Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Nirvana - With The Lights Out (3-disc set)

On the evening of Saturday, April 9th, 1994 (April 8th in the States), I was feeling a mite peckish, so I took my girlfriend out to eat at Yamagen, the teppan-yaki joint located inside the swank Parkroyal (later Crowne Plaza) Hotel (now long gone, a casualty of the devastating February 2011 earthquake) in downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. The Christchurch Casino was then under construction directly across the street from the hotel, screwing up traffic moving up and down Victoria St. and limiting access to parking. But fortunately I found a spot a block over, on Peterborough Street close by Strawberry Fare, the dessert place I usually took my dates to after dining out. So my plan was to go there for a plate of Death By Chocolate after eating at the hotel.

Yamagen was basically the city's answer to Benihana, the international restaurant chain. I'd been to the place a couple of times before, and all in all the cuisine wasn't bad (although to be honest, teppan-yaki is pretty hard to screw up). The place was fairly packed, it being a weekend. But we were seated fairly quickly, and spent an hour or so there enjoying the food and the show the cooks at the grill put on for us, juggling pepper mills and flipping shrimp onto our plates.

After dinner, we grabbed our jackets from coat check and made our way through the Parkroyal's vast, cavernous glass atrium towards the street, headed for the dessert place. There were a few TVs placed here and there around the lobby, and in hindsight I can recall seeing out of the corner of my eye brief images of a semi-recognizable face flashing across the screens - a young guy with dirty blond hair. But I really wasn't paying attention, so nothing registered in my brain.

Just before we got to the door, a hotel employee wearing slacks and a blazer emblazoned with the company logo hurriedly came up to us, with a weird look on his face. I thought for a split-second that I might have left something in the restaurant, or there was something wrong with the bill I just paid. But the guy (who, by the way, I didn't know and never saw there at the Parkroyal ever again) literally grabbed my arm and all but shouted "Can you believe it? Kurt Cobain's dead."

That's how I first heard the news, and that's when everything I saw clicked. My girlfriend and I abandoned our plans to go to Strawberry Fare, and lingered for a few minutes in the hotel lobby watching the news coverage. Then we quietly walked out to my car and drove back to her place, where we sat and watched several more hours of coverage on SkyNews. As it was in the U.S. and the rest of the world, Cobain's demise was HUGE news in New Zealand.

This might come off as kinda cold and unfeeling . . . but as the seemingly endless round of stories and interviews related to Cobain's death aired that evening, I have to say that although I was sad, I wasn't exactly shocked and surprised to hear of his suicide. A lot of you may have forgotten about this . . . but it was little more than a month earlier that a story was published that during Nirvana's recent (and as it turned out, final) European tour, an unresponsive Kurt was rushed to an Italian hospital after ODing on roofies and booze. While there have been some dissenting opinions regarding the nature of the incident, the consensus is that it was an intentional overdose on his part. I remember the reporting of the incident very well, and immediately regarded it as an "uh oh" moment as it quickly faded from the headlines.  The handwriting was pretty much on the wall at that point.

After a week in a Rome hospital, Cobain returned home with his wife Courtney Love to Seattle, spending his days locked in his room abusing alcohol and drugs. In mid-March Love called the local authorities over, after another alleged (and still disputed) suicide attempt. Things got so bad in the house, that near the end of March, Love arranged a drug intervention with Cobain's friends and music company executives. By all reports, it initially didn't go over very well. But after a day of cajoling, Cobain finally relented, and agreed to check himself into a drug rehab center in Los Angeles at the end of the month. His stay at the detox facility lasted less than 48 hours; he fled the recovery center on April Fool's Day and flew back to Seattle, where he was seen at various area locations in the city over the next couple of days, before disappearing again on April 4th. An electrical contractor discovered Cobain's body in his mansion on April 8th, but it was later determined that he killed himself on approximately April 5th.

Conjecture and speculation on the causes and circumstances that drove Cobain to finally take his own life with a shotgun on that tragic day has for years filled the pages of many a book and magazine article. It is well established that Cobain had suffered from significant mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and ADD (both of which went largely untreated), for much of his life, long before he was ever in a band. In addition, there was a history of suicide in his family (two of his uncles also shot themselves to death), along with a family history of alcohol and drug abuse. In many ways, Kurt Cobain was almost a poster child for "potential suicide risk". And undoubtedly the pressures and issues related to the rise of Nirvana from their humble indie beginnings to superstardom only exacerbated his many conditions and tendencies.

Frankly, I didn't pay that much attention to Nirvana (consisting of lead guitarist and vocalist Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl) when they first came onto the scene in 1989. I mean, I'd heard their name mentioned once or twice in the music rags, and I recall noticing their debut album Bleach in the racks when it was released in the summer of 1989. But by their appearance and with the little I'd heard of their music, I all but dismissed Nirvana as just another hair metal band - a genre I just wasn't into in the late '80s. There was plenty of other stuff out there that I was into in 1989; discs by bands like Ministry (A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste), Nine Inch Nails (Pretty Hate Machine), The Jesus & Mary Chain (Automatic), De La Soul (3 Feet High & Rising), The B-52's (Cosmic Thing) and, of course, The Pixies (Doolittle) were just a few of the great albums released that year. So it's not like the world was hurting for good music. Plus, Nirvana's then-label Sub Pop didn't exactly kick out the jams to generate sales for Bleach; both national distribution and promotion of the album was sorely lacking, and in its first two years the album only sold about 40,000 units.

Nirvana began recording demos for their follow-up to Bleach in early 1990, but they were increasingly unhappy with Sub Pop's lack of attention and management issues (the label was then in the midst of some significant financial difficulties). So after laying down about half a dozen tracks, they abruptly shut down the session and started shopping the session tape around to other labels (kind of a dirty, backhand move on the band's part - but hey, I guess you gotta look out for yourself; no one else will). Due to the buzz the demo tape generated, Nirvana left Sub Pop and signed with major label DGC Records later in 1990. After a series of delays, recording of their sophomore album resumed in the spring of 1991 under the direction of DGC in a Los Angeles studio. But by the time this new album, Nevermind, was released on the first day of fall that year, Nirvana was almost completely off my radar.

I was transferred from Norfolk, VA to the Washington, DC area during the early summer of 1991, and moved into an apartment in nearby Arlington. I spent a lot of time that summer and fall fully re-familiarizing myself with the DC area, checking out all of the dance clubs and music venues. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there used to be great places all over DC, with every kind of music imaginable. I became a regular at places like The 9:30 Club, Fifth Column and The Spy Club, and through exploration and word of mouth I came across lots of other outstanding joints there were well off the beaten track.

A couple of blocks south of DuPont Circle, the area around the corner of 19th and M Streets was a minor DC party area during that time, ranking well behind the Georgetown, F Street and Navy Yard club and entertainment areas. The M/19th scene was centered around Rumors, a horrible, sweaty, cheesy Top-40 joint that somehow has managed to stay in business up to the present day. There were a couple of strip clubs (like Camelot) and half-decent bars along the north side of M Street, and the late, lamented Lulu's Club Mardi Gras dance place was a couple of blocks west. But the best places in that area weren't visible from the street. The blocks behind the buildings along M and 19th are/were laced with extensive alleyways and service roads, and back in the late 80s/early 90s, someone had the inspired idea of setting up a couple of rockin' warehouse-type clubs in some of the unused/neglected spaces back there.

It was in one of these places (the name of which I've long since forgotten) one weekend night in early/mid October, 1991 where I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The club was very crowded that night; I had a hard time even getting to the bar. But once there, I pretty much parked myself in a secure corner
with a bottle of Pete's Wicked Ale (remember that stuff? For a while there, it was running neck-and-neck with Sam Adams for top craft brew . . .) and surveyed the scene. A few minutes later, the DJ dropped the needle on this new song, and with the very first note of the opening guitar riff, there was a RUSH of people racing for the dance floor. By the time the drums kicked in seconds later, the floor was jam-packed with flailing, moshing, laughing people, and the bar area had, almost like magic, completely emptied. I had no idea what the name of the song or artist was, but it appeared that I was a lonely minority; seemingly everyone else in the club was intimately familiar with the tune. The dance-floor crowd happily belted out every word with abandon. All in all, it was a remarkable five minutes to witness; it had been many years since I'd seen a song have such an effect on a group of club-goers.

At the time, I didn't inquire as to the name of the song or band; I was a little embarrassed at being so clueless. But it was in the week that followed that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke out, in DC and across the nation - suddenly, the song was being played everywhere . . . and not just the alternative stations. Long-established local rock stations like DC101 jumped on the bandwagon as well. It honestly got to the point where you literally could turn the knob any time during the day and find the song playing on at least one station. At the time the song sounded like little else being played over the airwaves.

And in the same manner that it affected all of those folks in the club that previous weekend, it affected me as well - not just the excitement the tune generated, but the music itself. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a very well-put-together song, with the softer verses drawing you in before launching into a chorus that kicks you in the head and gut at once. And the final payoff, with Cobain shrieking "A denial" over and over, is simply one of the great endings in rock history. Who cared if you could barely understand the lyrics? It made a Nirvana fan out of me. At the end of that week, I went over to the George Washington University branch of Tower Records and purchased Nevermind.

Nevermind, in my opinion, is one of those rare albums you come across that is completely devoid of filler. EVERY song on Nevermind is a winner, with several approaching all-time classic/near classic status: "Teen Spirit" (of course), "Come As You Are", "Lithium", "Something In The Way" - just to name a few. I thrashed this disc for pretty much the entire autumn of 1991 - not that I needed to; by November, practically every rock/alternative/college radio station in the country was playing multiple cuts off of it. By December, Nevermind was selling nearly half a million copies per week (prior to its release, the label was hopeful that the album would sell 250,000 total), and was flying off the shelves so fast that DGC Records gave up trying to implement a carefully crafted marketing strategy for the record they had concocted (to quote label president Ed Rosenblatt, "We didn't do anything. It was just one of those 'Get out of the way and duck' records."). In early January 1992, Nevermind took over the top spot of the Billboard 200 chart, ironically and prophetically replacing "King of Pop" Michael Jackson's Dangerous. As far as the mainstream was concerned, alternative rock had arrived, and was now a force to be reckoned with.

The massive success of Nevermind also put Nirvana in a weird and unwanted place. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was hailed from all quarters as "the anthem of a generation", and the band, especially Cobain, was thrust into the position of becoming spokesmen for Generation X - a place they did not seek and definitely were not ready for. You would think that, for a guy with low self-esteem issues like Cobain, finding fame for something you created and suddenly being hailed as a generational representative and voice of a movement, with people hanging onto your every word, would be the best thing ever to build up his confidence and esteem. But that's not how it works with depression. Instead of embracing the benefits of fame, Cobain shrank from them, constantly questioning the nature of the adulation and status he was receiving. He felt misunderstood by fans and critics and boxed in by his newfound celebrity. He began to harbor resentments against people who claimed to be fans of the band yet refused to acknowledge, or seemed to misinterpret/misunderstand, his and the band's social and political views. Cobain regarded himself as politically and socially liberal and egalitarian, with a Buddhist worldview and virulently anti-commercial, and appeared to make efforts to maintain these stances as Nevermind became one of the most commercially successful records of all time and was embraced and championed by factions of society (anarchist, libertarian, etc.) subscribing to ideologies at odds with what Cobain said he believed in.

But however much Cobain claimed to subscribe to his slate of beliefs, there was another side to his personality that belied certain aspects of his self-described ethos. Shortly after Nevermind went to Number One, Cobain bluntly asserted his power within the group and made what can only be described as a blatant money grab, demanding a reorganization of Nirvana's songwriting royalty structure. Rather than continuing their long-established equal three-way split based before on what was considered a collaborative enterprise, Cobain demanded the lion's share of royalties, since he wrote most of the band's songs. At first, and to their credit, Grohl and Novoselic were cool with this . . . until Cobain began insisting that the new structure be made retroactive to the release of Nevermind. Needless to say, the other two band members weren't about this proposal at all, and in the spring of 1992, the issue came very close to breaking up the group. In the end, a "compromise" of sorts was reached (although to me, agreeing to give Cobain 75% of the Nevermind royalties doesn't seem like much of a compromise). But bad feelings within the group remained, adding an additional level and dimension to the outside strains Cobain was under.

This was just one of the most obvious examples of the conflict going on within Cobain, as he attempted to reconcile the two sides of his image - the external side (superstar multimillionaire "King of Grunge") and his private (bohemian underground rock rebel); contradictory images that in many ways mirrored his bipolar mental state.  Cobain's lyrics, cryptic as they are, reflected these internal contradictions - seeming to mean one thing one minute before meaning the opposite in the next line.  In an interview last year, Krist Novolesic made an offhand remark about calling Kurt out good-naturedly on the nature of his words during their recording session - while at the same time succinctly confirming what I mentioned above, the tug of war going on within Cobain's head:
I'd go, "Did you hear what you just said? You contradicted what you said a minute ago." He'd laugh at himself, because he knew it. He would be like that. He wanted to be a rock star – and he hated it [my emphasis].
Another example of Cobain's dealing with this juxtaposition was in the recording of Nirvana's third (and last) album, In Utero. In Utero was supposed to be Nirvana backing away from their "rock stardom"and reclaiming their indie cred. But in many ways, In Utero simultaneously rejects and embraces everything Nirvana did before it.

In what is considered the definitive Nirvana biography, the 1993 book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, author Michael Azerrad asserts that "the music of In Utero showcased divergent sensibilities of abrasiveness and accessibility that reflected the upheavals Cobain experienced prior to the album's completion." Novolesic has said that on this album, Cobain wrote some wonderful, beautiful songs, and then during recording deliberately tried to roughen them, add noise and rawness to the music, both on specific songs and throughout the entire album. For example, "Heart Shaped Box" starts off as a heartfelt ballad before suddenly launching into a howling chorus, then lurching back again to ballad-mode. Soft, soulful songs like "Dumb" would immediately be followed by grinding, shrieking guitar workouts like "Very Ape" and "Milk It". And, of course, Cobain couldn't help but take aim at both himself and his new supporters and critics - witness the first words in the very first song on the album, "Serve The Servants":

Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I'm bored and old
Self-appointed judges judge
More than they have sold
Practically every moment on In Utero is a contradiction to what comes immediately before and after it - and it was designed that way. Still, for all the band's talk about In Utero being a 'rejection' of their Nevermind sound, a lot of songs on this album follow the sonic blueprint of its predecessor - perhaps not in a point-by-point song comparison, but in the LOUDquietLOUD structure and instrumentation.  Nirvana was, after all, a three-piece, and there's only so much you can do to change your signature sound before going off into Lou Reed Metal Machine Music mode and completely alienating your fans - something Nirvana was not about to do.  

In Utero was purposely recorded and designed to be Cobain's ultimate "anti-commercial" response to Nevermind - but the fucking thing still sold 15 million copies worldwide.  So, um - mission accomplished . . . (?)  

In spite of all that, In Utero is a much more personal album than Nevermind, clearly reflecting Cobain's state of mind at the time of recording. After his death, a lot of critics and observers made much of the words and phrases used in the disc's songs, which to them seemed prophetic in terms of how Cobain eventually ended his life - Pitchfork media recently called the album "the rough draft for rock‘n’roll’s most famous suicide note". Personally, I think that's bullshit. I have never believed that Cobain wrote the album with the conscious intent of offing himself soon afterwards and justifying/explaining the reasons behind it to the masses
beforehand. Critics did the same thing with Joy Division's Closer after lead singer Ian Curtis' 1980 suicide - it was no truer in that case than it was for this one.

There is a term - apophenia - that I think applies here. Apophenia is defined as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness", but it has come to represent the tendency to seek patterns in random information in general. That's exactly what lazy journalists tried to do in the wake of Cobain's death, and that's where they failed. There is no morbid, sinister pattern in In Utero; it is NOT a farewell from a walking dead man.  It's just a very powerful record showcasing the many things that were on Cobain's mind at the time. Looking into it any further than that is a foolish and ultimately futile exercise. Dave Grohl did a lengthy interview with Rolling Stone last September, where he spoke extensively about Nirvana's last album. Here's what he had to say, in relation to what I wrote above:
"The album [In Utero] should be listened to as it was the day it came out. That's my problem with the record. I used to like to listen to it. And I don't anymore, because of that. To me, if you listen to it without thinking of Kurt dying, you might get the original intention of the record. Like my kids. They know I was in Nirvana. They know Kurt was killed. I haven't told them that he killed himself. They're four and seven years old. So when they listen to In Utero, they'll have that fresh perspective – the original intention of the album, as a first-time listener. Someday they will learn what happened. And it'll change that. It did for me."
* * * * * * *

Late last year, People Magazine published an article conjecturing what popular musicians who died young (like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison) would be doing now if they had lived to the present day. For the story, the magazine commissioned a high-end film manipulation/restoration company to come up with mocked-up portraits, illustrating what these singers might look like nowadays. The pictures themselves are remarkably realistic and poignant, none moreso than that of a Kurt Cobain pushing 50:

The People story itself was lightweight foolishness, full of idiotic predictions as to what these stars' current lives would possibly be like (for example, Elvis "presides over the largest musician-owned eatery chain in the United States, an all-you-can-eat buffet called Hunks & Hunks O' Burnin' Love . . . "; Bob Marley "is elected president-king for life of Jamaica . . ."). But the writeup for Cobain is probably the most plausible of all the artists featured:
"Given Kurt Cobain's love for his daughter and his disdain for the media and stardom, we like to think that the Cobain of this picture eventually moved to Portland, remained wholly devoted to Frances Bean, and drives a Prius. He DJs (very) infrequently, turns down every interview request, and enjoys the occasional craft beer."
I could totally see that scenario happening for him, Cobain living the life of a rock recluse, the grunge version of Axl Rose (albeit with a little more class, hopefully). But we'll never have the opportunity to see that ourselves . . . which is a pity.

Then again, with Kurt gone for these twenty years now, you and I also have not and will never have the opportunity to see him in decline. We don't have to witness Cobain sliding into irrelevance, or hear critics badmouthing his latest poorly-received album, forever comparing his current output to his early iconic Nirvana hits. We are spared the ignominy of seeing Cobain as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars or serving as a guest judge on American Idol. We'll never have to deal with crap celebrity magazine photos of Kurt squiring his daughter to some pretentious fashion show premiere, posing dutifully and a bit shamefaced in front of a white canvas covered with corporate logos. We all are spared the constant biannual faux-media frenzy of a rumored Nirvana reunion at next year's Coachella or SXSW. There will be no nasty, drawn-out Kurt & Courtney divorce proceedings; no "tell-all" books by disgruntled old band members; no pointless collaborations with sorry bands like Slipknot or OneRepublic looking to milk whatever would be left of Cobain's indie cred.

 Like some other performers who left us far too soon (such as Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, and Hendrix), Cobain is now frozen in time, and is quickly passing into the realm of legend. He will always and forever be the brooding, scruffy-looking, twenty-something floppy-haired genius who impacted musical history. In many ways, he has ascended into the pantheon of those stars who will never grow old, and whose reputation and work will forever be secure. As tragic as his death was, and in spite of all that his friends, family and fans lost with him being gone from the Earth for these past twenty years, at least there is some small solace in that.

 My younger sister sent me this Nirvana box set for Christmas in 2004 - one of her better holiday gifts in the past twenty years. A Nirvana set was previously scheduled for release in late 2001, but was held up by Courtney Love, specifically over the unreleased song "You Know You're Right". Love considered the tune a valuable centerpiece song, and as such didn't want to see it buried and "wasted" in a multi-disc set. She dragged the surviving band members into court regarding it. In the end, a compromise was reached, and "You Know You're Right" was released on the 2002 single-disc Nirvana compilation - paving the way for With The Lights Out two years later (in the end containing an acoustic demo of "You Know You're Right", which I hope to God Grohl and Novolesic included as a "screw you" gesture to Love . . .).

All in all, this is a superb set, in that instead of repackaging cuts from the band's studio albums, the set consists almost entirely of previously rare or unreleased material, including b-sides, demos, rough rehearsal recordings and live recordings. The songs are sequenced in roughly chronological order, so by going straight through them, you can basically follow the evolution and development of Nirvana's sound. For fans, this is an essential recording.

So, here you are - Nirvana's With The Lights Out box set (Well, the first three music discs; I didn't include the fourth disc here, a DVD of band rehearsals, concerts and music videos), released by DGC Records on November 23rd, 2004. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.  

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