In one of the remarkably few sound bites on the Nirvana tour video Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes asks an MTV reporter why critics are so fascinated by how many millions of records Nirvana sold: “Why couldn’t you just be fascinated by how that guy writes really good lyrics and they rock?” It’s a simple enough query, but one that seems even more problematic some 15 years after the footage for Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! was shot: how exactly did these three guys sell so many records and change the face of popular music for decades to come?
Kurt Cobain and company sheepishly proffer their own self-deprecating suggestions for the band’s success but the songs, which are simple and stick in your head like “My Sharona” or children’s lullabies, are largely left to speak for themselves. Almost every track from Nevermind is played on the video, including “Endless Nameless,” in varying degrees of performance and recording quality. I can’t help but wonder, even with all of the interest in independent music today (Modest Mouse on The O.C., Danger Mouse’s Gnarls Barkley project on every radio in the country, caricatures of Conor Oberst in Mad Magazine, etc.), would audiences flock to a band that seemed to despise fame as much as Nirvana did?
In the brief interview clips, the band cuts disparaging jibes at the “corporate” nature of the music industry (Sold Out!!, get it?). But songs speak louder than words, and it’s jaw-dropping to watch their Top of the Pops performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Presumably told to lip-sync along to a backing track, Krist Novoselic swings his bass around awkwardly while Cobain refuses to touch the strings of his guitar. It’s like the world’s worst karaoke performance, except then it gets much worse: Cobain sings the song as though there was a tape defect and they were run half-speed. Then he fellates the microphone. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, do you need a wheelbarrow to carry those balls? That Nirvana had a statement to make was made all the more clear by Cobain’s suicide, but take a glimpse at the fanatical BBC audience clapping lamely and hazarding a guess what a mosh pit is like. Rarely—perhaps not since Dada—has art enticed as it disoriented and seduced when it should have repelled.
Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! is stuffed, collage-style, with numerous moments of audience baiting: Cobain humps a camera and then hocks a loogie onto the lens at a festival in Denmark, gets the shit kicked out of himself by a bouncer after a poorly-timed stage dive, and the band wrecks the stage after playing “Territorial Pissings” instead of “Lithium” on England’s uptight Jonathan Ross Show. After a clip of Cobain correcting an interviewer who describes the band’s live set as violent (“It doesn’t have anything to do with violence. It’s about fun. Pure fun.”), the film closes with a montage of the band destroying their instruments at such coveted gigs as the Reading Festival and Saturday Night Live. They don’t really look like they’re having fun and, of course, Cobain probably wasn’t. It’s as tempting then to look at Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! as a document of Cobain unleashing his personal demons (it could make a cool double-bill with The Devil and Daniel Johnston) as it is to pontificate about Nirvana’s placement in the canon of Western culture.
Since most of these clips are from videos-either daytime European TV or bootlegs-the visuals are remarkably crisp. The sound is top-notch, even when Cobain is sabotaging his own performances. Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! makes a good case for remastering Nevermind.
The extra tracks are great, though the sound is not quite as fine as in the feature. Mostly, it's just nice to have complete performances that aren't intercut with other segments and clips. The "Personal Playlist" option will appeal to iPod junkies, but given the film's collage style, it seems silly to chop up the performances and rearrange them even more.
Certainly easier on the bank account than the DVD included with the 2004 rarities boxed set With The Lights Out, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! is a key piece in the post-mortem puzzle of alternative rock n' roll's most enigmatic frontman.