Nirvana ushered in a whole new era of rock and roll with the opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” off the band’s 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind. Those three chords defined a generation and established Alternative music’s credibility (at least in the commercial sense). However, the burden of being earmarked as the most influential band of its time took a heavy toll on singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain and it eventually led to his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in April of 1994. More than ten years have passed, and still Nirvana’s influence is felt in the rock world every time a verse-chorus-verse song formula is written, or a tortured singer howls about pain, apathy, or a broken home. Of course, one could make an effective argument that the state of rock music today is largely stale and possibly incapable of doing anything else besides copying Nirvana, but it’s a fine line between the two. However, lately I find myself debating what exactly Nirvana’s legacy is and will be in another ten years. I can’t question Cobain’s brilliant songwriting, but then why don’t I really listen to Nirvana much anymore if that’s the case?
What I do know is that Nirvana’s new box set of rarities, B-sides, demos, and live material With The Lights Out isn’t going to answer my questions anytime soon. This long-delayed release (originally scheduled to come out in 2001 to mark the 10th anniversary of Nevermind) isn’t the holy grail of unheard material many longtime fans have been expecting, but it is an interesting overview of Nirvana’s growth.
This 3 CD, 1 DVD package starts out with “Heartbreaker”, a Led Zeppelin cover taken from Nirvana’s first show in 1987. In it, this early incarnation of Nirvana sounds more like a sludge-stoner metal band and Cobain’s vocals are markedly different from the music he would be identified with a few years later. Most of the rest of the first CD is made up of material that would end up on Bleach or unreleased demos from the period covering 1987-1989. There’s not much that warrants a second listen on Disc 1. However, the two versions of “Polly” included here are the first indications that Nirvana would achieve greatness. The first, an acoustic demo, is remarkably similar to the version that would end up on Nevermind, save for a few lyric changes. The second, which closes the first CD, is a three-chord rock anthem. The polarity of the two songs is a great example of the emerging power of Cobain’s creativity. It’s obvious that “Polly” could have gone in any direction and become a great one.
Disc 2 covers the period before and after Nevermind. A 1990 radio appearance by Cobain where he debuts “Lithium” and the unreleased “Opinions” kicks it off. “Opinions” has been circulating around the ‘net for a few years now, and puzzlingly, the version that appears on With The Lights Out is inferior in quality to the bootlegged one. “Pay To Play” (eventually re-titled “Stay Away”) is called a “Demo” here, but in fact is the version that appeared on the D.G.C. Rarities Vol. 1 compilation of 1994. What also is puzzling and a little disconcerting is the sound quality of the tracks on all three CDs. The rehearsal mix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is absolutely dreadful, sounding like it was recorded on a boom box. By my count, about half of the material present is similarly recorded. For those expecting well-polished, mixed versions of new songs, you will be disappointed.
Perhaps the reason is the long-running feud between Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, and the two surviving members of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Both parties were involved in a lengthy court case over Nirvana’s legacy/future releases and this box set was at the center of the lawsuit. Largely unreported was the fact that Love won, and the box set, originally compiled by Novoselic, was no doubt compromised to allow what Love wanted (or wanted to remove from it).
The Butch Vig mix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” closes Disc 2, and while one can immediately pick out the difference between this and the album version (more feedback, for those counting), ultimately it’s only a novelty. Disc 3 begins with two versions of “Rape Me”, the second featuring Cobain’s infant child, Frances Bean, crying over the top of the music providing a creepy element to the song. Much of Disc 3 is made up of demos and rehearsal takes of In Utero stuff. “Sappy” (which was originally titled “Verse Chorus Verse” for 1993’s No Alternative compilation) is by far the catchiest moment on With The Lights Out. Thankfully, we get a finished version of the song here. “You Know You’re Right” is a demo (Where’s the version that appears on Nirvana?), but still has the sinister vibe. Much talked-about “Do Re Mi” shows up as a rough acoustic demo near the end, and while it’s hard to decipher what Cobain is singing about, there’s no mistaking the trademark melody. It’s also a frustrating realization to wonder what direction Cobain’s songwriting would have gone in, hearing this unfinished number.
Another point of frustration is the poorly written liner notes. They offer nothing of historical or noteworthy description to any of the songs (send all hate mail regarding this to Neil Strauss). Considering that With The Lights Out will probably be seen as the definitive Nirvana compilation in future years, it’s a letdown to have these be poor quality.
The DVD is probably the best reason to own With The Lights Out. The debut performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is truly awe-inspiring. By the first chorus, the audience is dancing like it’s already an anthem. A telling moment later on shows Cobain in an early band rehearsal at the home of Novoselic’s mom, too shy to face a hand-held camera while friends party in front of the lens. Instead, Cobain faces a wall and sings as though his life depended on it. The closing performance on the DVD finds Cobain behind the drums, with Novoselic on guitar and Grohl on bass, whispering Terry Jacks’ 1974 soft-rock hit "Seasons in the Sun." Cobain isn’t being ironic; he seems to take comfort in the song’s nostalgic warmth. In the coming months, Cobain’s life would spiral out of control, eventually ending in a horrible, rash decision. The juxtaposition between then and this performance on the CD is heartbreaking. Music was the one place where Cobain found comfort and happiness, yet what came with creating it would drive him to an early grave.
It’s moments like this that make With The Lights Out spectacular, and worth the wait if you’re a hardcore fan. As for everyone else, if you own Nevermind and In Utero you may be interested in this as well. The four "Holy Grail" songs ("Verse Chorus Verse", "Old Age", "Opinions", and "Sappy") are all here and add the most to Nirvana’s legacy.
CDs – (3/5)
DVD – (4.5/5)