It Goes to Eleven

Eleven years have passed since the death of Kurt Cobain on April 5, 1994. A lot has changed. The Reaganites are back in power. The Foo Fighters are music-industry veterans; Green Day's won a Grammy. Frances Bean Cobain is a teenager. Christ, the Flaming Lips make electronica now. And if reading this makes you wistfully reflect on college then, dude—you're in your thirties.

Or, How Nirvana Sound Now

Eleven years have passed since the death of Kurt Cobain on April 5, 1994. A lot has changed. The Reaganites are back in power. The Foo Fighters are music-industry veterans; Green Day’s won a Grammy. Frances Bean Cobain is a teenager. Christ, the Flaming Lips make electronica now. And if reading this makes you wistfully reflect on college then, dude—you’re in your thirties.

But what about those of us who were too young to have discovered Nirvana when they were still obscure, who had to wait till they were piped in via an MTV that itself can hardly be reconciled with its current incarnation? Well, we grew up too, even if our parents thought we wouldn’t. We’re full members of society now, with useless liberal arts degrees and a healthy sense of fear. We’ve had internships at magazines.

For the last third of the year 2004 I was an intern for The Nation. It was great, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that one day Krist Novoselic dropped by our office to talk about electoral reform, a major theme in his “memoir turned civics manual” (thank you, Sarah Vowell), Of Grunge and Government. After not too long a few things became clear:

(1) Novoselic’s plan for electoral reform is a good one, and could conceivably cause widespread breakouts of democratically elected leadership, plus civic participation and/or pride.

(2) We, his audience, already pretty much agreed with his progressive platform. We wanted him to talk about Nirvana! We wanted him to tell us stories from the glory days, secrets you can’t Google for. We also wanted him to let us touch him so that we could then tell others that we had touched Krist Novoselic. (Maybe this last one was just me.)

(3) Novoselic had little interest in talking about Nirvana, and absolutely no interest in being touched.

The things I wanted to say to that man! That Nirvana’s music had pulled me through every moment of adolescence when the world seemed ineffably composed of shit and horror; that I used to go down to the grungy record stores on Miami Beach and pay $30 a disc for barely audible bootlegs with misnamed songs on the track listing and grainy photocopied cover art; that this girl in my English class named Courtney Roero used to burn NIRVANA into her arm with a pencil eraser and talk about how Kurt had only faked his death so he could marry her, the “real” Courtney; that I lost my virginity while listening to Incesticide (err, not to Courtney Roero, though).

But Krist Novoselic didn’t want to hear those things. Maybe people like me gushing stories like those have worn him out, made him a stranger even to his own memories of the band and what they did. Or maybe—as I prefer to believe—Novoselic is a man of many hats and on the day I found him he was wearing his electoral reform hat, a respectable one indeed. If I had found him in a bar, perhaps he would have listened to or validated my secrets, or shared one of his own, or something.

Music fans are always scared that a band is going to “new direction” or “bold departure” their way into a blind alley, and nobody wants to be the fan that stays earnest too long—the guy in the Spaghetti Incident tee shirt. The slamming-shut of death’s door with the wrong person on the wrong side of it changes everything. As the word “posthumous” settles like a mood, the excavation begins. Survivors, executors, and the holders of subsidiary rights dig through geologic layers of demos, soundboards, and miscellany in a hunt for lost treasures or at least release-worthy curiosities. Some fans cherish these supernatural postcards from the lost superhero (or antihero); others stridently resent it, either because of the ghoulish undertone to the process or else because the zealous quest for memoriam turns into a heavy-handed beatification. But it’s do this or do nothing. The only anomaly with Nirvana is that it took so long to get the material released. (Thanks, Courtney Love.)

For post-Cobain Nirvana fans, like post-Garcia Deadheads, the experience of seeing the live show, of being in the same room (or arena, or stadium) as The Man Himself, is a foreclosed option—always already impossible. So the posthumous issuance of increasingly obscure material is not only the closest we can get, it’s all we’ve got (cf. The Dead’s endless stream of live releases or their most recent collection, Rare Cuts and Oddities: 1966).

Though his ghost may never forgive me for saying so, the man who once said he’d wear a tie-dyed shirt only if it were “soaked in the blood of Jerry Garcia” had a lot more in common with the old hippie, who outlived him by a year, than he’d have cared to admit. (There was heroin, for one thing.) Jerry knew they would deify him after his death, since Deadheads had been regarding him as a prophet for decades. Cobain, whose career arc and ethos and musical project (and fans) were diametrically opposed to Garcia’s in every way, couldn’t have known that in death he’d finally grow wings. But this much he surely knew: it’s a fucked-up world. Proof? Look at the group photo on the back cover of The Dead’s 1969 album Aoxomoxoa; among those pictured is a young Courtney Love.

Now I want to say some things about the (relatively) recent box set, With the Lights Out, and what it is and is not. It is not the brilliant back avenues of Incesticide that so perfectly soundtracked and amplified the love and love-acts of a generation of dedicated outcasts. (Spending high school flannel—swathed in South Florida—that was dedication.) It is the musical equivalent of the Novoselic that came to our office with an admirable but non-negotiable agenda, and all the muted joy and disappointment that that implies.

The home demos peppered throughout the three discs are lo-fi, poorly performed versions of songs we already know. While the shabby production is understandable (they were never intended for release) and the intimacy as creepily comforting as a shoebox full of nudes of a since-deceased ex, the box would have done better to go for true rarities. Or, failing that, maybe to include a complete concert, just so we could say we have one. I’m not asking for Nirvana’s answer to the Dick’s Picks series, but From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah was a seriously kickass live album, and wherever those tracks came from there must be more. Their final live show (released simply as “Roma” to the bootlegging world) would have worked in terms of quality and “significance.” Equally useful would have been May 4, 1990—a random bootleg I stumbled across one day on the Bowery and bought for my friend Maggie because the show had taken place on her eighth birthday. Nearly any complete show would have done the job.

I could go on. I could dwell on the DVD footage (was the cover of “Seasons in the Sun” ironic or sincere—did even Kurt know?); the song selection (did we really need two more versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song so thoroughly destroyed by overexposure—impaled atop every rock countdown like a severed head on a pike—that it’s barely listenable fourteen years later?); the cover art (a black-and-white rendering of a classic band photo, here robbed of its most thrilling quality, the bottomless blue of Cobain’s eyes). There’s no reason to do that, though. I’m going to forgo the long view, the all-encompassing judgment, the very notion of review, and instead talk about something really important to me.

The holy trinity of this collection is three Leadbelly covers (none of them “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”). Disc one, tracks 18-20. These stop me cold every time. All the darkness and sublimation of Cobain and his band (which at that point—Summer 1989—didn’t really exist yet) and their legacy (also forthcoming) and everything else, gets preemptively condensed down and distilled into audio-emotional moonshine. It’s just Kurt on the mic and strumming; Mark Pickerel on the drums. “They Hung Him on a Cross” is done with all the gorgeous and holy impiety of “Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam,” but without the easy answers of the orchestral supplement provided on the MTV Unplugged recording. And “Grey Goose” is just cool.

Then there’s “Ain’t it a Shame,” another Christian-themed tune. Cobain merrily recites from Leadbelly’s list of things it’d be a shame if you did on a Sunday. He starts out easy on us: it’d be a shame to go fishing; it’d be a shame to have a drink. We’re all sharing in a good belly laugh with old Leadbelly. Then verse three hits:

Ain’t it a shame to beat your wife on a Sunday, ain’t it a shame

Ain’t it a shame to beat your wife on a Sunday, ain’t it a shame

Ain’t it a shame to beat your wife on a Sunday, when you got Monday Tuesday Wednesday

Oh, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, ain’t it a shame

Kurt’s voice has gotten urgent, harsher, and by the time he gets to the final line he’s shouting—after the last words of the verse he launches into a classic Cobain scream: like an incarnation of the Munch painting, those telling yowls show you, Kipling-style, how a song like “Endless, Nameless” got its spots. This recording of this song represents everything that is best about Cobain and Nirvana; it shows you why they became stratospheric hits, why they’re worth every ounce of their legacy, and why this box set (warts and all) is still overwhelmingly fulfilling.

The timeless guttural roars juxtaposed against the banal evil of domestic violence… It makes you want to grab for the sky, for the classical canon, for the grandest comparison you can muster. I’m inclined to draw on Borges (the premise of “The Aleph”), or else just break down and invoke Yeats (“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned”).

Cobain’s juxtaposition of lyrics and screams yield themselves to, and even invite, a political reading. Cobain was, among other things, an ardent feminist. The interested scholar or rabid fan will doubtless remember the anti-hate message from his open letter to fans in the liner notes to Incesticide; Nirvana playing the first Rock For Choice show (among other benefit concerts); the live-on-SNL kissing intended specifically to piss off homophobes; the consideration of whether or not he’d “sold out” as one of the determining factors in the decision to take his own life. The radical politics of Nirvana would make a great presentation for some academic conference on Marxism and culture, if it hasn’t already. It’s one more aspect of this group’s career that With the Lights Out would just as soon gloss over (check the liner notes for the words “suicide” or “Courtney;” you won’t find them), but in the dogged brightness of that defiant growl the message comes through: an indelible burst of light.

The death (read: suppression) of irony in the post-9/11 world has had one positive consequence: the re-establishment of a cultural space for earnestness. Back in the early ‘90s, Nirvana’s pain and anger seemed primarily existential. As such, they were frequently accused of complaining about nothing. Now, as the shitstorm of the second Bush administration drags on, ever thickening, not only does their angst seem justified but the political dimension of their rage is cast into increasingly sharp relief. We’re entangled in an endless, pointless war; reproductive rights are under constant assault; the ANWR is getting drilled like a tooth; the religious far-right is the only grassroots movement that can get any press coverage. Krist Novoselic’s squawking mockery of the Youngbloods (“C’mon people now…”) in the opening seconds of “Territorial Pissings” is worlds more poignant now than when first released.

If things have gotten as bad as Nirvana always made it sound like they were, this should only go to show that if they hadn’t existed we’d be scrambling to invent them. Novoselic is right: this democracy is broken. Cobain’s howls, however, are more persuasive—and comforting—than a well-reasoned call for electoral reform could possibly be. What the two have in common is earnestness. Luckily, we don’t have to pick one or the other. We need both.

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