, the inevitable tabloid headlines etching another lurid footnote in the Nirvana legend.

So as comebacks go, this was an odd affair — at least, if we are to believe the band’s oft-stated desire to shed their multi-platinum status and return to something approaching sanity. Why not, then, a completely unheralded residency at some flea-pit dive in the Mid-west? Still, at least here we had the sweet irony of the one-time hottest ticket in Alternative™ rock hijacking this alleged showcase for new talent. And of course, if Kurt Cobain has his way then tastefully preserved ballrooms like Roseland will once again become Nirvana’s natural habitat, after In Utero has wreaked its dastardly revenge on the band’s unwanted shopping mall crossover crowd, the sort of Bud-sponsored dolts here tonight who stomp to the AC/DC intro tape but heckle support act The Jesus Lizard to “play proper rock”.

In seeking to shed themselves of such a benighted constituency, Nirvana are apparently concerning themselves with Improper Rock. “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m old and bored.” The opening lines to ‘Serve The Servants’ greet the throng, including a knot of teenage girls all in their Nevermind togs and hysterical with excitement. “Chris! Dave! Kuuurt!!!” they squeal, as this ominous mid-paced anti-anthem spirals a noose round the hall, and sets the tone for a performance that dazzles in its confirmation of this band’s genius for dissonant pop alchemy but also proceeds to baffle many onlookers.

For their part, Chris, Dave and Kurt look relaxed, even eager, with Kurt punkily bedraggled in a Dennis The Menace striped jersey, while Chris sports a smart black shirt and short hair and Dave opts for honest, bare-chested sweat. ‘Scentless Apprentice’ silences the teeny crew two songs in, again relentlessly mid-paced but without its predecessor’s teasing drive and rent by some vintage larynx-lacerating screams from Kurt. It’s with considerable relief that the crowd greet a brace of vintage faves: ‘School’, ‘Breed’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘Come As You Are’, the latter pair prompting irate security guards to chase mosh-freaks from using the elevated guest enclosure as an alternative stage-dive platform.

The anticipated appearance of Big John Duncan on extra guitar was looking like a big hoax on the part of Goodbye Mr MacKenzie’s management when the tattooed punk warrior had appeared onstage carrying out his normal pre-show guitar-tuning duties, yet somewhere around the set’s mid-point Dave invites us to welcome “our friend Big John, a 29-stone cowboy”. Standing diplomatically to the rear, he adds functional power blasts to ‘Drain You’, ‘Territorial Pissings’, ‘Aneurysm’ and another tortuously wrought screamahoiic newie before departing as unfussily as he’d arrived. This cameo perplexed the crowd still further, not without reason this time: John’s presence certainly added an extra layer of sonic muscle but his contributions were hardly mould-shattering and the choice of songs seemed arbitrary. No impromptu canters through ‘Dead Cities’ or ‘F— A Mod’, either, but Chris does raise a laugh with his explanation for the ex-Exploited man’s appearance: “Big John won a competition, writing 500 words on ‘What Is Grunge?’. You too can jam with Nirvana!”

One had expected the Big guy to find his niche fleshing out the In Utero pearls ‘Rape Me’ and ‘All Apologies’. The former flatters to deceive with its ‘Teen Spirit’-reminiscent intro but is yet another caustic diatribe with undeniably subversive singalong appeal; likewise ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, a slow, tightly wound garland of thorns that wraps up sweetness and sorrow with a new-found subtlety. But it’s ‘All Apologies’ that has the eyes boggling in amazement. A celloist sits centrestage and lends her delicate undertow to this melancholic meditation on life and whatever the hell it’s all for. “All we know is all we are,” sings Kurt, over and over. It’s possibly his greatest songwriting achievement.

Strapping on an acoustic guitar emblazoned with a “Nixon Now” campaign sticker, Kurt then leads this four-piece Nirvana through their Unplugged paces. ‘Polly’ is greeted with respectful silence, ‘Dumb’ is familiar from last year’s Reading and they close with a masterful rendition of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ it’s a Leadbelly song, most recently recorded by the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan on his 1990 solo album. Kurt guested on guitar then, and here he makes the song his own, his broken-throated scream lending the song’s key phrase (“My girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night?”) unimagined reserves of menace.

Encores of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (a few gratuitous bum notes but more or less faithfully treated) and ‘Endless Nameless’ respectively delight and alienate the audience. The latter is the full-on viscera-fest — Kurt rips open his speaker stack, then adds a five-minute solo feedback coda — of blessed memory; trouble is, there ain’t too many people present tonight who remember Nirvana in their pre-MTV heavy rotation, K-Mart compatible form.

Four years ago, an unknown Nirvana played the New Music Seminar, holding up a mid-table slot in the Sub Pop showcase, enthralling and appalling in roughly equal measures. Since then, Kurt Cobain and colleagues have changed the face of so-called new music, but the complications and contradictions remain. This is how it should be — for those about to rock improperly, we salute you.

© Keith CameronNew Musical Express, 7 August 1993

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