IF THERE WERE any doubts that Nirvana had truly connected with America’s rock heartland, the sight of the crowd tonight dispels them. It’s a sea of flannel, scuffed leather, bumfluff and bad complexions.
It ranges from grease monkeys with muscle-bound torsos, cut-away T-shirts and tattoos, to college slackers, and from paunchy metalheads to 12-year-old Beavises & Butt-Heads. The Coliseum is where the Aphex Twin/Moby/Oribital mega-rave took place a few weeks earlier, and shorn of gaudy lights and chic kids it’s a truly desolate venue, a vast concrete cenotaph, that, tonight, is like a subterranean internment depot for America’s trailer-park trash.
If Nirvana have connected with the Great White Hopeless, what, I wonder, do they connect with ? Since Cobain’s lyrics are even more opaque and incoherent than on Nevermind, it must simply be something in his voice – a retching wretchedness, the sound of low self-esteem turned into an avenging roar of retaliation against a hostile environment. Cobain’s is one of the very greatest f**ked-up/f**ked-off voices ever, a scorching sirocco gust of disgust (with, above all, himself). I hear shades of The Saints’ Chris Bailey circa ‘Misunderstood’, the Henry Rollins of Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’, Bob Mould, but what makes it so very Nineties is its insuperable weariness.
This fatigue and futility pervades every flailing fibre of Nirvana’s sound, which always seem like the desperate, penultimate surge of rock ‘n’ roll on its very last legs. Cobain seems to have taken on all the false hopes raised by rock, all the betrayals, as his own special burden, his accursed birthright. As Greil Marcus put it, “It’s as if the source of the depression is not that rock is dead but that it refuses to die”. Could it be that, like the Pistols, Nirvana use trad hard rock in order to bludgeon the final, long overdue nail in the coffin ?
Against a backdrop of leafless, wintry trees and the winged angels from the cover of In Utero, Nirvana kick off with ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’. As crude as its sarcasm is, it is the inevitably acrid sequel to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that mirthlessly mocked the very notion of rock-as-rebellion, yet turned Cobain into a rebel-millionaire. Its pea-soup blizzard of Sonic Youth and Big Black is the gagging sound of irony sticking in the craw. Ironically, it gets a great cheer from the irony-impervious throng. Heads start to bang with ‘Drain You’ and the churningly visceral punk-boogie of ‘Breed’. ‘Serve The Servants’ and a ‘Bleach’ song I can’t place, introduce a Beatlesy vibe. I always thought Nirvana’s candy-appled melodicism descended from Revolver via Husker Du, but it’s clear, reading the Michael Azerrad biog, that Cobain had long fantasised about fusing Black Sabbath and The Beatles.
Then comes ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, which got the world and his wife comparing Cobain’s vocals to John Lennon. Again, what’s so gripping about the song is its sluggishness, the way its dynamics sound hampered, lurching forward at the chorus as if waist-high in quicksand. Like almost all of Nirvana’s songs, it rocks, but it doesn’t rock free. And that manacled feel fits the song’s claustrophobic lyrics because ‘Heart-shaped Box’ is the greatest anthem of the male dread of sexual/emotional engulfment since the Pistols’ ‘Submission’. It could be interpreted as a song about marriage (Mrs. Love-Cobain is apparently an obsessive collector of heart-shaped boxes), but I think it is more abstract: a dramatisation of the slacker’s desire to become vertebrate (cf Cobain’s comments about being “disgusted with my own and my generation’s spinelessness”, and the line in ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ about his “very bad posture”). See, half the time Cobain wants to go back to the womb; think of the “grandma takes me home” regression of ‘Sliver’, (which follows ‘Box’ tonight), think of the amniotic image on the cover of Nevermind and the title In Utero, think of the womb-like state heroin produces. And half the time he wants to claw his way out of the morass, make a break with the (s)mothering comfort of domesticity, (Why d’ya think he called that LP Insecticide?) That the morass, the slough of slacker despond, is identified with femininity is clear from the imagery of ‘Heart-shaped Box’; of being sucked into “your magnet tar pit trap”, strangled in an “umbilical noose”, mutilated by “baby’s breath”, Venus fly-trapped by “meat-eating orchids”.
But ‘Heart-Shaped’ isn’t just a misogynist/antidomesticity rant in the tradition of The Who’s ‘Legal Matter’, The Stooges, Faith No More ad nauseam, because Cobain’s a lot more troubled about masculinity. Not only is he a feminist, he’s female-identified, and that makes him even more defenceless. It’s his own feminine side he is battling with.
Nirvana’s songs dramatise the agony of wanting to be a man in a world where most manifestations of masculinity are loathsome and oppressive. Like Vedder, Cobain never had a father (he only had “a dad”, as one song puts it). The slacker’s blues come from wanting to defend yourself against a threatening world without becoming a combat rocker, or taking the Rollins route (becoming a one-man army, always on red-alert, but never the aggressor)
The moribund jauntiness of ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Lithium’ gets the crowd boogie-ing. Nirvana’s very moroseness seems part of their populist appeal; the songs are sing-a-long security blankets for the disconsolate and disconnected (as he sings it, there’s a “comfort in being sad”). ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ is more propulsive, less wallowing; Cobain’s vocals sear like a flamethrower.
After ‘Polly’, the band address their unwanted flock for the first time, Novoselic declaring, “I have nothing witty to say”. (Thanks a lot, Chris) ‘Rape Me’ is the new album’s ‘Polly’, in that its jollity is severely at odds with its grim lyrics. It shows how Cobain has restored ‘punk’ to its full, original meaning: prison slang for an effeminate boy who gets f**ked up the ass by the other convicts.
It’s appropriate, since humiliation and emasculation are Nirvana’s core emotions. ‘Territorial Pissings’ is followed by ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: Grohl’s drumming is superbly tetchy, Cobain’s voice a yawning ravine of cinders, gristle and phlegm. On ‘All Apologies’, he sounds like Lennon having TB, heaving up great pulmonary expectorations.
The encores ascend through an almost John Mellencampy song (Novoselic cradling an accordion), the spirited defeatism of ‘On a Plain’, to ‘Scentless Apprentice’ – as marauding as an mobile abattoir- and a final song which might be ‘Very Ape’, but I can’t be sure. Balls-out, ballistic metal, it culminates in an almighty detonation of feedback. This sounds like a real good exclamation mark with which to END, but Nirvana dawdle on into an extended avant-garage coda of wilful f**king about. A Mystery Guest, so heavily disguised that he looks like an Arctic explorer, takes the mic to holler hoarse, indecipherable imprecations, while Grohl freeform solos on his kit and Cobain torments his axe. Hey, wait a minute, I recognise that shuffling gait, those weak ‘r’ s: it’s Everest True !!! If this ‘song’ is a “f**k you” to their mass audience, it fails; the crowd are baffled but applaud fairly warmly.
As I am swept along by the departing hordes, I pass the merchandise stall, where a man hunched over a ‘notebook’ (a portable computer) is totting up Nirvana’s T-shirt takings. As truly great they are, I hope Nirvana are a last gasp, if not of rock as music, then for rock as pseudo counter culture. Like Johnny Rotten in 1978, Cobain clearly wants to short-circuit his fans’ propensity to treat him as a Saviour and, in some ways, In Utero is his ‘Public Image’, a repudiation of his own iconhood. As he continues to squirm excruciatingly on all the jagged contradictions of turning rebellion into $$$$, I’m sure there will be great songs to come, but Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes for all the pennyroyal tea in China.
© Simon Reynolds, Melody Maker, 27 November 1993