"Good evening. This is off our first record. Most people don't own it."
And with that acerbic mumble, Nirvana began their performance on MTV's Unplugged, an event that would become a cultural watershed moment.
The first record Kurt Cobain was referring to was called Bleach, released on Seattle-based SubPop records. Cobain was right. Most people didn't own it when it was first released and they couldn't be faulted. Nirvana was a local band making inroads through the underground. Locals, like I was at the time, knew of them. College kids and those plugged in to what was going on above, below, and outside the mainstream knew of them. In the interest of self-disclosure, I knew Nirvana by name but I didn't own Bleach before Nevermind.
For most of us, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was our first exposure to a band who became a movement. Some kids were fans of the movement and the moment. Some were fans of the band and the music and those are the ones who later discovered Bleach, helping it to sell over one million copies. It was recorded with producer Jack Endino in two sessions. The recording budget for the album was less than $1,000 and it sounded like it, but in a good way.
Twenty years later, SubPop is re-releasing Bleach. It has been remastered and expanded to include a complete 1990 performance by the band in Portland, Oregon prior to drummer Dave Grohl joining the band.
Remastering Bleach is akin to putting lipstick on a pig. That's not a denigration of the music but let's face it: you can only remaster what was captured in the first place. This was a lo-fi recording. The band didn't have enough money to agonize over microphone placement and multiple takes, and it's not clear they would have even if they'd had the option. Cobain famously changed his mind about his music and its sound many times after a record was released Bleach captured… something. It captured part of what Nirvana was. There are achievements and warts. It captured them where they started. Some of the brilliance in evidence on their debut would be more fully realized and they'd overcome some of their shortcoming while some of those wonders were casualties of their progression.
The live set from the Pine Street Theatre in Portland isn't a classic, but it beats the hell out of a majority of the bootlegs that flooded the market during the band's heyday and shortly after the death of Cobain. What makes this show interesting is that of the bootlegs that did surface, most of them were from the Nevermind and In Utero tours. This captures the band in their earlier days and it's amazing how compelling they already were. Nirvana mastered mayhem, energy, and passion early in their development. They grew in confidence and improved as musicians and Cobain grew as a songwriter, but a lot of what was great about Nirvana was available to those who knew to look for them.
Bleach is a worthy snapshot of the band, documenting where they began. Most people still don't own it. If you are one of them, this 20th anniversary edition is the one for you.