Come As You Aren’t: Nirvana at Isle Of Calf Festival, Oslo

THEY DON’T DESERVE THIS. Forget any reports you may have heard that rock is alive and kicking. The world’s only credible arena rock band is close to cracking. Kurt Cobain is barely able to cope with the restraints of his position, the kids who are out there watching his band because Guns N’Roses aren’t in town till next week and Bryan Adams was on yesterday. His band are afraid to play any new songs, knowing that – if they do – bootlegs will hit the streets running. So, numbed by the intensity of their unlooked-for role as some kinda spokesmen, Nirvana attempt to inject meaning into the old as best they can.

Which means: no emotion shown, if that’s the only way they can retain self-respect.

First night in Stockholm, I’m watching MTV with Kurt and Courtney in their hotel suite, waiting for the new Nirvana video to come on. Eddie Murphy flashes by, typically unfunny. “He used to be funny once, didn’t he?” Kurt remarks. “Back before he became famous and complacent, back when he was still struggling to be heard, back when he had to try.” There’s no need for Kurt to elaborate. We know who he’s talking about.

But Kurt still tries. Otherwise, why is he in so much pain? Not for the first time this year, I begin to realise why Bono and Axl and Bruce and all those other would-be rock Messiahs are so crap. The market forces, the record-buyers, ARE that powerful – you either succumb or you go insane. Is there a third choice? Nirvana are struggling against it – they’re struggling real hard and they’re struggling real strong – but it’s impossible to make sense of much of this confusion.

In Oslo, Kurt simply stands immobile as 20,000 kids go berserk, uncaring as to what reactions his band may or may not be exciting. And the audience, with their ritualised clapping and banners and shoes tossed in the air and bare chests, couldn’t give a damn about how good or otherwise the band on stage are. Why should they? This is corporate entertainment, however much the band decry it. To most of these serenely beautiful, sun-kissed Scandinavians, it doesn’t matter that it’s Nirvana up there. It could be anyone. It’s a festival, see. They couldn’t give a damn about Flipper or Shonen Knife or punk or Courtney Love or any of the things so close to Nirvana’s heart. Why should they? What matters is size.

Festival crowds know what to expect, or so they think. They had the parameters of how they choose to spend their leisure time mapped out long ago. On this scale, art counts for virtually nothing. Rebellion? How can anyone be rebellious once they’ve conquered the American market? By throwing it all away again? Then you’re just termed a failure, or worse, a one-hit wonder.

In Oslo, for all it matters, Kurt could be rampaging drunk and breaking equipment, Chris could be throwing his bass ten feet in the air, and Dave moshing hard, like they used to. But they aren’t (OK, Dave is). Sometimes Kurt flicks his floor switch from reverb to normal; sometimes Kurt looks across to see if Chris is playing the correct bass part; sometimes Kurt’ll try and make a self-deprecating remark and fail. There’s precious little emotion, humour, angst here – a bunch of incredible songs turned to shimmering dust, some brutally beautifully evocative lyrics which now mean less than shit, now that the whole world has learnt its part and reduced them to the everyday, the mundane. Shit happens.

Yet Nirvana still sounds glorious.

Yet ‘Polly’ and ‘Stay Away’ and ‘On A Plain’ still evoke, chastise, berate, uplift. Fuck knows why. Maybe familiarity doesn’t always blunt. Maybe we’re talking love.

In Stockholm, Kurt at least tries, buoyed by the news shouted to him across the stage by his wife that the concert has been undersold by 6,000. “Hey! We’re on our way out,” he gleefully shouts at the British press, stumbling across stage to change guitars. But then Stockholm isn’t part of a two-day festival like Oslo – it’s a Nirvana show, for fans solely. So Kurt changes the set list seconds before taking the stage, starting with a classic American punk number, ‘Money Roll Right In’ (irony!), playing an impromptu ‘D7’ upon request AND ‘Molly’s Lips’, even making a few jokes. Dave and Chris look happier as well. For the encore (a searing, purposeful ‘Teen Spirit’ and a rampant ‘Territorial Pissings’), the band drag 50 kids waiting by the back gate on stage – and, hell, spontaneous bonhomie can work on this level. Even if it does recall something off of The Arsenio Hall Show.

But the main set is still as bad as I’ve seen Nirvana play, in terms of spirit, excitement, inspiration (everything that Nirvana used to have in spades). Even if I am damn near crying during ‘Lithium’ (it seems so appropriate, somehow). And Oslo was way, way worse.

Contrast the difference between Nirvana and their support band Teenage Fanclub at the Stockholm soundcheck. First Nirvana: a roadie stands in for Kurt as the band run through a lacklustre ‘In Bloom’ and a flat ‘Teen Spirit’, sounding oddly like Weird Al Yankovic himself. Then, Teenage Fanclub – all the band present and visibly enjoying life, running carefree through a Todd Rundgren number, a ’60s bubblegum pop classic, Alex Chilton, anything and everything they’ve loved. Once, Nirvana delighted in their togetherness, forged through years of constant touring through the cesspits of America. Now, it seems, Kurt would rather be anywhere than hangin’ with Chris and Dave.

Pressures, dude. But Nirvana still sound life-affirming.

How could they otherwise? Especially when Nevermind, as awesome as it was/is, never did justice to the excitement and genuine power of their live sound.

So Oslo is a mess of contradictions and contrary emotions. The day’s so glorious, the babes are so beautiful, the sound is so exemplary, Teenage Fanclub’s support slot so buoyant and inspirational, it’d take some kinda churlish fool or pining Aberdeen type not to enjoy themselves. Yet, even with the inspired choice of Tori Amos’ version of ‘Teen Spirit’ as an intro tape, it’s apparent that Kurt is torn – torn between his loyalty to the kids who genuinely appreciate and love his music, and those who are into them as a fad, as a cuter, punkier Ugly Kid Joe alternative.

His voice is still inexhaustibly expressive, emotive, his guitar still bleeds angst, but his demeanour… remember, this is the band who built a career out of being rampant on stage, whose new video mythologises the whole guitar-smashing ethos with a grandiose finality. Kurt won’t even admit that he has any frustrations left. Not in public. But he has. Oh man.

Second night in Stockholm, the assembled Nirvana and Fanclub crews are watching an MTV clip of Eddie Vedder going off the rails in Denmark. There’s no appreciable glee at a well-publicised rival losing it, just a sad empathy, a feeling of genuine pity that perhaps here is another singer who is unable to cope with the lies and pressures and trauma of fame, who loathes and despises the distance forced between him and his audience, who can’t see any way out of the trap, the role forced upon him simply because he’s written lyrics that reach people (it’s not his fault his band sucks). Pearl Jam cancelled the remainder of their European tour the same day. Bet Kurt was jealous.

The way people talk it right now suggests that, even if Nirvana aren’t going to split up, Reading will be their last show for a very long time. (On the phone the next week, the singer flatly denies this. “We’ll be touring in November,” he tells me, “but no festivals this time. Definitely no festivals. And, if Chris wasn’t in Greece, we’d be in the recording studio laying down tracks for the new album right now.”)

Let’s hope to fuck that Nirvana learn how to adapt and survive. We desperately need people like them up there to give people like us down here hope, hope that you don’t need to be an Extreme or an INXS or a Bryan Adams to succeed.

© Everett True 1992

NOTES (SEPTEMBER 2001)

1) The last line could now be amended to include Green Day, The Offspring, Garbage… almost any post-grunge arena band.

2) I could’ve sworn this show happened in 1993, although that wouldn’t have made any sense. My sense of time went seriously adrift around this point, too much was happening. To the best of my knowledge, only one other English journalist was allowed to interview the band around this time – NME’s Keith Cameron. He travelled all the way out to mainland Europe, only to be confronted with a far more recalcitrant Cobain, unwilling to talk even to someone he considered a friend. “I wonder what Keith’s going to write, Jerry,” Kurt confided to me on the phone shortly afterwards. “I didn’t tell him anything.” Keith wrote the only possible piece he could in the circumstances – one that showed up the splits and confusion surrounding the band in far greater detail than my interview. There again, I got an interview.

This later led to Cameron being reviled by the band – a band he loved most dearly – even to the extent of Cobain naming one of his six guns after him. “One for every person I want to kill,” he told me in a stormy mood from his final Seattle home, while I argued with him not to be so stupid. “Keith Cameron, (Vanity Fair’s) Lynn Hirschberg…” I can’t remember the others.

3) While in the hotel room in Stockholm, Courtney produced Kurt’s lyric book – a scrappy, lined A5 affair, full of crossing-outs and amendments, written in blue biro. “Here, I thought you might want to take this, Everett,” she cried blithely, seemingly oblivious to Kurt’s annoyance. “What about the lyrics to that song, for starters?” Like most songwriters, Kurt hated his most famous song with a passion, and would often try to refuse to play it live. I refused Courtney’s kind offer. How rich would I be now, I sometimes wonder, if I’d just displayed a little opportunism?

4) There are so many questions behind this review I never thought to ask at the time, the most important one being: Who was forcing Kurt to go on tour and play festivals to audiences of metal kids he transparently despised? He didn’t need the money. Why were Pearl Jam able to quit, but not Nirvana?

© Everett TrueMelody Maker, 25 July 1992

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