When Nirvana hit it big I was in high school, a punk-rock purist with little time for their MTV revisionism or the fact that they inspired teen rebellion from people who’d never heard “Teenage Kicks.” But even though I was trapped in a late-70s time warp, I found myself at home alone when no one else was listening slipping in a tape (that’s right, cassette) of Nevermind and nodding my head. Cause, I had to admit, they were pretty damn good. When I got my hands on their debut, Bleach, I dug it even more, especially “About a Girl.” It’s still the tune that comes to mind unbidden when I drift back to memories of the band. And despite the cultish hype surrounding Kurt Cobain’s sad end and his bandmate Dave Grohl’s rise to pop stardom, I appreciate them for what they once were—a really excellent garage band—talented, unpretentious, melodic, devoid of flash and ego and able to deliver the rock in one of the most impressive of configurations: the power trio.
Few places are Nirvana’s garage chops more in evidence than in home video of their early days, shot in grimy practice rooms, stages, and the streets of Seattle. In the video above from 1988, the band bangs out a version of “About a Girl” with muted ferocity. Strobe lights strobe, some dudes lounge around the doorway, and Cobain shouts the lyrics with his face pressed to the wall. It’s a perfect little document of the band, looking more or less like they always did, but without lighting banks, TV cameras, and screaming fans distracting from their lo-fi fuzz-rock appeal; all that machinery that seemed so ridiculous surrounding these guys. But we know that story.
In a quieter moment, watch the montage of home video clips above, over which the band plays Terry Jacks’ maudlin 1974 hit “Seasons in the Sun,” supposedly the first record Cobain ever bought. In this 1993 rendition, the trio swaps roles, with Cobain on drums and vocals, bassist Krist Novoselic on guitar, and drummer Grohl on bass. It’s a lazy, loopy take that seems on the verge of devolving into either laughter or tears. The video cuts to footage of the band goofing around in snowy woods, a small stage, and cityscapes--a beautiful epitaph that shows them for who they were: not a band that ever quite belonged on an arena stage, but three ragged misfits, led by a sentimental, nostalgic songwriter who hated sentimental nostalgia. They made for great bedroom listening, that’s for sure.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.