Nirvana – Lake of Fire

MTV Unplugged in New York
Year :
Meat Puppets / The Vaselines / Pixies

In all honesty, it’s sort of surprising that it took me this long to write about Nirvana (at least for The Daily Soundtrack, that is). I wrote no fewer than three papers about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana while in high school, and while the opportunities to write about him and them weren’t always there in college, I threw it in where I could. This is partially because Nirvana is and will always be one of my favorite bands. I know a lot of people who are sort of indifferent to Nirvana, people who acknowledge and respect their place in the history of modern music without really loving the music. I don’t begrudge these people their opinions, but I do think they are missing out. Kurt was a much better craftsman of pop songs than most people give him credit for (and perhaps more than he would have liked to have been), and while the songs rarely gave the individual members a chance to showoff their technical skill, all three had chops to be reckoned with.

More important than any of that, however, is that Nirvana was the first band that was mine.

The idea and importance of the first band you come to love on your own is a topic that has been discussed in this space before. It’s one of those moments in life that almost everyone goes through but experiences differently, that rare event that  is both universal and personal. For me, it all started the first time I heard “In Bloom” on the radio. I started saving that day until I had enough to go get Nevermind on cassette. It was one of the first tapes I ever wore out.

I could talk at length about Kurt, Nirvana, and the connection I feel to the music and the person behind it, but let’s save that for another time. Instead, let’s talk about the Meat Puppets.

One of the many influences on Kurt Cobain, the Meat Puppets were a cowpunk band fueled by the odd songwriting of brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood and a constant diet of heroin and acid. Kurt asked the Kirkwood brothers to be guests for part of the Unplugged performance, playing a few Meat Puppet songs while Kurt sang. This, on top of a set list that was already low on singles, didn’t sit particularly well with producers at MTV. As is often the case in these situations, the band was right, the suits were wrong, and the show has become legendary.

Here’s where things get a little less clear. Kurt often promoted lesser-known bands, either by wearing their t-shirts, talking about them in interviews, or having them open for the band on tour. While it’s likely Kurt truly loved these bands, it also seemed partially done to annoy the people Kurt saw as the corporate side of music. Talking about bands like Flipper and the Vaselines in an interview is a passive way to telling the interviewer that their taste in music sucks, and to bring those bands on tour was to stick it to those who wanted them to tour with more nationally recognized acts.

There is one other reason some people claimed Kurt chose to talk about and tour with these kinds of bands. The Nirvana/Pearl Jam feud may have been a bit overblown while it was happening, and Kurt and Eddie Vedder had worked out their differences by the time Kurt died, but there is no denying that these two bands did not like each other in the early 90′s, and it’s hard to argue that it didn’t mostly start with Kurt. There are some people who were around either or both bands at the time who feel Kurt’s anger towards Vedder and Pearl Jam was a result of him being jealous of and threatened by their success. It was this pettiness that motivated Kurt to bring unknowns on tour with Nirvana, so he would never have to worry about not being the most important, and well liked, band of the night

At least, that’s what some people think. What do I think? I think Kurt had a troubled relationship with fame. I think he was someone who never wanted to be liked until suddenly everyone liked him. I think he had mixed feelings about popularity and success, and I think it bothered him that he had those feelings. I do not think he was motivated by keeping himself at the top. How do I know this? I don’t. I never met the man, but I can’t watch or listen to him sing these songs after bringing out Cris and Curt* to play them, pushing his voice, in both range and emotion, to the breaking point, if he didn’t truly love the Meat Puppets and these songs.

I might be wrong. And if I am? I’m never going to be right.


*If this didn’t happen at the most famous Nirvana concert, it’s possible people would see this less as a cover and more as Nirvana performing with the Meat Puppets, rather than the other way around.

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Matthew Belair (@14Belair42) grew up on the classic rock of his parents and the 90s alt-rock of his older sister before discovering other genres to love, all of which are cool, hip, and in no way embarrassing to admit publicly.

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