Yes, it’s been over 20 years now since Nirvana played their last show, and if you’re old enough to have been there, go ahead and take a moment of silence to mourn your lost youth. Given the relative paucity of raw, authentic-sounding guitar rock these days, it’s tempting to romanticize the nineties as halcyon days, but that kind of nostalgia should be tempered by an honest accounting of the tedious flood of grunge-like also-rans the corporate labels released upon us after Nirvana’s mainstream success. In a certain sense, the demise of that band and death of its leader marks the end of so-called “alternative” rock (whatever that meant) as a genuine alternative. After Nirvana, a deluge of growly, angsty, and not especially listenable bands took over the airwaves and festival circuits. Before them—well, if you don’t know, ask your once-hip aunts and uncles.
And yet, there is another narrative—one that holds up the band as rock redeemers who broke through the corporate mold and, like the Stooges or the Ramones twenty years earlier, brought back authentic anger, danger, and intensity to rock ‘n’ roll. That Nirvana became the corporate mold is not necessarily their doing, and not a turn of events that sat at all well with the band. Their last show, in Munich, 1994 (see it in part at the top, and hear it in full above), “was anything but immaculate,” writes Consequence of Sound, a fact “almost tragically fitting.” As if presaging its leader’s decline, Nirvana’s final concert went from strained to worse, as Cobain’s voice faltered due to bronchitis, and the venue temporarily lost power. “Undeterred, they continued acoustically, but ended up cutting what would’ve been the seventh song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” the track that launched a million grunge garage bands three years earlier. With tongues in cheeks, they open—at the top—with The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” (and a few bars of their “Moving in Stereo”). Surely both an homage to a great ‘80s band and a punk deconstruction of major label radio rock of the previous decade.
In a foreboding remark after the power went out, bassist Krist Noveselic quips, “We’re not playing the Munich Enormodome tonight. ‘Cos our careers are on the wane. We’re on the way out. Grunge is dead. Nirvana’s over.” The remainder of the tour was canceled, and Cobain went to Rome, where he overdosed on Rohypnol and champagne and temporarily fell into a coma. One month later, after a failed rehab stint, he was dead. Almost immediately afterward, a cult of Cobain sprung up around his memory—as much a triumph of marketing as an act of mourning. T-shirts, posters, tribute albums… the usual mass culture wake when a rock star dies young. What saddened me as a child of the era is not that the band’s last tour petered out, or even that Cobain fell apart under the familiar pressures of fame and addiction, but that in death he was turned into what he hated most—an idol. But if the worshipful merch of twenty years ago seemed tacky, it was nothing compared to t-shirts selling just weeks ago with Cobain’s suicide note printed on them. (These have since been pulled due to complaints.) And while we may someday hear the demos of Cobain’s planned solo record, we might also have been treated to something else—“our next record’s going to be a hip-hop record,” joked Noveselic. Now that would have been a novelty. Instead we got these guys.