The truth is, I didn’t know how pivotal a musical era the Nirvana/ Pearl Jam/ Temple of the Dog movement was while I was in the midst of it. Hip-hop was so loud and connected to its core audience at the time, whereas grunge was unfolding with a slower emotional build. Seattle’s stars were also reluctant stars and inclined to make dark videos featuring others as the protagonists or victims.
Yet the mystery, lyrics and magnetism of Nirvana and Pearl Jam sucked you in — I was both moved and at the same time disturbed by those qualities. I felt Kurt’s uneasiness with social interaction but also his unparalleled ability to reflect in song feelings of anguish, alienation and rage.
Do it and do it again
Rape me, my friend
The last time I interacted with Kurt and saw him live was no different: predominantly mesmerizing yet a bit troubling. It was the “Nirvana Unplugged” shot at Sony’s 54th Street Studios in November 1993 in front of about 150 people. My gal had this inexplicable attraction to Kurt as a musician and a lyricist, which perhaps made sense as she had a disdain for the superficial and was drawn to troubled, complex souls.
Kurt’s performance had us rapt that night, and as I listened to the DAT — yes old-school DAT audio from the show repeatedly in my office — the emotion behind the songs was overwhelming.
Unfortunately, that was the last time I would see or hear Kurt live.
Cut to the “Live and Loud” concert, taped just a month earlier at Seattle’s Pier 48. Now that sh– was powerful, sloppy, sweaty, primal and just as emotional as the “Unplugged” but, fortunately, paced differently.
What’s ironic is that as we were planning “Live and Loud,” we all had a nervous pit in our stomachs that Nirvana would be a no-show. Let’s face it, the band’s music wasn’t the only thing fueled by volatility. But they did show — and Pearl Jam did not. So Nirvana ended up playing two of the most raw, killer sets many of us have ever witnessed.
Always ill at ease with the chatter audiences often expect between songs, Kurt was a man of few words. But when he did speak, mostly through his lyrics, he somehow managed to lift those around him. The effect was as if you’d just downed some trance-inducing elixir that made you see the world more clearly.
As for Nirvana’s other principals? Well, Dave was just on his way to being Dave: I’m gonna play drums like nobody else is around until it hurts or I pass out or kick the sh– out of the melody and other musicians on the stage. Krist was the most unlikely rock star — wonderfully clumsy, ever-ready, — and the most symbiotic partner for Kurt. Pat Smear, with his extensive punk pedigree, was the newest member of the band but the undeniable rage blasting from his Hagström perfectly echoed the rage in Kurt’s voice.
Together the energy, sloppiness, stench and rhythm just worked. Like the moments when the members of Led Zeppelin gelled or when the Jam or Clash took you to another place or when Jay Z plays off the crowd. You knew it was a movement, one that was potent and temporal, but you were caught in it and it was an unpredictable ride.
By the time, Kurt died in the spring of 1994, I personally had lost many a hero — Hendrix, my dad, two of my high-school buds — yet Kurt’s loss was still seismic for me and all those MTV fans who grew up with Kurt’s creative core. We miss you and it’s bittersweet but I’m privileged to have shared this show with you.
Van Toffler is President of Viacom Media Networks’ Music & Logo Group. He’s a fan of sugary cereal, a good tequila and watching TV late at night, without the audio.