Few artists have the kind of impact that can change the course of an entire genre of music and generation of fans. When the Beatles hit, they knocked the world of music off its axis. Black Sabbath did it for metal in the 70’s. Madonna did it for pop in the 80’s. And then in the 90’s, a little 3-piece from the Seattle suburbs left their scalding mark on the music industry, turning “alternative rock” into an oxymoron by dragging it to the top of the charts. When Nevermind was released in 1991, confused and angst-filled teens were starving for something with real substance. And Nirvana delivered. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl didn’t set out to change the world of music or make grunge a household word. But they did. What’s most amazing out of all is that they accomplished in less than 6 years what some artists take decades to build. If not for Kurt’s tragic and untimely suicide, who knows how much farther this band may have pushed. However the story ended when it did, and now, 10 years later, fans finally have a thorough documentation of their legacy in the form of the 4-disc boxed set With The Lights Out. The 3 audio discs, a DVD of rare footage and the accompanying booklet track Nirvana all the way from their humble beginnings up until their final days.
From the start, we see Kurt for what he is: an introvert with a sly sense of humor and a guitar. The DVD opens with an early rehearsal tape, and we see Nirvana in its earliest form playing in a living room for a group of friends. Kurt faces the wall as he sings, perhaps imagining the sea of fans that will one day fill stadiums for him, or perhaps just turning his back in a shy escape from those few there to witness. Listening to Kurt’s music and lyrics, there is no doubt that it is a very personal experience for him to perform. An 1987 recording of Nirvana covering Led Zepplin’s “Heartbreaker” could serve as evidence of their ambition to be the greatest rock band of their time. Except that as a frontman and guitarist Kurt lacked an ounce of the inflated ego or sense of self importance of Page and Plant.
The majority of influences on Nirvana were considerably more low-key. Kurt paid homage to a slew of post-punk and indie acts from the 80’s: the Meat Puppets, the Wipers, the Raincoats, Devo, the Melvins and more. His love of noisy experimentation and punk attitude can be heard both in covers by these bands and in Nirvana’s earlier original material, music that fell somewhere between punk and metal but with the same smart songwriting that propelled so many of Kurt’s heroes. “Mrs. Butterworth,” from a 1988 rehearsal tape, has a speeding thrashy guitar riff over which Kurt spouts tongue-in-cheek lyrics about his white trash roots. Other songs from the same era like “If You Must” and “Pen Cap Chew” feature the same chaotic heavy guitar sound and more reflections from Kurt’s youth – sung, screamed and wailed.
Yet even from the earliest tapes, we can also hear the other side of Nirvana: Kurt Cobain as a singer/songwriter. The first rumblings of Nirvana were balanced by Kurt’s carefully crafted acoustic songs that call to mind another major influence: Huddy Ledbetter, early blues singer and self proclaimed King of the 12-String Guitar. MTV’s Unplugged, Nirvana’s most famous acoustic performance, featured a cover of Ledbetter’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” of which an alternative version from 1989 is included on disc 2. Other classic Nirvana songs can be heard in their rawest form as performed by Kurt and his acoustic guitar littered throughout the boxset. Early versions of “Polly,” “About a Girl,” and “Sliver” just start to hint at the power these songs will have in years to come, while acoustic versions of “Serve the Servants,” “Rape Me” and “Very Ape” give insight to the creation of Nirvana’s final studio offering In Utereo. Considering how noisy and thundering the final album versions of these songs sound, these tracks almost feel naked, exposing another layer to Kurt’s song-birthing process.
Perhaps the most impressive fact this boxed set demonstrates is that Nirvana recorded far more songs that remained unreleased than appeared on their three studio albums. Incesticide was one attempt to make accessible some of this immense catalog of work, but it barely scratched the surface. The sheer amount of outtakes and recorded material produced by this band proves another point: never were they a band trying to write hit records. No matter what record label was backing them, or what hit producer was at the controls, or how many millions of dollars were at stake, Nirvana was a band that wrote songs because its members were full of a unique energy and had no other way to get it out. Just picture David Geffen swimming through 50 tracks trying to find the 3 or 4 that would take off on the radio and make the album successful. Many of the songs gathered in this boxed set were eventually released as b-sides to singles or compilation tracks. Imagine how many more hit albums could have been assembled from the material heard in this collection?
Absent from this collection is Nirvana’s most recent radio hit “You Know You’re Right.” A solo acoustic version recorded just months before Kurt’s death is included, but the version familiar to the public was held back, and rightly so. This Frankenstein-hit assembled in a studio to bring Nirvana back to the tip of the listening public’s tongue has no place within the intimate portrait of the band that is provided here. This boxed set serves to shine light in the dark dusty corners of one of the most influentially popular bands of our time.
This collection serves to root Nirvana back in their humanity before they are elevated to a godlike status by record labels and greatest hits albums. One side of Kurt was destined to change the world of music, but another side of him never wanted to be discovered, to instead sit alone in his room with his guitar and write songs until the end of time. With The Lights Out is a reference to the song that launched Nirvana into the spotlight, and ironically enough the lines could serve as Kurt’s anti-climatic epitaph: “With the Lights Out / it’s less dangerous / Here we are now / Entertain us.”