Mar 04, 2024, 06:29AM

Kurt and Elliott in the Lost and Found

Previously uncirculated high-quality footage of Nirvana and Elliott Smith performances paradoxically of the present.

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Two video surfaced in the last 10 months on YouTube: Elliott Smith at the Echo in Los Angeles on October 1, 2002 (full set), and Nirvana at the King Theatre in Seattle for the Mia Zapata Benefit (incomplete). Smith’s show had an audience recording that’s circulated for years—likely before his 2003 death—but for hardcore Nirvana fans, the Mia Zapata benefit was the Holy Grail of lost or hidden live recordings. Nirvana didn’t play many shows in the first nine months of 1993: some big ones in South America, an incredible performance at the Cow Palace Bosnian Rape Victim Benefit in April 1993, and a sloppy but interesting set in Manhattan in July 1993 (that’s the one where Kurt’s wearing the oversized ripped red and black striped Freddy Kreuger sweater, the one and only time he wore it. He also nearly died before the show, overdosing and turning blue before being revived by Courtney Love).

The Mia Zapata benefit was in Seattle, so Cobain, who was never clean for any significant stretch of his short adult life, was likely more comfortable here than at any other American show that year. The fall tour that went into the winter and onto Europe likely accelerated his death, if not leading directly to it the following April; in all of those shows, the band is playing a fixed setlist, playing fast, not moving much. Kurt famously didn’t want to tour In Utero, and before his death he dropped out of Lollapalooza 1994, allowing the ascension of Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins to alternative rock Olympus. Love, Gold Mountain, Geffen, his bandmates, business associates needed Kurt on the road, and he was done being a monkey, at least on someone else’s terms. He played like he didn’t care on that tour, the biggest Nirvana ever undertook, because he didn’t care.

The band rushed through “Scentless Apprentice” every night on that tour.

Not at the Mia Zapata benefit. Here Dave Grohl maintains the proper thudding, sludgy tempo of the album version, and their performances at the Cow Palace and in New York. This is also likely the last show that Cobain moved like he used to; “dancing” doesn’t quite fit what he used to do with his body and his guitar during the intro to “School,” but it looks like Leatherface swinging in the sun at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That life was gone by the time he put a cigarette out on his forehead right before the MTV VMA’s later that month (look at pictures of that day, pancake makeup covering his forehead).

And then Elliott at the Echo. Front row, a full show, a setlist full of rarities. He’s looking rough: long, oily black hair, cigarette burns dotting his mostly unseen left arm, the halting cadence of someone down or way too up. Elliott allegedly supplemented all of his live performances—aside from his last, in Salt Lake City in September 2003—with prescription Adderall, no different than his hero Beatles taking speed in Hamburg. What’s remarkable about this particular show is the performance of “Good to Go,” a real rarity considering it’s on his 1995 self-titled album, alongside live favorites like “The Biggest Lie,” “The White Lady Loves You More,” “St. Ides Heaven,” “Clementine,” “Southern Belle,” and “Needle in the Hay.” There are six known performances of the song, and only four extant recordings: two in 1998, one in 2002, and two in 2003.

As a guitarist, “Good to Go” is one of the easiest songs he ever wrote, and it’s as deceptively complex as all of his other masterpieces. Among the ciruclating live performances of the song, this is the only one where he plays a standard open C chord during the chorus instead of the mystery voicing that he played every other time. He quickly slides that C shape two frets up and then jumps into a standard open D chord, as opposed to hanging on that middle chord as in all other versions.

I spent hours thinking about this chord change this morning, trying to fall back asleep.

The show’s a gem, and like the Mia Zapata benefit, feels like it was recorded last year rather than 22 years ago, and the Nirvana show 31 years. These dead men are alive and well on YouTube. Kurt and Elliott—like John and Paul, no last names needed.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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