Monday, February 07, 2005

Kat's Korner: Nirvana's With the Lights Out: There It Is now, It Don't Entertain Us

Between parties and drunken binges, between bedding down with whomever and everyone, do you ever take a minute to, golly, I don't know, listen to music?

So begins a lovely mash note from someone offended that I had yet to discuss Nirvana's With the Lights Out. This four disc boxed set has actually resulted in six e-mails imploring me to, as one prankster jotted, "blow out the incense, swallow the peppermints and discover the greatness of Kurt Cobain."

I did that. 1991. I loved Nirvana. I was hopping into this hearse of a car my friend Twyla had dubbed "Big Blue" and hoping to pop Soundgarden into the tape deck when she insisted that I hear this new band ("it's f*cking fantastic, Kat!"). And it was. It was everything a rock band should be. Loud. Poetic. Sexual. Raging. Enraging. Twyla had the crappiest speakers but even with her sound system, it was obvious that rock and roll genius was at work here.

They were the real deal. And the anticipation surrounding them was like nothing else at that time. (Or since.) Crap was being kicked off the air (goodbye to all the Miami Vice "rockers" and the precursers of the Disney Kids -- New Kids on the Block and Tiffany and the rest of their ilk).
They cleared the decks.

You don't create a new radio genre without greatness. A lot of bands tried to be them (I'll be kind for a change and leave it to you to list those bands) and very few people approached their level of art. Liz Phair did, for one album. Tori Amos did.

And that needs to be stressed because that's very much a part of the grunge movement. Rap-metal and all the rest that came after (alterna-pop) were a response to what Nirvina did (primarily Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic -- the drummer was all the weakest thing about the group -- guitarist Pat Smear does deserve note, however). They railed against the sexist and racist and homophobic notions that were so much a part of the time before them (Guns 'n Roses, anyone?).

And when minorities take a foothold in rock, it's always time to redefine the sound because there are some white boys that just can't stand the thought that they might have to listen to music made by anyone who can't join their frat. With songs like "You Ought to Know," "Uninvited," and "You Are" Alanis was outrocking the boys and it was time to change what "rock" was because God forbid a gal show up the (white) boys.

Alternative, before Gin Blossoms and other alterna-pop/alt-corp products got a toe hold, was an open genre when compared to earlier ones. (That's probably due to the fact that college radio in the eighties had been a format that produced two real superstar-crossover acts: R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs.) The Breeders could last splash it along side of Pearl Jam feeling all alive, next to Juliana Hatfield telling us about her sister, in front of Chris Cornell going into his Jesus Christ pose while Smashing Pumpkins were floating above trying to disarm. You could be into Hole, Bikini Kill and Alice in Chains.

Kurt Cobain's suicide ended all of that. And who can say that, had he lived, it would have been any different? I'm sure, either with the band or without it, he would have continued making great music. I'm just not sure that, having created all these artificial imitations who would go along with any demand and not rock the boat, the mega-merged labels would have stuck with him. So much easier to pour all the energy and A.R. time into a puppet who would stand where you said, play what you wanted, and be a little naughty but never stupid and outrageous.

But he died. And I'll never forget the dee jay saying that. I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and I had to pull over. "Heart Shaped Box" came on. I just sat in the car in shock. Hearing that song and then "All Apologies" and realizing that Nirvana was no more.

Somewhere after a long Nirvana block, Tori Amos' "God" came on.

God, sometimes you just don't come through . . .
Would you even tell her if you decide to make the sky fall . . .

Not to take anything away from Courtney Love (I'll be the last to ever slag her), but Tori was the only other writer from grunge that approached greatness. (Which will no doubt will come as news to Billy Corrigan who's been in a pissing match with Kurt -- one he still can't win, even against a dead man.)

It all changed in that moment. When Tori's next album came out (Boys for Pele) she'd be played on alternative radio only. The go-alongs, the pretty boys, were churning out alterna-pop and there was no place for the real thing.

Which was a real shame because "Caught a Lite Sneeze" (intentionally or not) summed up grunge better than anything Todd Synder ever dreamed up.

Boys on my left side
Boys on my right side
Boys in the middle
And you're not here

I always picture "you're" as Kurt. All the pretty boys being churned out by the labels, blathering on about found about you and whining about sniffing sex and candy, all pale imitations of the real deal. And slowly but surely, alternative rock became alt-rock and women were nowhere to be found, though they could spin any track off The Joshua Tree -- a great U2 album but one that predates grunge and has nothing to do with alternative rock.

Maybe that's what's confusing the kiddies? They put on their local Clear Channel affiliated alterna-rock station, hear Nirvana alongside U2, Limp dough boys and a "golden nugget" from Candlebox so suddenly they think they know about grunge.

Now, all these years after we were promised a boxed set, it finally comes out. And guess what, it's still not what we were promised. And if you had any of the bootlegs, the "new" live songs aren't new at all. (They didn't even choose the best performances, just the ones they could clean up of audience noise the best, if you ask me.)

When I heard that one of the four discs would be a DVD, I was underwhelmed. Ten years later and they're having to round out the collection with a DVD? Didn't bode well.

But there are friends I have who are collectors and I waited for them to snatch it up so I could listen and find out if my fears would be confirmed. Finally, Larry (who has to have everything for his CD collection) got it and invited a group of us over to listen to it.

I was no longer underwhelmed, I was outraged.

It was product, not music. They'd packaged up what they hoped would be a big seller. If there's a theme to this set, it's "Cash in! Yee-haw! We're going to be rich!"

If you're late to Nirvana (due to birth or whatever), maybe you'll enjoy it. But I think you'd enjoy the studio albums and the Unplugged disc more. Everything else has just been an attempt to milk a cash cow, a dead cash cow. (Unplugged came out after his death. Why they haven't tried to do a double disc version of those MTV performances is beyond me since it truly would be a cash cow.)

Kurt often wore his own, self-made, t-shirts. I think if he were around to make one to do, it would read "Corporate Product Still Sucks."

I found the whole thing insulting. If Francis Bean or Courtney get any money from this, more power to them. But it's nothing I'd fork over ten bucks for (let alone the grossly overpriced amount they're asking for).

Since before Unplugged came out on CD, we've been promised so much with this boxed set. I long ago gave up expecting miracles. But I had hoped it would be worth listening to if ever came out. Then came the press overkill and I was leery. So pin the blame on me if you want to as Stevie Nicks would say.

But maybe you ought to be more suspicious of the little boys with hard ons for a dead man they appear to grasp little of. They're the same crowd still waiting for Axel Rose to get it together because they just know it's going to be the salvation of rock. But those of us who remember what the band was and who realize that there's no revolution coming out of songs that are over a decade old are judging the boxed set for what it is, not for what we dream it is during our nocturnal emissions.

It's some weak songs that rightly never made it onto an album, some demos where Kurt's feeling his way towards mastering the song (interesting to collection completers and musical archivists only), and some cruddy mixes of live songs that have been so over mixed and santized they could easily fit on Sarah McLachlan's Mirror Ball.

Look, I love the Mamas and the Papas. That doesn't mean I was pleased to see John Phillips version of it in the 1980s. I did though. And I heard people trying to talk it up. "It's like Cass is almost still alive." "MacKenzie Phillips almost approaches Michelle Phillips!" "John's still got his voice!" Looking at them, and knowing they couldn't out drink me, I decided they just couldn't handle their booze. It was nothing like the group. It was just a stale attempt to cash in on people's memories and their desire that a time long since past could come back.

It wasn't happening. And it ain't happening with this boxed set.