Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Nirvana in Concert: 20 Years Later

I usually end my posts by saying that my next topic might be something you’ve never heard of.  That’s certainly not the case this week.  Nirvana is a legendary rock band and certainly not a Cultural Ghost.  Why I’ve chosen to write about them this week is because today marks the anniversary of one of their concerts.  Exactly 20 years ago today, November 5 1993, Nirvana played in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, and I was there.

First, let the music speak for itself.  A user named NirvanaUnseen has posted the entire concert on YouTube:

In late 1993, Nirvana was at the height of their success.  In Utero had just been released and “Heart Shaped Box” was in constant replay on MTV and radio stations everywhere.  Just a week and a half after the Buffalo show, they would record their Unplugged concert in New York City.  In November of 1993 Nirvana was the biggest rock band in the world and to those who were at that concert, the future seemed bright.  History would unfortunately play out differently.  

Kurt Cobain committed suicide five months to the day after playing in Buffalo.  His death was the defining event of my generation and remains one of those “where were you when you heard the news?”  moments.  I remember the moment like it was yesterday.  I was in the campus center at Alfred University playing College Bowl with the same people I had gone to the concert with five months before.  It was a complete shock that none of us believed at first.  After the initial mourning period was over, people invariably started talking about what would happen now that Nirvana was no more.  Some of these ideas and theories bring me back around to the topic of Cultural Ghosts and help to explain why a legendary rock band is being discussed on a blog dedicated to things that have largely been forgotten.

Nirvana left behind a relatively small catalog.  Three studio albums, a collection of B-sides, and a couple of live albums.  That’s it.  Cobain definitely left people wanting more, and after his untimely death, rumors about unreleased album-ready Nirvana songs started flying.  In the late spring and summer of 1993, stories started circulating that the band had recorded an entire album of new material and it would soon be released.  When the album didn’t come out, new rumors about Courtney Love withholding the album from fans started swirling (it was quite easy to hate Courtney Love at the time).  These rumors of a whole album-full of new Nirvana material were taken quite seriously at the time and some unreleased songs did trickle out as part of bootleg concert recordings.  This was in the era before YouTube and smartphones.  If you wanted to hear an unauthorized recording of a concert, you had to buy a bootleg CD or tape.  Sometimes they were quite expensive (as much as $20 to $25, which was a lot to pay for a CD back then).  I had a friend who obsessively collected Nirvana concert recordings in an effort to track down these post-In Utero tracks.  Keep in mind that this was before the current age of the Internet and much of this information travelled by word of mouth. Many of the songs he did track down were older unreleased tracks that hadn't made it on to older albums.  Sadly, the tracks were never released because there simply was no mythical follow-up to In Utero.  Nirvana did record a couple of tracks during their last studio session in January of 1994, but they didn’t record a whole album.  These rumors of new songs could grow because Nirvana fans didn’t want to believe that the band was done.  Accepting that was accepting the fact that Cobain had died suddenly and left his life and work unfinished.  No one wants to believe that they will never hear new songs by their favorite band, and believing that these songs were out there was a kind of wish fulfillment.  Like Beatles fans who search for mystery tracks with odd names like “Colliding Circles” and “Pink Litmus Paper Shirt”, the belief that a load of undiscovered material was out there left open the hope that Nirvana wasn’t really over.  

Another interesting topic of discussion from late 1993 was what the surviving members of Nirvana would go on to.  It was widely believed at the time that the member of the band poised to find success post-Nirvana was bassist Krist Novoselic.  He was often just as noticeable as Cobain on stage and seemed to get just as much attention in the press during Nirvana’s heyday.  His epic bass toss (that ended with him getting smashed in the face with his instrument) was often cited as evidence of his rock and roll bona fides.  If anyone was going to carry on the torch of grunge, it would surely be him.  Shortly after the death of Cobain, Novoselic formed a band called Sweet 75.  People had a lot of expectations for this band, and there was much speculation at the time that Novoselic’s success post-Nirvana was a sure thing.  As often happens in these situations, things played out differently.  Sweet 75 fizzled out after recording one album, and Novoselic became involved with several political issues.  Instead it was Dave Grohl, often literally in the background as the group’s drummer, who went on to form the Foo Fighters. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Ultimately, very little of what people thought would happen after Cobain’s death actually did happen.  In Utero became Nirvana’s swan song.  Dave Grohl, and not Novoselic, became the unlikely successor to the band’s rock crown.  One thing that hasn’t changed over the past 20 years, though, is the influence Nirvana had on music. Like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin before them, Nirvana fundamentally changed things.  Music and culture (especially of the 1990s) would have been completely different had Nirvana not come along.  What musicians have that distinction today?  I really can’t think of any.  There are successful music acts today, for sure, but there’s a big difference between selling a lot of albums and changing music history.  Singers like Katy Perry and Bruno Mars sell countless records and get their music played seemingly everywhere, but would music and culture be fundamentally different without them?  Probably not.  

The experience I had when I saw Nirvana live in 1993 is a Cultural Ghost.  There will never be a live Nirvana show again, and young people today who discover the band will never be able to have that experience.  I was lucky enough to be a fan of Nirvana during the relatively short time they existed, and I cherish the memory of the concert on that November night and still remember it like it was yesterday.  I’m older now, and don’t go to concerts much these days (mainly because of the cost), but I still listen to music, and I still listen to Nirvana.  Their music has held up incredibly well, and doesn’t sound dated or old.  There may never be any more new music from Nirvana, but their legacy lives on.  

Next time, a new topic.  it might be something you've never heard of.