With The Lights Out (Geffen/Universal) Rating: NNN
However unintentional, the bill fold-style design of the new Nirvana box set, With The Lights Out, gives you a good idea what this archival barrel-bottom scrape is all about. The snazzy-looking black three-CD- plus-DVD rarities package orchestrated by Nirvana's super-slick manager John Silva (credited as executive producer) appears to have less to do with honouring the musical legacy of the sorely missed grunge gods than profiting from it.
Because most of the second-rate Nirvana recordings that the late Kurt Cobain deemed worth releasing have already appeared on various B-sides compilations and the Incesticide outtakes collection, what we have here is mostly the demos never officially released and rehearsal recordings that Cobain felt were not embarrassing enough to erase or simply forgot about.
Call it a best-of-the-worst. If you're expecting to hear some long-lost tune that's as good as, say, All Apologies or even Territorial Pissings, you won't find it among these 81 tracks.
Many of the "unknown" Nirvana songs will be familiar to hardcore fans from various bootlegs like the remarkably thorough Outcesticide CD series. Other cuts, like the various radio broadcasts, have been circulating in cyberspace for longer than the eight years spent preparing this box.
Of course, the versions on With The Lights Out are significantly crisper and clearer than anything you've downloaded. But keep in mind that since a variety of sources are used - from professional studio recordings with Butch Vig, Jack Endino and Steve Fisk right through rec room jam sessions taped over pre-recorded cassettes - the sound quality can shift from pristine to abysmal one track to the next.
The most fascinating unearthing is the Leadbelly tribute session from 89 in which Cobain recorded chilling covers of Grey Goose, Ain't It A Shame and They Hung Him On A Cross with Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel of the Screaming Trees.
The accompanying notes in the 60-page booklet essentially offer a timeline of significant gigs and recording dates illustrated with black-and-white band photos and images of old cassettes, tape boxes, singles sleeves, gig flyers and studio tracking sheets.
Other than two pointless essays by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Motley Crüe expert Neil Strauss, there are only a few brief blurbs from the members and producers discussing what's going on.
There's no track-by-track annotation to explain such mysteries as why a cover of the Shocking Blue's relatively obscure Love Buzz was issued as the A-side of their debut single. And what exactly prompted drummer Chad Channing's abrupt exit just prior to recording Nevermind? All we're shown is a handwritten note announcing Channing's departure. oddly signed by Cobain as "Robyn Zander."
The origin of the signature goes back to my Nirvana interview just a couple months earlier, during which I had jokingly asked Cobain if the reason Sub Pop signed Nirvana was because he reminded Sub Pop boss Bruce Pavitt of Cheap Trick's Robin Zander. He roared, "It's because of the pouty lips, right?"
After Nirvana's bottle-smashing Toronto debut at Lee's Palace on April 16, 1990, they crashed at my place. Before splitting the next day, Cobain signed a Sub Pop tour poster "Hi, I'm Robyn Zander. I have pouty lips!" Evidently it stuck with him.
As for Channing's dismissal, it's best to leave that to the drummer who helped define the Nirvana sound.
"Basically, I wanted more creative input," explains Channing from his Bainbridge Island home. "In every other band I'd been in, I was a songwriter, so I wanted to contribute more to Nirvana to feel a part of what was happening.
"But I eventually realized that it just wasn't going to happen. Kurt sensed my disappointment, so Krist and him drove to my place and told me, 'We know you're not happy with the situation, so we've got to let you go.' It was tough on all of us because we were good friends and we remained friends."
Despite leaving Nirvana just before they hit the big time, Channing shows no signs of suffering from Pete Best Syndrome and says he has no regrets about what transpired.
"When I heard Nevermind for the first time, I thought they'd just remixed the stuff we'd recorded in Madison. But no, Dave Grohl was just playing everything exactly like I did. The bizarre thing is that even on the songs that I didn't record, his playing's pretty close to what I imagine I would've done. It's like we share a similar drumming mindset.
"Had I stayed in the band I'd probably have a few more bucks in my wallet today, but I wouldn't have been able to contribute any song ideas. I could never sacrifice my happiness for money. Music's too important to me."
Although the accompanying DVD offered an opportunity to present the group's lighter side with some comical European interview clips, drunken backstage foolery or accidental studio discoveries, none of that stuff appears here. In its place you get boring performance clips characterized by murky audio and shaky images that are often dark and out-of-focus, which should help explain the title choice.
It's all slapped together in chronological order without any supporting commentary, so the viewer is left to figure out who's doing what and try to place it in some historical context.
The nine tunes shot in the attic above the hair salon run by Krist Novoselic's mom are more intriguing than entertaining, mostly because Cobain sings every one with his nose pressed up against a wood-panelled wall while four disinterested pals read magazines and hoist brew.
That bit and the throat-lumping closing sequence with Cobain banging away on a drum kit while poignantly singing Seasons In The Sun in Brazil's Ariola studio shortly before checking out is really as good as it gets with this hugely disappointing package that promised so much yet delivers so very little of real consequence.