Here in the Internet Age, we tend to think that we made possible the overnight transformation from blog-buzz baby to arena-rock idol. In fact, that rapid ascent pre-dates Rapidshare, as you’re reminded by Live at Reading, a new CD/DVD package recorded at the annual English music festival on August 30, 1992. That was less than a year after the release of Nevermind, yet check out Kurt Cobain: dude is screaming his guts out in front of an audience numbering well into the tens of thousands, commanding the crowd’s attention like an experienced veteran (as opposed to somebody with fresh memories of mopping floors).
Even if you’re not an eBay-trawling bootleg hound, you know this Reading gig — it’s the one where Cobain, wearing a scraggly blond wig, gets pushed on stage in a wheelchair, stands up at the mic, and promptly crashes to the floor. At the time, the singer was poking fun at media speculation concerning his and Courtney Love’s health. (Yep, gossip existed pre-Internet, too.) Now the bit serves as a killer fake-out; as soon as Cobain hauls himself up, Nirvana launch into a 90-minute onslaught of fugly-beautiful grunge-guitar fury. The stuff from Nevermind — and, to a lesser extent, Bleach — sounds great, but what really fascinates here are the handful of cuts that would wind up on In Utero a year later. In a trash-thrash take on “Tourette’s,” for example, you can hear Cobain contending uneasily with the strange new role of rock star.
Rock-stardom is not necessarily what you hear beckoning on Sub Pop’s 20th-anniversary reissue of Bleach, which comes with a sludgy live set taped at Portland’s Pine Street Theatre in 1990. In a way, though, that only makes this program of lumpen lumberjack-metal moves more interesting. Sure, “About a Girl” and “School” betray an uncommon knack for hard-pop tunecraft. But how on earth did “Negative Creep” lead to “All Apologies”?