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Video Rewind: Nirvana’s earth-shattering performance of “Lithium” at 1992 VMAs

on February 21, 2014, 3:45pm

Welcome to our weekly feature Video Rewind. Every Friday, a CoS staffer shares a video clip dug up from the depths of the Internet. Yesterday would have been Kurt Cobain’s 47th birthday and his hometown of Aberdeen, WA immortalized him with Kurt Cobain Day and one “interesting” statue. Today, Ryan Bray revisits Nirvana’s ear-blistering performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

This video was the beginning of everything music for me. Remember in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the dawn of civilization was marked by the tossing of a bone in the air? My journey as a life-long music fan similarly began with Krist Noveselic tossing his bass up at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Quite literally every band I ever listened to, every show I’ve ever seen, and every word I’ve ever written about music branched off from this clip.

Given that February 20th has been declared Kurt Cobain Day, I couldn’t help but find my way back to 1992. In its own way, this performance of “Lithium” sums up the rare power and allure of Nirvana. There was no ignoring them — whether it was their snarky indifference to fame, Dave Grohl’s mad man assault on the kit, or Noveselic’s poggoing. Add in the destruction of the band’s gear and Grohl’s passive aggressive baiting of Axl Rose, and the video is pretty much the perfect remedy to typically stuffy award show fare. (On a side note, there’s no way the opening chords of “Rape Me”, which at the time had yet to be released, served any purpose other than to scare the piss out of MTV executives.)

But it’s hard to watch Nirvana anymore without some slight feeling of dread. You can’t watch these old clips without stopping to wonder what the band would have become if Cobain hadn’t done the unthinkable almost 20 years ago. When he sings “I love you, but I’m not gonna crack,” it used to be the coolest lyric in the world. Now, those words carry the weight of somber foreshadowing. And while there might be no way of listening to NIrvana without these mixed feelings, I’d like to try and celebrate them for what they were rather than mourn them for what they could have been.

Happy Belated Birthday, Kurt.

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