Wednesday, January 11, 2012
[pitchfork.com] One month after Nirvana released Nevermind, they performed a gig at Seattle's Paramount Theatre on Halloween. A week after the show, Nevermind would crack the Top 40. A month later, it would be certified Gold. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was climbing to alarming heights on the Billboard chart. There was an imposing phalanx of video cameras present at the venue, to capture the gig in its entirety. The band was, understandably, a little freaked.
There is plenty of live Nirvana already available to us: the half-hearted-feeling rush job that was From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah in 1996; the commercial release, last year, of the beloved bootleg Live at Reading; the Unplugged record. But the joy of Live at the Paramount is hearing the charge of this moment: a great band newly famous, still reeling and flooded with nervy adrenaline. Every single song on this setlist has already been featured once, or more, on some other Nirvana live record. But it's still invaluable.
Kurt's voice sounds remarkably powerful here: He sang in a way that was obviously unsustainable, even with the aid of heavy cough syrup, and there's a thrill, although a slightly selfish one, of hearing his voice rip the air before he had begun to scream it down to the threads. His peculiar, yowling phrasing may have been a deliberate choice, or it might have been the only way he managed to wrangle those notes from a constricted voice box, but there is a terrible, riveting intensity to it: Words feel torn from him, bearing fishhooks on their way out. "Aneurysm"'s "Love you so much/ It makes me sick" becomes "Laahve yeww sowl much et makes me SECK." It physically hurts to hear, as it always has, but it gives you some of the most committed, clear performances of Nirvana's canonical songs as you're likely to get.
There is some time-capsule fun to have listening to Paramount-- one of the biggest cheers is for "School"! Krist Novoselic makes a wince-inducing "Smile, you're on 'Candid Camera'" joke! But the album's queerest, and most fascinating, punk-rock sociological moment comes from the protracted lead-up to "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which was already the elephant in the room. You can practically see the feet-dragging and hand-twisting that leads up to it, like antsy kids being herded into Sunday service.
First, Novoselic makes some noncommittal crack about the absence of Halloween constumes in the crowd ("unless you're all supposed to be punk rockers.") Then they play "Floyd the Barber", one of the least melodic and sludgiest songs in the catalog. Afterward, a time-killing little tongue-in-cheek instrumental jam. Then, Novoselic's voice cuts back into the mic, as he hollers, curiously, "White boy funk sucks!" Only after all this fidgeting is finished do those chords fire up. In the moment you can hear roaring to life the enormous machine that would, less than a year later, take Nevermind to multi-platinum status. The version is anything but noncommittal-- Cobain leans into every "a denial" harder than the last. It's exhilarating and poignant. You can hear they still unambiguously love this song, even if it was starting to make things complicated for them.
Posted by Dan Goldin at 11:57 PM