Nirvana: From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

Originally published in Alternative Press magazine

Contrary to recent mainstream-media imagery, Nirvana onstage weren’t much about Kurt Cobain sitting quietly in a fluffy sweater with an acoustic guitar. It seemed poignant at the time, but 1994’s Unplugged in New York captured only the frail, withdrawn side of the Nirvana pathos.

For the other nine-tenths of the band, visit this posthumous compilation. Handpicked by bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl are 16 of the band’s finest blasts (from 10 separate performances dating December 1989 to late 1993).

After an appropriate noise-jam sound-check intro, things kick in with a heavy, hoarse, and sloppy version of “School” from a November 1991 Dutch gig. It’s a solid, hard-edged performance, as are most of this album’s tracks, with other highlights being an absolute punk savaging of “Aneurysm” and a muddy version of the band’s flagship tune, “Spank Thru,” played in relative obliviousness to a Roman audience in November 1991—just as Nevermind was, unbeknownst to Nirvana themselves, beginning to dominate every popular U.S. medium and alter the American music industry. And sure, you’ve heard the tune countless times, but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is almost priceless here: the irony of Cobain singing “Entertain us, cuz we’re stupid!” followed by 10,000 enthusiastic cheers never fades away.

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is essential for anyone even remotely interested in what this band were really up to: “Negative Creep” and “Blew” without the metal production, “Lithium” and “Teen Spirit” without the glossy production, and the fully nihilistic blast of “Tourette’s.” I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I imagine this is how Nirvana perceived themselves: not industry subversives, not Gen X spokespeople, maybe not even pop geniuses. Just a good, hard punk rock band that could kick it live.

—John Pecorelli