With the Lights Out


On the subject of her late husband’s unreleased musical legacy, Courtney Love went on record in May 2002, telling a Rolling Stone reporter, “I have the holy grail of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Like all the widow Cobain’s public statements, it was taken with a grain of salt. But other sources confirmed her claims that Kurt had left behind more than 100 cassettes of unheard music–mostly solo acoustic material, from fleshed-out songs to workbook noodlings–in addition to the already well-documented trove of unreleased live and studio recordings from Nirvana. The makings were there for the end-all be-all collection of Nirvana rarities, one that could stack up as one of the most historically important box sets ever.

The legal battle between Love and the surviving members of Nirvana was settled in late 2002, and though they still share control of the band’s music–hardly an arrangement conducive to getting anything released at all–the long-rumored box set finally came out Tuesday, more than ten years after Cobain’s suicide and just in time for the holiday shopping season. With the Lights Out consists of three CDs and one DVD, chronologically sequenced and divided into six categories: home demos, studio outtakes, B sides, radio broadcasts, rehearsal tapes, and concert recordings. Of the 81 tracks in the set, 68 are seeing their first official release–though many have been circulating in the twilight world of bootleggers for years, notably on the multivolume “Outcesticide” series.

Despite this wealth of unreleased material, though, With the Lights Out is a badly compromised collection, with as many problems as the child of a nasty divorce. There’s a shortage of material from Cobain’s cassettes, of which Love has sole control–and sources close to the project say she’s holding on to some of the best tunes with the intention of releasing a Cobain solo retrospective in the future. There’s also a conspicuous change in the character of the set after 1990, when drummer Dave Grohl joined the band. The number of solo Cobain tracks falls off sharply, and there’s a sudden glut of previously released Nirvana B sides, including “Marigold,” which Grohl wrote and sang (and Cobain reportedly hated). Many of the 90s solo tracks that did make it on are just Cobain-only versions of Nirvana songs, and there are multiple full-band versions of some of the group’s best-known tunes. It’s not hard to guess what happened behind the scenes when this thing was getting put together.

The box also neglects Cobain’s earliest recordings (the 1985 demos from his band Fecal Matter) and even Nirvana’s final studio sessions from 1994. There’s also little significant late-period live material. The entire package, despite its long and painful gestation, feels slapped together: it doesn’t even provide details about the many different sessions, just recording credits and a pair of essays, one from New York Times writer Neil Strauss and one from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

That’s not to say With the Lights Out is a total failure. If you can stop thinking about what’s missing and focus on the material that’s present, the set creates a fairly compelling musical narrative, tracing Nirvana’s growth and Cobain’s development, from greenhorn headbanger to ill-starred rock poet.

The lead track, a boom-box recording of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” from Nirvana’s first show (a March 1987 house party in rural Raymond, Washington), ought to remind fans and biographers inclined to see the band as the second coming of punk that its aesthetic was at least as deeply rooted in metal and classic rock. Other live cuts from the early part of the box include “Downer,” “Floyd the Barber,” and “Raunchola” (with a detour into Zep’s “Moby Dick”), all played with lethal ferocity for tiny but appreciative audiences.

The radio broadcasts selected for the box likewise reach back to the very beginning of the band’s career, beginning with an April ’87 set recorded at the Evergreen campus station by John Goodmanson, who’d go on to produce Sleater-Kinney. The best song, “Help Me, I’m Hungry,” uses a prototype of the loud-soft dynamics that would characterize the band’s hits–and though many critics have assumed Cobain picked that trick up from the Pixies, the Pixies’ debut EP, Come On Pilgrim, was recorded only a month before the Evergreen session and wouldn’t be released for months.

Cobain’s 1990 acoustic set on a program hosted by K Records founder Calvin Johnson is further testimony to his rapidly developing pop sensibility: he plays the little-heard “Opinion” and an embryonic version of “Lithium.” Unfortunately, revealing bits of dialogue present on bootlegs have been edited out: after “Opinion” Cobain asks Johnson, sounding worried, “Don’tcha think that song sounds like ‘Taxman’?” A moment later he sheepishly admits that “The Man With the Cigar,” by Herman’s Hermits, might’ve been his true inspiration. Rounding out the radio portion of the box are three full-band Peel Sessions tracks from ’90 and ’91: an apocalyptic eight-minute-plus version of “Endless, Nameless,” a twangy “Dumb,” and a brutish run at the Wipers’ “D-7.”

The other covers scattered throughout the set include a trio of Leadbelly tunes, the best of which is a chilling 1989 version of “Ain’t It a Shame” (“Ain’t it a shame to beat your wife on Sunday . . . when you got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday . . .”). Clearly relishing the perversity of the lyrics, Cobain sings with sinister, murderous glee. From 1987 there’s a mildly funky version of Thunder and Roses’ “White Lace and Strange,” from the 1990 Nevermind demos there’s a creaking, drawling take on the Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now,” and from 1994 there’s a rehearsal recording of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” complete with cello.

The Vaselines also clearly inspired one of the box’s enlightening oddities, an undated late-80s acoustic demo called “Beans.” The tune is silly, singsongy, and bizarre–Cobain has pitch-shifted his voice to make it sound like a child’s–but it’s also unself-conscious and deeply felt. It’s been said before, but obviously some part of Cobain would’ve preferred to be an outsider artist, not a rock star whose face was recognized on several continents.

Tracks like that are too few and far between, however. Well-known material is overrepresented, and the solo renditions of “About a Girl,” “Serve the Servants,” “Very Ape,” and “Polly” (which also resurfaces with an electric bubblegum arrangement) won’t add much to fans’ understanding of the songs. There are two versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but thankfully one of them at least has some historical significance: it was recorded in rehearsal in 1991 just minutes after Cobain first taught the song to the band. (The other is a raw early Butch Vig mix from later that year.) The two dramatically different takes of “Rape Me” justify their presence too: a workbook acoustic version contrasts with a full-band demo that features a newborn Frances Bean Cobain wailing eerily throughout.

The real standout on With the Lights Out is a 1988 rehearsal recording of the previously unreleased “Mrs. Butterworth.” Cobain’s lyrics lay bare his contempt for working-class folks who long for fame and easy money (something he saw a lot of in his down-and-out hometown of Aberdeen), and it’s easy to imagine that he’s also raking his own ambitions over the coals. A close second would be the undated demo of “Pennyroyal Tea”: it was probably cut in 1993, the year before Cobain’s suicide, but he delivers the line “Kill the life that’s inside of me” in such a depleted rattle that he sounds like he’s already decided to pick up that shotgun.

The set almost ends with a flourish: the third-to-last track is the previously unreleased “Do Re Mi,” reputed to be one of the last songs Cobain wrote, and it’s followed by a shaky but gorgeous solo take on “You Know You’re Right” that outstrips the full-band version from Nirvana’s 2002 best-of collection. But for the final song, the set’s two teams of producers (John Silva and Michael Meisel representing Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic, Peter Asher and Adam Schneider looking out for Love) didn’t settle on, say, a live cut from one of the band’s last shows, in Europe in 1994–instead they trotted out yet another version of the ubiquitous “All Apologies.”

The accompanying DVD is slightly more consistent. Compiled and edited by director Lance Bangs, who’s worked with R.E.M. and Pavement, among others, it collects another 20 unreleased performances that span the band’s career. Nine tunes were recorded in Novoselic’s mother’s living room in December 1988, during a combination keg party and rehearsal: as a strobe light flashes, a lank-haired Cobain sings with his face up against the wall to keep the crude PA from feeding back, and in the background a collection of mulleted, mustachioed friends mug for the camera and occasionally break into fits of dancing.

Also among the roughly 100 minutes of footage are a montage of Cobain’s childhood home movies, on-the-road scenes from the Bleach tour, and rare video of Nirvana’s one and only gig with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters on the kit. The DVD ends on a sentimental note: in a studio in Rio de Janeiro in early 1993, the band swapped instruments–Cobain singing from behind the drums, Grohl grabbing the bass, Novoselic clumsily playing guitar–for a sour, tongue-in-cheek version of “Seasons in the Sun.”

With the Lights Out is pleasant enough, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. It’s too predictable, too nostalgic, too reassuring. Given Cobain’s obsession with chronicling Nirvana’s short, strange trip from total obscurity to A-list fame, how much more challenging and interesting could this box set have been? One hundred cassette tapes hold a lot of music–it’ll be interesting to see what turns up on any forthcoming Cobain box.

To make the same point another way: The apology in Cobain’s suicide note was addressed first to his fans, not to his family. Nirvana’s success–the band’s transformation into a multimillion-dollar franchise, in other words, with all kinds of outside interests angling for a share–made Cobain terribly protective of his music and the way it was heard. He’d certainly be disgusted at the way business and politics have hijacked this project. The music is all that’s left, and it deserves to be treated better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Peterson.