My first exposure to this particular future “next big thing” came on a sunny late September afternoon in 1991when WERS-FM in Boston, played a 3-minute repeating loop of the first four bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I then heard that same riff – and the rest of the song – 200 more times before the month was out. And the rest, as they say, was rock history.
Although I had always felt Nirvana were a perfectly fine band, I also always felt the messianic depth ascribed to Cobain’s lyrics and guitar playing was a bit over the top. However, there’s no denying the sea change in the music scene that resulted from Nevermind, and how the word “alternative” became as common a label on Wal-Mart shelves as “boy’s t-shirts” and “Pop-tarts.” So, 20 years on, I figured it was worth another look.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Obviously, due to singer Kurt Cobain’s untimely passing, you are only going to get two-thirds of the band at best for something like this, so in addition to a very presentable-to-Mom-and-Dad version of Nirvana bassist Krist Nolosevic and a hipster phase moustachioed drummer Dave Grohl, we also hear from Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, Smells Like Teen Spirit video director Samuel Bayer (incidentally his first video) and a very youthful-looking (ladies and non-straight men read: “cute-as-a-button”) Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. As a bonus, there’s also a quick take or two from Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks. However, the most important – and most featured – figure is Nevermind producer and alternative scene veteran Butch Vig. And that’s what makes – and eventually breaks – the DVD.
Butch Vig had the most to add to the story, having worked with the band the year before, and having seen them grow since Bleach, so it’s disappointing his clips didn’t provide nearly as much insight as hoped. Instead he tends to wax sentimental, reaffirming the emotional connection between him and the band, and his sadness at Cobain’s suicide but adding little else. Most of the time he is actually shot in his home studio and not the Nevermind one (Sound City Studios in LA). Though we are in the digital age, there is still something “real” about seeing that big control board in the Eagle Rock series, and given that Nirvana was recorded in the time of dozens upon dozens of sliders in a big room as well, seeing Vig click a mouse on a Mac feels a bit… different, even if the tracks are the same.
But the most glaring omission is Kurt himself. There are probably only about 15-20 seconds total footage of the legendary frontman actually speaking, and all of that taken from on-the-spot festival or radio promotion interviews. While it is known Cobain was media-averse after Nevermind, it seems hard to believe there are no clips out there where he talks about the album. On the flip side we are spared from perhaps a quote being over-analyzed or sentence being seen as a portent of things to come.
Overall, if the point of the Eagle Rock series is to learn more about the background of how something so influential came together, the DVD’s payoff is too small.
MOST SURPRISING THINGS I LEARNED
Apparently the easiest way to get Beatles appreciator Cobain to do something out of his comfort zone during a recording session was to tell him John Lennon had also done it, and then he’d more than likely go right ahead. Also, we hear more about the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, which many assume was based solely on 70’s cult classic Rock and Roll High School. While there is that influence, Cobain was apparently also very influenced by a more obscure film, Over the Edge (Matt Dillon’s celluloid debut), where the students actually take over the school. So in that context, the equipment trashing at the end of Smells Like Teen Spirit makes more sense. And as it turns out, was actually the result of director Bayer giving up on managing the increasingly restless crowd during a 12-hour shoot and letting the kids run wild at the end.
The liberal use of the word “amazing” by record company folks – alternately used to describing Cobain’s voice, guitar playing, songwriting and even Nirvana’s gigs – for me does substitute well for nails on a blackboard. Everyone in retrospect wants to take credit for identifying something before the rest of the world, so it’s easy to follow a narrative when you know the conclusion has already been written. The number of people who “just knew” Nirvana would be huge was a bit much.
Probably what most encapsulates the negatives of this DVD for me is Vig replaying the “hel-lo, hel-lo, hel-lo-lo-lo” from SLTS to show Kurt’s brilliance, pointing out how the word “hello” changes from “hel-lo” to “he-loh,” “hail-lo” and “hul-lo” and that this was really great and showed depth and artistry (see video above at 1:00). Yeah, I thought it was bullshit too.
On the plus side, seeing the first live performance of SLTS was definitely cool, and the positive audience reaction from the get-go I guess could be seen as a sign of things to come. I also did very much appreciate the honesty of one of the A&R people who said before all this exploded that they thought selling 50,000 copies of Nevermind would be a tremendous success. The discussion on how the band smashed instruments was also really interesting – rather than as some homage to The Who or The Clash, it was really because they wanted to get off the stage, and breaking the equipment ensured they wouldn’t have to play any more songs.
SEE OR SKIP?
It’s a pretty thin documentary for what is supposed to be one of the seminal albums in all of rock and roll, clocking in at only a little over an hour even with all the “bonus” sections (and under 50 minutes without). Perhaps the descriptions of Nirvana being a very serious, “just play and go home” type of band were spot on. But that doesn’t mean the DVD has to be.
Except for a few good one-liners from Grohl, a couple of studio tips from Vig and just the general “whatever” vibe from video director Bayer, there’s not much to really keep your attention. It’s a light, healthy meal, so if you’ve got a delicate system, then you’ll be fine. But if you’re that delicate, what the hell are you doing being a Nirvana fan in the first place?