Horrible, beautiful

David Fenton reviews Nirvana's compilation of live tracks entitled "From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah".

By David Fenton
Published September 30, 1996 3:34PM (EDT)

do you remember what you were doing when you heard Nirvana for the first
time? I do. Seven years after the fact I can still picture the car I was
in, the road I was on, the turn we were taking -- I even remember the
weather that day and the angle of the sun when I first heard "Bleach,"
their debut. Those first bass lines of "Blew," as dark and foreboding as
the hair-strewn cover of the album itself, came rumbling through the
speakers, and I was suddenly aware that something horrible, or beautiful,
was about to happen. And it, or they, did.

Bleak, caustic and absolutely unrelenting in its visceral beauty, 1989's
"Bleach" took 20 years' worth of hard rock, metal, punk and hardcore and
manhandled it, wrapping it all around an unrefined but still glimmering
core of almost extrasensory pop perception. And that was just the
beginning. From "Bleach" through the monstrous "Nevermind" and on into
"Incesticide" and "In Utero," Kurt Cobain's melodies, no matter how twisted
in their delivery, have always managed to make perfect sense. They're as
immediately familiar as long-forgotten lullabies, and despite the toll that
their massive dissemination took on him, they've found their place in our
collective gray matter as easily as if they'd always been there.

The undiluted emotion of these songs -- the kind of seething anger and
disillusionment that too many people these days only think that
they've been through -- was numbed by the funereal restraint of the
posthumously released "MTV Unplugged in New York." As indispensable as
"Unplugged" is for the extravagant sadness of the acoustic "Pennyroyal Tea"
and "All Apologies," it's just not loud enough to end with. It's got
the songs (from "About a Girl" to "Dumb") but not, save for the deathly
gasp that closes "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," the essence -- the
raging, unapologetic discharge that is the marrow of a live and fully
electric Nirvana.

For that, we now have "From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah," a
collection of 16 live tracks (and one bizarre sound check) culled from five
years of club, hall, stadium and festival shows. Compiled by surviving
members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, "Wishkah" is a coarse, aggressive
and perfectly imperfect summary of the band, in their element and at their
unfiltered best. If Cobain's fleeting tenure as "spokesman for a generation"
was like a public dissection, and the two-and-a-half years since his death
a protracted autopsy, then "Wishkah" is like seeing him get up and walk

Originally intended to accompany "Unplugged" as part of a two-CD live
set ("Nirvana lite" and "Nirvana raw," as Novoselic puts it in the press
release), but put on the back burners when sorting through performance
tapes proved too difficult in the wake of Cobain's April 1994 suicide,
"Wishkah" draws heavily from the less radio-friendly but more intense songs
the band chose to play as nightly staples on their "Nevermind" world tour
in the winter of 1991. Tracks like "School" and "Blew" from "Bleach" and
"Aneurysm" and "Been a Son" from "Incesticide" get well-deserved equal
billing alongside the now-ingrained strains of "(Smells Like) Teen Spirit"
and "Lithium" from "Nevermind," and it's the power of these lesser known
(to the undevoted, at least) songs that drives the album.

For those unaccustomed to the harshness of a plugged-in, live
Nirvana, much of "Wishkah" will come as a shock. Cobain doesn't so much
sing as he screams for his life, dryly screeching from his ulcerated gut
for some sort of understanding from an audience he seemed to fear much more
than he respected. Absent is the moneyed shellac in which "Nevermind"
producer Butch Vig originally encased songs like
"Drain You," "(Smells Like) Teen Spirit," "Lithium" and "Polly" (all
present here); in its place is an unvarnished but painfully honest wall
of sound that's as close to the band's true nature -- and as close to the
way we watched Cobain self-destruct in real time -- as anything they've put
out. Dave Grohl's relentless drumming is all crash cymbals and wide open
high-hats, and Novoselic's bass playing is typically workmanlike, providing
a heavy low end to ground the choleric assaults of Cobain's guitar.

"School," the opener, sets the tone for "Wishkah." At first acrid and
menacing, an irrestibly ugly E-string barrage augmented by the
painful rasp of Cobain's stadium scream, it's actually endearing by the
time it ends -- with a primal repetition of "no recess" as rooted in longing
for a perfect childhood as it is in a dropout's scorn for an
administrator's petty punishments. "Aneurysm" and the near-perfect "Been a
Son" deliver similar doses of Cobain's unequalled melding of empathy and
enmity. They're at once disarming and disconcerting, and damn catchy
to boot.

Other standouts on "Wishkah" -- all album tracks rather than overspun
radio staples -- include a scathing pre-release rendition of "Tourette's"
from the 1992 Reading Festival, as well as the Pat Smear-enhanced
"Scentless Apprentice" and "Milk It" from the winter 1993-94 "In Utero"
tour. What takes "Wishkah" over the top, however, is a harrowing "Negative
Creep," recorded (appropriately) on Halloween night,1991, in Seattle's
Paramount Theatre. It's a larynx-shredding, speaker-piercing
steamroller of a performance that demonstrates perfectly how Kurt Cobain
and only Kurt Cobain could take a crude three-chord rant and turn it into
something both intimate and universal.

It's just this kind of accessibility, whether the chorus is "Daddy's
little girl ain't a girl no more" (from "Negative Creep") or "All alone is
all we are" (from "All Apologies"), that gave us all a sense of
proprietorship over Nirvana's songs. Maybe that's why I can picture so
vividly the exact moment that I first heard the band, yet have almost no
recollection of what I was doing when I found out, in the worst way, that
they'd never play again. There was no feeling of loss; Cobain didn't owe me
anything, because I already owned the melodies -- in some innate way I
guess I always had. I don't remember anger, I don't remember shock, or even
grief. I just remember turning on a stereo at some point and listening
again, not to what could have been, but to what was, is, and will always

David Fenton

David Fenton is a regular contributor to Salon.

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