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.

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

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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