- Alastair McKay
- Krist Novoselic
|Scotland On Sunday
||Short Cuts To The Top
THIS is a tale of two T-shirts. Both are innocent enough looking garments, but on the back of each is a printed slogan designed to rouse the sleepiest of mothers from the monotony of ironing the teenage wardrobe.
One is clearly profane, and boasts how the group which it endorses are “Fudge packin’, crack smokin’, Satan worshippin’ mother-truckers.” (NB: one of these words has been changed to protect the innocent).
The second slogan is a parody of the first. “Flower sniffin, kitty pettin’ baby kissin’, Corporate Rock Whores”, it boasts.
The Satan worshipping flower sniffers are a group called Nirvana, and the joke is this. A matter of weeks ago they were a cultish guitar band from Seattle operating on the fringes of public acceptance. Now, weeks after the release of their second LP Nevermind, Nirvana has been delivered to a million American bedrooms, and the single Smells Like Teen Spirit, is a shock entry in the British singles charts at Number 9.
In recent weeks Nirvana have made two controversial appearances on British TV. The first, on Channel 4’s youth freak show The Word, was launched with an F-word, and the performance was faded way before its end. Then, on Thursday’s Top Of The Pops, Nirvana made no effort to play, and even forgot to mime, contenting themselves with an attempt to consume the microphone and levitate by means of a rotating bass guitar. This performance, too, was cut short.
That the rise of Nirvana was fast and unexpected can be understood by observing the scene outside Edinburgh's Calton Studios on Friday evening. When this tour was booked it seemed fair to expect Nirvana would attract the regular crowd of a few hundred disaffected skateboarders. By six o'clock the pavement is already littered with lost souls trying to cadge tickets.
Things are not so rosy inside the Nirvana dressing room. There is an air of contained panic, and all eyes are fixed on the wretched figure of singer Kurt Cobain, whose beetroot face is radiating sickness from beneath a badly tended mop of peroxide split ends. Officially, Cobain is suffering from a virus brought on by the rigours of touring, but it's an open question as to whether this may be a polite way of explaining something altogether more nasty. A doctor has been summoned, and there is much exasperated muttering about prescriptions.
Away from the fray, in a four-foot square kitchenette littered with Cup-A-Soup, bassist Chris Novoselic explains the petulant Top of the Pops display. “TV’s just phoney. There's a couple of guys who get the kids all hyped up. We wanted to go on there in the spirit of Keith Moon and just obviously look silly. It was just fun, was all it was.”
He is more forthcoming about the subject of the single. “It's about American youth, apathy. You know ‘Here we are now, entertain us.’ Give us Nintendo, give us TV shows, give us boring mainstream movies. That's all we want.”
Novoselic is a friendly sort, a thinned-out Frank Zappa lookalike who has no trouble admitting that punk rock changed his life. He has no quick explanation for Nirvana's rise, and few illusions about it marking a lasting change in the buying habits of American youth.
“The whole process in America is that people offered garbage, then they’re asked what they want and they say garbage, because that's all they know. It's like a ping pong ball that goes back and forth. Hopefully - wishful thinking - a lot of people bought our record, they like it, maybe they'll say where are these guys from, what's their trip and they'll find out that there's this whole underground scene.”
He is clear in his efforts to distance Nirvana from the excesses of spandex-wearing rockers, though some efforts have been made to paint the group in a similar light. So whatever happened to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll?
“That's a worn out cliche. That's the attitude of the old guard bands who ride Harley Davidson's and wear bandanas. Our band has been known to tear it up, but by no means is that a lifestyle. That's one night, when we all had a hair up our ass and were drinking a lot.
“Sex: I'm married, everybody has a girl happening, it's not like every night picking up some girl and getting it on. The drugs part. True we drink, smoke pot, experiment with things, but I don't think that's an attitude.
“I think I covered all three bases. Sex, drugs and - oh! - rock ‘n’ roll. We're totally into the rock ‘n’ roll part.”
Come showtime, the wonders of modern science have raised Cobain, and Nirvana deliver a performance which hits the right notes but somehow fails to ignite. “Don't expect me to die,” he growls in the opening song, but the possibility of a stage invasion by the Grim Reaper does not seem all that extreme. It's left to Novoselic to provide the energy, and he gamely obliges, thumping his bass while dancing in the manner of a moonwalking trampolinist.
Nirvana have a big sound for a three piece, but with Cobain partially disabled, the guitar parts are often left unfilled. The set is half-frantic, half-funeral. There is some hard riffing, but it is the group’s slower, more maudlin efforts which work best. Even when in sensitive mode, Cobain’s vocals tend towards a sandpaper growl, and the toll is felt on Polly, (a curious tale of male brutality) which is punctuated by bouts of coughing. There is a well-aimed shot at the Velvet Underground’s Here She Comes Now, which starts peacefully and builds into a fully-fledged lung-bleeder.
The show ends in chaos. The guitars are left feeding back, blood and sweat run down the faces of the more exuberant fans. There is growing disquiet a it becomes clear that there is to be no encore. The lights come on, cruelly revealing faces bust anticipating tomorrow’s hangover. Outside the hall the T-shirts are selling fast, in both designs.
© Alastair McKay, 1991