Revisiting Nirvana’s Final Concert: March 1, 1994
By the time Nirvana played what would wind up being their final gig, Kurt Cobain was already living on borrowed time. The triple threat of drug dependence, depression and failing health was a looming, impenetrable cloud that followed wherever Cobain went towards the end of his life, with each part of that unholy trinity working to enhance the others. Cobain may have been the ‘90s savior of raw-bone rock ‘n’ roll and the (unwilling) spokesman for Gen X, but even a super-powered anti-hero like him had little chance against the kind of demons he was dealing with. The travails of the whole rock-star thing weren’t exactly making matters easier for him either.
Besides his other issues, Cobain was suffering from the deleterious effects of both bronchitis and laryngitis – not what you want to be working against when you’re trying to make yourself heard onstage above Nirvana’s monumental roar. Strange as it may seem in retrospect, being married to Courtney Love was probably the least of this poor wretch’s problems at that point.
Remember that chilling moment—one of the most frighteningly transfixing in rock ‘n’ roll history – during Nirvana’s famed November 18, 1993 Unplugged concert for MTV when Cobain reaches the harrowing end of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” In the midst of the raw-throated frenzy he’s worked himself into, he opens his eyes for a second, and in that one fleeting, unguarded instant, everything swirling around in his soul is plainly visible on his face. Well, imagine that moment spread out over an entire hour-and-a-half performance and you’ve more or less got the vibe of Nirvana’s live swan song.
It’s been said that the official medical advice Cobain received before the band’s March 1, 1994 show at Munich’s 3,000-capacity Terminal Einz was to take a break and let whatever good health was left in him play catch-up with his system. Unsurprisingly, the single-minded, iconoclastic singer wasn’t one for following doctors’ orders, so the show went on.
Things began strangely, on a rather arch, Dadaistic note, with a feral deconstruction of the Cars’ hit “My Best Friend’s Girl.” After that, the band launched into a trio of some of the fiercest songs in their repertoire: “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” “Drain You” and “Breed,” diving in with a noisy, no-holds-barred attitude that underlined Nirvana’s punk roots.
The moody, melancholy side of their sound soon got equal time in the form of “Serve the Servants” and “Come As You Are.” The tongue-in-cheek opening lines of the former, “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old,” were a more accurate barometer of Cobain’s actual state of mind at the time than anyone could know, even though his world-weary soul was only 27 years old. The latter was interrupted in the middle by a brief power outage in the venue. Though it’s not audible in the recorded versions of the show that have surfaced, Krist Novoselic allegedly used this unexpected downtime to make some satirically self-deprecating comments that seem eerily prophetic today, wryly declaring, “We’re on the way out. Grunge is dead. Nirvana’s over.” But the band brings the song home full force when full power is restored a few minutes later.
About halfway through the set, Nirvana takes a short acoustic respite for the quietly disturbing Nevermind tune “Polly,” with cellist Melora Creager contributing some appropriately unsettling atmosphere, though the audience clapping along in the beginning feels a wee bit odd for a song ostensibly about kidnapping and rape. Speaking of which, by the time Nirvana reached the end of “Rape Me” a few tunes later, Cobain had to have been putting whatever was left of his ravaged pipes through hell. When the band got around to the final song of the evening, “Heart-Shaped Box,” it was agonizingly obvious that he was running on fumes, as his voice hit a brick wall on the chorus’s highest notes.
And that was all she wrote. Cobain would never perform in front of an audience again after the Munich show. Unable to soldier on any further, he seemingly consented to the cancellation of the remaining European tour dates on the band’s roster, and headed to Rome for some desperately needed rest. Sadly, rest was apparently not what he got. On March 4 he was taken to a hospital after overdosing on a combo platter of champagne and a sedative called Rohypnol.
Back in Seattle, after a suicide scare and an attempted drug intervention, Cobain went to a rehab center in L.A. on March 30, from which he promptly escaped and disappeared, prompting his wife to hire a private eye to find him.
By April 5, Cobain had fled to a place from which no investigator could retrieve him. His bandmates Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Pat Smear didn’t play together again until Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.