Somewhere in the bowels of this DVD, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain starts strumming out the instantly recognisable riff of Boston’s 1976 hit ‘More than a feeling’ and breaks into a grin directed at bandmate Krist Novoselic on the bass. A Rasputin in a leather jacket, Krist growls out the chorus of the classic rock classic as the crowd pogos as one giant organism. Then, just as suddenly as the strumming had begun, the guitar riff mutates, the chord progression shape-shifts ever so slightly to the opening riffs of ‘Smells like teen spirit’. Even in the crummy rectangle of a television screen, it’s obvious that you’re witness an epiphany.
Which is what the 25-song set by Nirvana, headlining the Reading Festival in Britain on August 3, 1992, was: epiphanic part-punk prom and part-Nuremberg rally. Nirvana: Live At Reading finally comes out of bootleg purgatory and to watch it is to experience the power and the fury of one of punk rock’s greatest acts.
You can instantly see the crackle of energy that drives the gig. Twelve days before this concert, Kurt has become a father. Almost at the same time, there’s a full-blown media attack on him and his wife Courtney Love of being heroin-users and unfit for parenthood. The mood had been so bad that Cobain had come to visit the pregnant Courtney waving a gun, threatening to shoot her and himself. A fortnight later, he was in England playing arguably Nirvana’s most electrifying gig recorded.
The concert starts with the burlesque, Kurt being wheeled in on a wheelchair, standing up and immediately collapsing on the stage. Krist plays along this ‘media dream’ saying that Kurt will “make it” with the help of “friends and family”. Which is when Kurt leaps to the mike and churns out what can only sound like rage finding tune with the opening song, ‘Breed’ from Nevermind. Another track, ‘Drain you’ from the same epical album follows. One gets to instantly understand what the band meant when it complained later about the album being sound being “too clean”.
In ‘Aneurysm,’ Kurt enters a zone in which he is spewing out unsheathed emotions. As he screams the connecting bridge from the Elvis-mimicking opening lines to the repetitive poundings of words and guitars, something deep from his pit of the stomach that has a route to the heart is sent out to the pit of our stomachs. On stage, he looks like an animal trapped and in throes of something akin to death.
But the concert is also rife with its playful banter — the crooked smile with a flying spittle embodying the show. There are flashes of Kurt, Krist and Dave Grohl behind his pounding drum kit being three youngsters playing ear-splitting rock’n’roll for a grand display of organised chaos that makes you tremble as well as jump up and down at the same time.
Another highlight of the concert is Nirvana playing the cover of Kurt’s beloved band Mudhoney’s ‘The money will roll right in.” As he mouths the mike and plays devastatingly glorious guitar, you cannot but feel the sheer force of the idea that goes behind those two elemental words, “Fuck you.”
This is a precious DVD. What we have here is Nirvana at their very best playing songs from Nevermind (that had come out a year before), the just released album of their favourite punk covers, Incesticide and the yet-to-be made album (and, in my opinion, Niravana’s finest) In Utero.
Nirvana: Live At Reading shows one of the finest, most volatile sounds in rock’n’roll at its peak. That this high point was fuelled by demons is what made Kurt and his three-piece vehicle of anguished playfulness the band that Nirvana was. To not see this DVD is to deny yourself something truly special.