Nirvana is a cultural commodity that so many have staked a claim in. Aging Gen X hipsters recall buying the Sub Pop records and catching Nirvana shows at local dive bars. Twentysomethings remember vividly how the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” vid opened their eyes, made them chuck their Bell Biv Devoe and Warrant tapes out the window. And legions of today’s outsider teens admire Kurt Cobain’s inadvertent anti-hero heroics.
So it’s funny now how, 10 years after Cobain’s suicide, the trio from the logging town of Aberdeen, Wash., seems to have existed entirely in a vacuum. When you take into account sheer influence and importance, Nirvana might as well be the only band that ever played in the ’90s. Try reading a month’s worth of rock magazines without spotting the phrase “the next Nirvana.”
So the idea of a career-spanning box set for such a lauded group is both exciting and (un)forgiving. Die-hards will complain that many tracks have been available on boots for nearly a decade (the five-volume Outcesticide series contains 12 of the box’s 68 previously unreleased tracks) and that Cobain’s highly touted 1985 “Fecal Matter” demos are omitted (the word on the demos, though, is that they’re not that good).
Then there are the nuggets, such as never-heard-befores “Verse Chorus Verse” and “Old Age” (a version of the latter was featured on Hole’s 1997 detritus album My Body, the Hand Grenade, with Courtney Love listed as writer). Cobain’s 1994 solo acoustic demo of “Do Re Mi” is quite possibly the saddest moment on the four discs. The somewhat embryonic track makes the listener yearn for what a full version would sound like with the oomph and throb of Dave Grohl’s drums and Krist Novoselic’s bass. And the vocal hook, an ascending melodic repetition of the track’s title, is the shit; you just know the song would’ve been huge.
But the real juice lies in the hour-long DVD. Footage from a 1988 rehearsal at Novoselic’s mother’s house gives the viewer a voyeuristic peek at the band — everything from original drummer Chad Channing’s cartoonish drum kit to Cobain singing straight at a wall. A first-ever live performance of the watershed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from April 1991 is bombastic and unsurprisingly well-received. The disc ends with a studio performance of the band covering “Seasons in the Sun” that shows Cobain goofing off and in what appears to be in good spirits. It’s a somewhat happy ending.
In the end, none of us really owns Nirvana. They’ve become a band where any shred of original intent is long lost in a sea of legal battles, tapestries and karaoke versions. They’re caricatures or icons depending on how you view it. In a chilling scene on the DVD, Cobain covers himself with a blanket depicting Jesus as he’s held above a crowd with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose. If Cobain is your messiah, consider this your gospel.
Ben Blackwell writes about music for Metro Times . Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.