Leave It Live
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
Have you ever read a book so good you want to know what happens to the characters after you've finished it--whether they live happily ever after or die alone? Like literary classics, the very best rock bands continue to write their stories on your heart long after they've come to an end. That's why the recorded history of Nirvana is currently so dissatisfying: Thinking about it is a bit like being stuck in an airplane with only the first three chapters of The Woman in White--and the sure-fire knowledge that when you get back to land, every copy on the planet will have been destroyed.
This is one story that isn't going anywhere--and rereading it, so to speak, doesn't help one come to terms with that fact. From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is Nirvana's sixth LP, but its material is wholly familiar to even the most casual fan. The set list includes several of the better-known songs from Nevermind, and "School" and "Negative Creep" from Bleach, three songs from In Utero, and one ringer, "Spank Thru," that can be found on most Nirvana bootlegs and special-edition singles.
The liner notes, sparely written by bassist Krist Novoselic, explain that the songs chosen are "mostly songs we played every night." But by culling tracks from different shows across a period of five years, Nirvana's remaining two members have made a common but serious mistake. All the best (or at least most popular) live LPs are ones that document one single show from beginning to end--Frampton Comes Alive!, the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East, U2's Under a Blood Red Sky, even Nirvana's own MTV Unplugged in New York and the Sex Pistols' tolerable Filthy Lucre Live. Any rock fan knows that live shows are more than just a record of a good vocal performance or a constant, steady beat: They are about momentum, and Wishkah has none. Of course, at this point in time, neither does Nirvana, so perhaps that's appropriate.
But any way you look at it, Wishkah is a poor, sterile beast. It only hints, and disjointedly at that, at the band's natural raw power, never coalescing into the blinding light that was Nirvana at its best. True, "Breed" and "Aneurysm" and "Sliver" are excellent takes--those three songs are pretty invincible. But other songs, notably "Polly" and "Lithium," aren't that hot, nor are "tourette's" and "Scentless Apprentice" really worthy of reproduction here. And it's disturbing the way Pat Smear--who augmented the band on guitar for its 1993-94 U.S. tour--pops in and out of things. To my mind, Nirvana was always at its best as a trio.
The fact is, I own several live tapes of Nirvana--including the much-bootlegged last ever show in Rome--that rock this LP to shit. And I have memories of even better shows, like one in Tijuana in late October 1992, a gig in Hawaii in February '93, and one in Spain a few months later. At the latter show, the band opened the set with the old Fang song (later revived by Mudhoney) called "Money Will Roll Right In"; it covered other things along the way as well. But the most radical thing on Wishkah is the version of "Spank Thru," one of the earliest (and slightest) songs in the repertoire.
For all that, Novoselic and co-executor Dave Grohl did get a few things right here. For one thing, they steered clear of material used on MTV Unplugged--there are no covers, no "About a Girl," no "All Apologies," no "Come As You Are." And the lack of overdubs is also a nice touch: Nirvana's rawness stands in stark contrast to the shiny clean thing that Nirvana-influenced grunge almost immediately degenerated into.
But it's hard to imagine what Krist and Dave were thinking when they put this recording together. Perhaps they couldn't bear to think too much at all. On the liner notes, Novoselic writes that "in presenting this record, we hope that the ultimate allure of Nirvana (and especially of Kurt [Cobain]) . . . is once again brought to the forefront. Let all the analysis fall away like yellow, aged newsprint. Crank this record up and realize the bliss, the power and the passion."
Those are brave words. But without analysis, what is left of Nirvana now? A skeleton, pure and simple--a haunting echo that fades a little more with each passing day. And with analysis, Nirvana's relics become even scarier. Lines like "I am my own pet virus, I don't need a host to live" from "Milk It," and the bitter, Courtney Love-as-Venus's-flytrap song "Heart Shaped Box" (". . . forever in debt to your priceless advice . . .") are horrible to contemplate in light of subsequent events. That those subsequent events are impossible to forget or dismiss may provide one explanation for the weakness of Wishkah: It's as if, in choosing these tracks, Krist and Dave tried to minimize the haunting effect by picking their goofier, more casual performances--performances, perhaps, where they remember themselves having fun, rather than the real sonic blockbusters.
If so, it was a kindly thought. But in a way, hearing Kurt cheerily introduce the song "tourette's"--"This is called . . . 'The Eagle Has Landed'!"--just makes the recording even sadder. The night after Kurt died, I was interviewed by a reporter from a paper in North Carolina. He seemed perfectly ordinary throughout our conversation, but right at the end of it he kind of shocked me by saying, "The thing that bothers me most about all this is to know that Kurt is now burning eternally in hell."
At the time, I dismissed his words as the rantings of a fundamentalist weirdo, but now I'm not so sure. If there is an afterlife of any kind at all, it's hard to believe that Kurt Cobain is resting easy in it. To me, listening to From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah--why not just call it From Beyond the River Styx?--is like hearing Cobain's forlorn howls echoing up from the valley of the shadows. And where is the pleasure in that?
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