Paul McCartney fronted the recently reformed Nirvana a short time ago for a Hurricane Sandy benefit. I didn’t watch it. While I’m all for bringing out the dinosaurs of rock to raise money for charity – and Lord knows, between Clapton, Springsteen, Waters and Bon Jovi, they pretty much had the entire deck of cards there – there seems to be something strange about putting a new guy in the dead man’s shoes, even when he isn’t singing the hits. It seems to me that this is an experiment that very rarely works, with the notable exception of David Gilmour stepping in for a troubled Syd Barrett on Pink Floyd, and more often than not it ends up in a caricature of the band itself. What surprused me more than anything was Nirvana bassist Krist Novolesic’s willingness to participate, given his very public recitence to be involved in the legacy of the Seattle trio at all up until Dave Grohl coaxed him back into the studio briefly for the Foo Fighters’ last record, Wasting Light. The whole thing sent me down a Nirvana rabbit hole, and as I played through their record back to back, I was struck by just how brilliant some of their lesser-known song were.
‘Dumb’ sits in the middle of In Utero, the Nirvana album it took me years to get around to listening to after I first discovered the absolute wallop that was Nevermind. If you look at it as a whole, it’s also a much better record; despite the almost unlistenable interludes, it contains some of their most interesting, if not commercially enduring songm like ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and that cover of Bowie. This recording of ‘Dumb’, however, comes from the posthomously released MTV Unplugged Live In New York record, which is absolutely essential listening. Cobain, drying out from his latest drug hit, apparently fretted for days about being on a stage without an amp or effects pedals, but hearing the band in this incarnation is a rare joy that would never be repeated. Songs like this one are augmented by additional guitarists and strings, which open up the arrangements and turn Nirvana’s song into so much more than caustic, three minute screamers. What I would give to have been in that room when the guys refused to play any of their hits and still managed to pull off a seminal set list. You can actually feel the electricity crackling as you press play.
Like all of Nirvana’s best work, ‘Dumb’ operates around a simple dichotomy that is actually very smart; ‘I think I’m dumb/Or maybe just happy.’ That line is brought to life by aching cellos and violas, with the driving force of Krist’s bass given wide berth by the softness of Grohl’s touch and Cobain’s near-naked pedal board. It’s so beautiful and so sad at the same time, and if you happen to have stolen the DVD of this performance from your local video store like I did as a kid, you can see the band playing it out in a room filled with candles and white sheets, like Kurt is presciently announcing his own funeral. There are only two oscillating chords in the verse of ‘Dumb’, and Cobain’s voice follows them before opening up into the chorus, which is another two. Many bands have written four chord songs, but none have stretched it to the limit like Nirvana. Even stripped of their firepower, the basic human feeling that connected them with an entire generation was palpable. The New York kids of the winter of 1993 don’t know how lucky they were.
Nirvana – ‘Dumb’ (MTV Unplugged in New York Version)