Has the sideman surpassed his hero?
Are Foo Fighters more important than Nirvana? Such a thought might have been considered heresy even five years ago. But the re-release of a new, expanded DVD version of Nirvana’s final official recording, Unplugged in New York (DGC), considered together with Foo Fighters’ new Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (RCA) is enough to make a long-time fan of both bands think twice.
Unplugged remains a landmark live recording. In hindsight, it’s apparent that the self-loathing in Kurt Cobain’s voice is not palpable as he bites into the line “Teenage angst has paid off well but now I’m bored and old” in the stripped-down live version of “Serve the Servants.” If anything, he seems to be smirking. There’s also no twinkle of knowingness in his piercing blues as he sings, “I got so high that I scratched ’til I bled/Love myself better than you/I know it’s wrong, so what should I do?” in “On a Plain” — a description of heroin addiction that should be familiar to any fan of the A&E reality drama Intervention. And when, in a strained voice, he repeats “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” in a mellow “Come As You Are,” he doesn’t look as if he were keeping some big secret. If anything, Kurt has an air of nonchalance about him. He half-heartedly leads the band, whose line-up by then included guitarist Pat Smear, through what would be edited down to a tight 14-song set for mass consumption on both MTV and Geffen Records. He jokes, “I guarantee I will screw this song up,” referring to Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” And in the bonus footage of the band’s rehearsals, Kurt is continually thrown off by a chord that Smear has added to the chorus. After Kurt’s admission, someone — Grohl perhaps — answers, “Yeah, like he’ll only screw one song up.”
Chalk that up to good-natured ribbing. Or perhaps we should invest it with more meaning. Shot in November of ’93, Unplugged in New York was pretty much the last time Nirvana appeared as a functioning band. On March 4 of the following year, Kurt overdosed in Rome; that forced the cancellation of a European tour. And on April 8, he took his own life with a shotgun in his Seattle home. You’d think there’d be some evidence of this impending doom on Unplugged in New York. But unless there’s something to be diagnosed from Kurt’s incessant smoking, or the general sense that the band haven’t spent much time preparing for the unplugged performance, the reasonably candid Unplugged in New York DVD doesn’t offer any great revelations.
That’s not to suggest that there isn’t plenty here for Nirvana enthusiasts. You don’t even have to be a Cobain fanatic to appreciate the behind-the-scenes footage of the band’s dress rehearsal (a misnomer if ever there was one because only Grohl seems “dressed” for the occasion). It’s especially amusing to watch as it becomes clear that no amount of tweaking is going to make Pat Smear’s background vocals, Dave Grohl’s second guitar, or any other accompaniment work with the way Kurt is playing “Pennyroyal Tea.” Listen closely to the start of the version that made the final cut and you’ll hear him still struggling to find the key.
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