When I was learning how to play guitar, I played a lot of Nirvana. Part of that was the timing — I was born in 1983 and picked up the instrument in middle school. The other part was the songs’ simplicity. Power chords, power chords, and more power chords. Three notes at a time? I could handle that. In fact, my first band was a duo that played pretty much nothing but Nirvana and Foo Fighters (we never made it out of my friend’s basement, but some glorious noise was made).
The irony is that while Nirvana may be perfect fodder for beginner guitarists, they’re an incredibly difficult band to cover. People do it, and some do it well, but it’s a tall order. That’s because both ends of the faithful-inventive cover continuum are boobytrapped. If you try to perform “Scentless Apprentice” exactly like Nirvana did, chances are you’re never going to match the throat-tearing, cymbal-smashing, strangely disaffected intensity of the original. Missing by just a little — not giving enough or screaming like an unhinged maniac — holds dire consequences (“dire” may be a bit overdramatic — you’d just be stuck with a smattering of awkward, tepid applause). Just as perilous is the idea of tinkering with a Nirvana song to put your own stamp on it. There’s a paradoxical quality to the emotional impact Cobain’s songs had. While the feelings he expressed were nuanced, with shades of depression, alienation, sarcasm and anger, his delivery was extremely visceral. Primal. Hovering just north of the human-subhuman dividing line. So jazzing up a Nirvana song — pouring intellect into something that’s nearly bestial — risks overcomplicating beauty that originated in a more basic place.
It’s a tiny sweet spot to hit, which is why Charles Bradley’s cover of “Stay Away” strikes me as so special.