Sticking with the time machine, fertile source material, nexus event analogy; Everything I said about Green River doing Queen Bitch also applies to Nirvana doing The Man Who Sold The World. The only difference here is success. The secret of this cover versions success is Nirvana’s success. More than any other David Bowie cover version it is Nirvana who have wrestled the song away from the original recording artist and made claim to it being their own.
Several divergent factors created this space time worm hole. Death is one of them. Kurt’s not David’s, but as the shifting sands are now clearly running down into an hour glass for all of us let us look at the Unplugged Live In New York take of The Man Who Sold The World as Kurt’s epitaph. He stole the song by making no claim to it. He even cites his source right into the mic as the final applause fades “That was a David Bowie song”. It was. He’s going to let you have it though. Until he needs it back.
Kurt, Dave and Krist were the biggest band in the world when they recorded the MTV Unplugged concert that killed MTV Unplugged concerts. It’s not like MTV never made another one. They’d just all be measured to this episode and found wanting from here on out. Nirvana were outgrowing their fierce shrill thrill roots and expanding both their line up and their sound. Pat Smear was in the band now. There were strings and things on stage with them the night they played their own stuff, The Vaselines, Leadbelly and The Meat Puppets along side David Bowie’s early awkward hit. Leveling the land. Putting themselves back down in the margins with bands yet to achieve (or never to achieve) success. Bowie and Leadbelly were valued the same as a late 80’s Scottish indie duo with no hits to speak of and a band of friends the biggest band in the world admired. Nirvana’s discography wasn’t deep enough to pull off an unplugged greatest hits set and reframe them for their next phase. Their record collections were though.
When Zavid did The Man Who Sold The World first time round it was 1970. Hunky Dory and Ziggy were yet to come. The two Mick’s had arrived though (I’m not picking on the Irish, I don’t use that word). The alchemy was forming. These were in the days when The Man could interfere with The Band without consequence. The album The Man Who Sold The World was to have a different title, a different sleeve unapproved by the players and a fault line in the space time continuum was created. Between the US and the UK in the intervening years there have been numerous iterations of the record, the sleeve, the track listing.
In all the myriad versions of this album nowhere did it yield a hit, except one. The one where Kurt and David passed upon the stairs.