Sweat, Semen and a Scream

Illustration by Justin Wood

The most passed-around item in indie-rock circles in the early months of 1991, the year that punk broke, was probably a demo tape from Nirvana, a third-generation cassette that had even more street value than the first Pavement EP or the Guided by Voices pressings then available only in certain record stores in Dayton, Ohio. Nirvana was hardly an unknown band at that point, of course. Its album Bleach was one of the touchstones of what was already being called the Seattle Sound, and the members of Nirvana were the precocious youngsters of the scene — there had been something of a record-company bidding war for them a few months before the demo tape surfaced, although when it was recorded in April of 1990, it still wasn’t quite clear whether their next album was going to come out on Sub Pop or on a bigger label.

The tape had been produced by Butch Vig, who had received some amount of notoriety for his elegantly layered production of the first Smashing Pumpkins single, and while the music had little of the amphetamine-laced quality that Sub Pop’s house producer Jack Endino drew out of the band, the songs were stripped down and melodic where Bleach had been a full-throated roar, thoughtful and inward-looking where the earlier record had been an essay in self-consuming teenage nihilism. It was an extraordinary tape, the conventions of pop music stretched until they snapped, Pixies and Replacements and Blue Cheer and Melvins stuffed into the bulging sausage skin of ironic post-Soundgardenian rock & roll and then grilled over a hot, smoky flame. Everybody knew Nirvana, but nobody had heard anything quite like this before.

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It is rare that the soundtrack of a particular year would be music that hasn’t even been commercially released, but this one was, even as spring deepened into summer and the rough demos began to be supplemented by the smoother, more polished advance tapes of the completed Nevermind Geffen sent out months early in a successful attempt to crossbreed the wild viral spread of the music with its own domesticated strain. At the International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia that summer, a four-day event that in retrospect is often thought of as the Woodstock of the indie-rock generation, the buzz about Nirvana exceeded that about any of the bands actually playing the festival by an order of magnitude. Nirvana wasn’t quite from Olympia, but they were definitely of Olympia, and even such indie puritans as Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson jabbered about the power of that tape. When Nirvana played its pre-release shows at the Roxy in Hollywood later that summer, there may not have been a kid in the mosh pit who couldn’t sing along with the chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

When it comes to rock & roll, there are at least two modes of experiencing albums: the first as part of a continuum that includes club shows, van tours and nights spent by the band on the floor next to your cat box; the second as discrete musical events. One view admits all the reek and the chaos and the drummer’s hissy fits; the other only as much of that world as can be transmitted through a pair of headphones. Your vision, of, say, the Minutemen, may be informed by 60 or 70 club shows, 40 or 50 hangovers and a night being lectured to by a halitositic Mike Watt on a bus speeding through Alabama. Your East Coast friend’s view, consisting of 1,500 teenage hours spent alone in her bedroom with Double Nickels on the Dime, may be in no way less vital, but it is necessarily a different thing, less about mucky reality than about her internalization of the music itself.

Nevermind, heard from the first day of release by many times more people than could have ever seen the band in a club, was overwhelmingly experienced in the second mode, a document handed down whole as a realized work, each bass pop and vocal tic electronically scrubbed and brought into focus by the legendary post-production engineer Andy Wallace, the package sold with a slick anti-marketing marketing campaign that would serve as a template for what essayist Thomas Frank would later label "the commodification of cool" — the exact opposite of the hair-metal bands that Nirvana replaced on the charts.

Like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions, Nevermind operated as a closed system, a self-mythologizing artwork that internally responded to its own media fixations as neatly as a snake swallowing its own tail. But as great as this hermetic quality may have made Nevermind — and it is as close to a perfect album as you will find, able to support almost any reading you care to impose on it — the record formally embodied the qualities that its emotional content was straining against, and the listeners eager to spend time inside Kurt Cobain’s world often found it as difficult as feeling warm breath from a Greek marble. (Bleach, a hermetic album in its own right, and In Utero, which responds to a very specific emotional state, are hardly more inviting.) It is not for nothing that many of the people who love Nirvana best respond most strongly to the Unplugged album, on which Cobain’s fragile persona is most nakedly exposed.

"Hey, we’re major-label corporate-rock sellouts," said Cobain introducing an early performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," neatly inverting the Sub Pop slogan: "We’re not selling out, we’re buying in."

With the Lights Out, a massive new collection of Nirvana rehearsal tapes, demos, B-sides and radio performances, may not add much to the artistic legacy of the band, and there probably isn’t a new song in the five-odd hours of music and video destined to take its place in the pantheon alongside "Polly" and "Heart Shaped Box." You may have preferred to ignore the fact that Nirvana once recorded a song called "Moist Vagina," or that they once felt obliged to contribute a dutiful version of "Here She Comes Now" to a Velvet Underground tribute record. A faithful performance of "Heartbreaker" from the very first Nirvana show reveals that Cobain absorbed his Led Zeppelin in a Redd Kross–literal rather than Replacements-ironic sort of way. ("Communication Breakdown" and "Whole Lotta Love" would be the standard baby-punk-band covers.)

What the collection does do, though, is slap the life back into the band, the flayed grooves, the botched transitions, the sweat and semen and marijuana smoke that show Cobain as a guy in a pretty good band rather than a blond god peering down from Parnassus, a singer who had a problem hitting high notes, a guitarist who made the best of the few real chords he knew. Even if you have never read a biography of the band, you can tell that Krist Novoselic’s repetitive bass lines drove the band in its beginning, tight and punchy and rhythmically secure enough to sustain the songs through a series of incompetent drummers and Cobain’s ADD approach to the riff. (On Bleach, the previous document of the period, producer Jack Endino’s signature oversaturated studio sound effectively erased the separation between the instrumental tracks.) The songs began to pivot around vocal melodies instead of riffs a year or two later — a tuneless acoustic version of "Polly" from 1988 is featured here — and Dave Grohl’s proto-melodic tom-tom lines began to eclipse the prominence of the bass shortly after he joined the band in 1990.

At first the sound doesn’t gel: When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" makes its first appearance a few songs into disc 2, in the form of a rough rehearsal tape recorded in 1991, it sounds as if Novoselic is floundering, Grohl’s overplaying is obtrusive, and Cobain sings incredibly out of tune on the verses, although on the famous chorus he has already found his roar. (In a review of a live show at about that time, I compared the song unfavorably to a Monkees tune.)

A few minutes farther into the album, Vig’s mix of "Teen Spirit," done a year later, chimes like a Phil Spector anthem, layers upon layers of ringing guitars, drum lines popping like the Grambling marching band at halftime, the bass threatening, scowling, lurking intimidatingly low. Cobain’s rasp almost fragments into chords, like Sonny Rollins overblowing a saxophone, like a Tuvan chanter — like a skinny, sweater-wearing kid unaware of anything of the world beyond his own throat. It’s a devastating five minutes of music. And although one might personally prefer the familiar, Andy Wallace–mixed Nevermind version, where the vocals are distanced a little, the drum modulated, the guitar distortion tweaked into a gorgeous, seamless flannel blanket of sound, the original mix is incredibly powerful, music still glowing with all of Cobain’s stink. It’s Nirvana as if Nevermind never happened, the Nirvana of that rough and glorious tape, and in its way, probably the more revealing document than all the posthumous biographies put together.

Nirvana | With the Lights Out (Geffen)


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