Nirvana: Isle of Calf Festival, Oslo; Sjohistoriska Museum, Stockholm
Which means: no emotion shown, if that's the only way the can retain self-respect.
First night in Stockholm, I'm watching MTV with Kurt and Courtney in their hotel suite, waiting for the new Nirvana video to come on. Eddie Murphy flashes by, typically unfunny. "He used to be funny once, didn't he?" Kurt remarks. "Back before he became famous and complacent, back when he was still struggling to be heard, back when he had to try." There's no need for Kurt to elaborate. We know who he's talking about.
But Kurt still tries. Otherwise, why is he in so much pain? Not for the first time this year, I begin to realise why Bono and Axl and Bruce and all those would-be rock messiahs are so crap. The market forces, the record buyers, ARE that powerful – you either succumb or you go insane. Is there a third choice? Nirvana are struggling against it ... they’re struggling real hard and they’re struggling real strong ... but it’s impossible to make sense of much of this confusion.
In Oslo, Kurt simply stands immobile as 20,000 kids go beserk, uncaring as to what reactions his band may or may not be exciting. And the audience, with their ritualised clapping and banners and shoes tossed in the air and bare chests, couldn’t give a damn about how good or otherwise the band on stage are. Why should they? This is corporate entertainment, however much the band decry it. To most of these serenely beautiful sun-kissed Scandinavians, it doesn’t matter that it’s Nirvana up there. It could be anyone. It’s a festival, see. They couldn’t give a damn about Flipper or Shonen Knife or punk or Courtney Love or any of the things so close to Nirvana’s heart. Why should they? What matters is size.
Festival crowds know what to expect, or so they think. They had the parameters of how they choose to spend their leisure time mapped out long ago. On this scale, art counts for virtually nothing. Rebellion? How can anyone be rebellious once they’ve conquered the American market? By throwing it all away again? Then you’re just termed "a failure", or worse, "a one-hit wonder".
In Oslo, for all it matters, Kurt could be rampaging drunk and breaking equipment, Chris could be throwing his bass 10 feet into the air and Dave moshing hard, like they used to. But they aren’t (okay, Dave is). Sometimes Kurt flicks his floor switch from reverb to normal, sometimes Kurt looks across to see if Chris is playing the correct bass part, sometimes Kurt’ll try and make a self-deprecating remark and fail. There’s precious little emotion, humour, angst here ... a bunch of incredible songs turned to shimmering dust, some brutally evocative lyrics which now mean less than shit, now that the whole world has learnt its part and reduced them to the everyday, the mundane. Shit happens.
Yet Nirvana still sound glorious.
Yet "Polly" and "Stay Away" and "On A Plain" still evoke, chastise, berate, uplift. Fuck knows why. Maybe familiarity doesn’t always blunt. Maybe we’re talking love.
In Stockholm, Kurt at least tries, buoyed by the news shouted to him across the stage by his wife that the concert has been undersold by 6,000. "Hey! We’re on our way out," he gleefully shouts at the British press. But then, Stockholm isn’t part of a two-day festival like Oslo ... it’s a Nirvana show, for fans solely. So Kurt changes the setlist seconds before taking the stage, starting with a classic American punk number "Money Roll Right In" (irony), playing an impromptu "D7" upon request AND "Molly Lips", even making a few jokes. Dave and Chris look happier as well: for the encore (a searing, purposeful "Teen Spirit" and a rampant "Territorial Pissings"), they drag 50 kids waiting by the back gate on stage ... and hell, spontaneous bonhomie can work on this level. Even if it does recall something off of "The Arsenio Hall Show".
But the main set is still as bad as I’ve seen Nirvana play, in terms of spirit, excitement, inspiration (everything Nirvana used to have in spades). Even if I am damn near crying near "Lithium" (it seems so appropriate, somehow). And Oslo was way, way worse.
Contrast the difference in attitudes at the Stockholm soundcheck. First, Nirvana: a roadie stands in for Kurt as the band run through a lacklustre "In Bloom" and a flat "Teen Spirit", sounding oddly like Weird Al himself. Then, Teenage Fanclub – all the band present and visibly enjoying life, running carefree through a Todd Rundgren number, a Sixties bubblegum pop classic, Alex Chilton, anything and everything they’ve loved. Once, Nirvana delighted in their togetherness, forged through years of constant touring through the cesspits of America. Now it seems Kurt would rather be anywhere than hangin’ with Chris and Dave.
Pressures, dude. But Nirvana still sound life-affirming.
How could they otherwise? Especially when "Nevermind", as awesome as it was/is, never did justice to the excitement and genuine power of their live sound.
So Oslo is a mess of contradictions and contrary emotions. The day’s so glorious, the babes so beautiful, Teenage Fanclub’s support slot so buoyant and inspirational, it’d take some kinda churlish fool or pining Aberdeen type not to enjoy themselves. Yet, even with the inspired choice of Tori Amos’ version of "Teen Spirit" as an intro tape, it’s apparent that Kurt is torn... torn between his loyalty to the kids who genuinely appreciate and love his music, and those who are into them as a fad, as a cuter, punkier Ugly Kid Joe alternative.
His voice is still inexhaustively expressive, emotive, his guitar still bleeds angst, but his demeanour...remember this is the band who built a guitar out of being rampant on stage, whose new video mythologises the whole guitar-smashing ethos with a grandiose finality. Kurt won’t even admit that he has any frustrations left. Not in public. But he has. Oh, man.
Second night in Stockholm, the assembled Nirvana and Fanclub crews are watching an MTV clip of Eddie Vedder going off the rails in Denmark. There’s no appreciable glee at a well-publicised rival losing it ... just a sad empathy, a feeling of genuine pity that perhaps here is another singer who is unable to cope with the lies and pressures and trauma of fame, who loathes and despises the distance forced between him and his audience, who can’t see any way out of the trap, the role forced upon him simply because he’s written lyrics that reach people (it’s not his fault his band sucks). Pearl Jam cancelled the remainder of their European tour the same day. Bet Kurt was jealous.
The way people talk right now suggests that, even if Nirvana aren’t going to split up, Reading will be their last show for a very long time. (On the phone the next week, the singer flatly denies this. "We’ll be touring in November," he tells me, "but no festivals this time. Definitely no festivals. And, if Chris wasn’t in Greece, we’d be in the recording studio laying down tracks for the new album right now."
Let’s hope to fuck that Nirvana learn how to adapt and survive. We desperately need people like them up there to give people like us down here hope, hope that you don’t need to be an Extreme or an INXS or a Bryan Adams to succeed.