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BACKTRACKING

'Nirvana Live at Reading'

Kurt Cobain's ferocious performance at the 1992 Reading Festival is given full light on a new DVD.

November 03, 2009|Robert Hilburn

Nirvana's performance at England's Reading Festival in summer 1992 is widely viewed as the most celebrated set in the spectacular band's brief history. Now, it's finally available on a DVD that captures Kurt Cobain at his most provocative and intense.

There had been alarming rumors about the Nirvana leader circulating in the days before the Reading appearance, including one that maintained Cobain was deathly ill in a hospital after a drug overdose. So imagine the sense of drama among the crowd of 60,000 when the singer-songwriter-guitarist, looking frail in a hospital gown and massive wig, was wheeled onto the stage.

After struggling to lift himself to the microphone, he muttered only a few words from a song before he collapsed.

Watching in mock alarm, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic advised the crowd, "He's OK. With the help of his friends and his family, he'll survive."

Cobain then let the audience in on the joke. Still wearing the gown and wig, he stood up, reached for his electric guitar and walked to the microphone. After playing a few blistering notes, he began singing "Breed," a song from the band's landmark "Nevermind" album, with all the force that made him such a commanding figure on stage.

The audience response was thunderous.

Coming less than a year after the release of "Nevermind," the concert helped cement the group's standing as the most important new band in rock. Besides the DVD, being released today, the music from "Nirvana Live at Reading" is available in a CD version with a vinyl version of the album due Nov. 17.

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Nirvana

"Nirvana Live at Reading"

DGC/UMe

The concert: Besides observing the excellence of his songwriting and the urgency of his performances, one fascinating thing about Cobain in this DVD is his sense of spontaneity. Throughout the 90-plus minute set, he seems to be grappling with personal issues while he's singing.

His attempt to discredit the rumors about his failing health didn't end by winking at the reports with the wheelchair stunt. He also wanted to mock the growing notion that the band members were the new "rock gods."

During a false start of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the band's monstrous hit, the group offered a playful trace of Boston's "More Than a Feeling," an anthem from the "corporate rock" era -- an excessive, commercial-bent period in rock that Cobain and his punk friends vigorously opposed.

In a further effort at the end of the set to break down the walls between rock stars and their audiences, Dave Grohl smashed his drum set and Cobain stepped into the audience and gave his guitar to a thrilled fan.

The charismatic performer had one other thing on his mind at Reading: He wanted to cheer up his wife, the controversial rocker Courtney Love, who was back in Los Angeles with the couple's 2-week-old daughter, Frances.

"There have been some pretty extreme things written about us and especially my wife," he said. "She thinks everybody hates her now. This is being recorded, so why don't you give her a message . . . we love you, Courtney."

The audience responded by screaming the line and Cobain smiled warmly.

Nirvana then played "All Apologies," a great new song that was a highlight of the evening because it showed there was much creative life in Nirvana beyond "Nevermind." The song, which would appear the following year on the trio's "In Utero" album, was a snapshot of the inner confusion that enabled Cobain to be simultaneously savagely sarcastic and disarmingly insecure.

At his best, Cobain defined in his songs what it was like to grow up feeling isolated and abandoned, the same sentiments that Bob Dylan described in those famous lines about being "on your own, with no direction home" in "Like a Rolling Stone."

The lyric to "All Apologies" in part:

I wish I was like you

Easily amused

Find my nest of salt

Everything is my fault.

Though Nirvana's performance at Reading temporarily eased fears about Cobain's well being, it was the last time the band played in England. Succumbing to the demons he tried to downplay at the concert, Cobain tried to commit suicide at least once before he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in April 1994. He was 27.

"Nirvana Live at Reading" stands as both a testimony to his immense talent and his own valiant attempt to stall his apparently inescapable fate.

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Backtracking is a monthly feature highlighting CD reissues and other pop items of historical interest.

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