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Art-Shaped Box

The new Nirvana retrospective is an exhaustive portrait of an artist at war with his own sense of beauty.

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Kurt Cobain tended to exaggerate the abuses he’d suffered in his youth. His fanzine tales of a traumatic home life, of constant beatings at the hands of psychotic redneck bullies, turned out, when biographers tracked them down, to be spun from some fairly customary teenage American nowhere stuff: neglect and boredom, mostly. Plenty bad, but not interestingly bad. Not the sort of bad that would make you think, as Cobain evidently wished us to think, No wonder the dude was so fucked up.

His mistreatment in death has been quite another thing. It began immediately, with the nationally televised spectacle of his widow reading aloud—while pausing for gratuitous critical asides—his suicide note. And there was the release, in 2002, of his appallingly mopey and adolescent journals, the mere thought of which should have sent his ghost into hiding. There has been clichéd legal wrangling over his estate. Then MTV trumpeted the unveiling of a lost Nirvana gem, “You Know You’re Right,” which turned out to be a thoroughly terrible song. All that remained, it seemed, was to hitch his corpse to a chariot and drag it through the mosh pit at Lollapalooza.

Which is why it’s so excellent, and so gratifying, that the past few months have seen the release both of the first song that deserves to be called an elegy for Kurt Cobain, Laura Veirs’s “Rapture” (off her truly odd and lovely fourth album, Carbon Glacier), and of With the Lights Out, a four-disc boxed set that manages, despite an excess of throwaway material, to be an appropriately eccentric testament to Cobain’s talent.

“Rapture” isn’t really about Cobain. It’s about—how else to say it?—art. Forgive the effusiveness, but I’ve had a whole little relationship with this song, which I started out thinking was the most pretentious thing I’d ever heard and now think is maybe the most purely transcendent thing I’ve heard in years. Veirs started out, like Cobain, playing punk in Washington State. She mainly writes delicate, otherworldly folk songs now, but “Rapture” is almost awkwardly direct. “The fate of Kurt Cobain,” she sings, “junk coursing through his veins / And young Virginia Woolf— / Death came and hung her coat. / Love of color, sound, and words, /Is it a blessing or a curse?”

Cobain could never answer that question for himself. He had a real problem with beauty. I won’t be an idiot and suggest that this had something to do with his death. He killed himself because he had a serious drug problem, serious psychological problems, and some kind of weird undiagnosed stomach ailment. But it’s true nonetheless that he didn’t know what to do with his own beauty. He was a guy with the looks of a J.Crew model who thought of himself as “rodentlike,” a fundamentally sweet person who practically writhed with loathing, a songwriter who was at his best when he indulged his genius for pop melody but who came from, and revered, a musical culture—Northwest punk—that valued deliberate crudity at the expense of all else. It was through the grinding of this last paradox that his best stuff emerged.

With the Lights Out begins with a gloriously messy cover of the Led Zeppelin chestnut “Heartbreaker.” It’s 1987, and the band is playing a house party. Nirvana’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, says in the liner notes that he can’t remember whose house it was, but we can imagine a place like the ones seen in the accompanying DVD—gross carpet and brown wood paneling, the sort of house you might OD in, a house Cobain would have described, in his distinctive surfer-cracker accent, as “des-ghest-ing.” The band is tuning and noodling between songs when somebody in the crowd barks, “Play ‘Heartbreaker!’ ” Then we hear Cobain say, “I don’t know how to play it!” But a few seconds later he steps on a pedal, and the six monster notes that open the song come snarling out with totally unexpected competence: Der der der de-der der. He’s doing perfect Jimmy Page vibrato on the second note. It’s pretty sublime.

Turns out Cobain really doesn’t know how to play the song, which descends into monotonous fake-booking and finally atonalizes. Could there be a more perfect distillation of what made Nirvana matter? Cobain was a great poet of crappiness, a musician who began with the most unpromising materials thinkable and assembled them into three-minute bursts of demented perfection, ending in disaster.

Listening to all the discs at one sitting was equal parts tedium and revelation. One can hear Cobain’s talent crystallizing in a sort of time-lapse, from the early mediocre punk experiments to the first outflashing of his melodic gift (1988’s “If You Must”) through to the flawlessly crafted hits like “Lithium” and “About a Girl.” In between are sub-fi solo boom-box demos from 1992’s Incesticide that, for my $59.90, were Cobain’s finest: “Been a Son” and “Sliver.” These were never on the radio, as far as I know; they were too good. The latter is an unbearably grim and funny little trailer-park epic about being dropped off by your mom and dad (who “went to a show”) at your grandparents’:

“I had to eat my dinner there / Mashed potatoes and stuff like that / I couldn’t chew my meats too good. / Grandma take me home.”

If you don’t hear a universe of insurmountably sad memories in this usage of the phrase “stuff like that,” well, be thankful.

What unfolds during the three hours of With the Lights Out is the story of how Cobain got tired of sucking. Punk rock, at the end of the day, for all its talk about DIY and its self-exciting dreams of credibility, really enshrines sucking. But Cobain was listening to Lead Belly and the Beatles, too, and he realized they had something the Melvins didn’t—they were good. There’s nothing more powerful than that, and Cobain wanted power. In his interviews, he never let go of the eighth-grade idea that you can somehow subvert the record industry by not selling many records. His songs, though, had already outstripped him. I don’t think he really wanted to be the kind of guy who could write a perfect tune like “All Apologies,” but he was. Very briefly.

With the Lights Out
Nirvana
Geffen. Four-Disc Set.


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