Seattle – Nirvana’s box set, delayed three years by litigation, was finally released Tuesday, introducing hundreds of thousands of fans to rare recordings and even living-room video of the grunge rockers.
The four-disc set, “With the Lights Out,” includes 81 tracks, 68 of them previously unreleased. It was initially planned for release in 2001 – for the 10th anniversary of the album “Nevermind” – but a dispute between Courtney Love, the widow of frontman Kurt Cobain, and the surviving bandmates delayed the project. The sides settled their legal issues in September 2002, allowing work on the box set to resume.
“I’m personally delighted to see it out,” said Love’s lawyer, O. Yale Lewis. “Between the greatest hits, released earlier, and this box set… it will provide the fans forever (with) a good mosaic of the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.”
Universal’s Geffen label recorded close to 400,000 advance orders of the box set, which officially listed at $60 but was selling at about $40 at many music stores. Another 100,000 copies were expected to sell by the end of the first week. The set will be followed in a few years by a “best-of-the-box” release, Lewis said.
The set features three CDs, beginning with a Led Zepplin cover recorded in 1987, and a DVD of rare performance and rehearsal footage – including nine songs rehearsed at the home of bassist Krist Novoselic’s mother when Cobain was only 20. The DVD also includes the first performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song that launched Nirvana and Seattle’s grunge scene onto the national stage in 1991.
“It is a true Nirvana fan’s dream,” said Seattle disc jockey Andrew Harms, whose station, 107.7 FM, devoted the weekend to the rare tracks. “You get to see how the band progresses. The whole box set tells a story, and it goes all the way to the end.”
Cobain biographer Charles Cross agreed that the set tells Nirvana’s story aptly – a story that ended with Cobain’s spiraling heroin use and suicide in 1994.
“It’s not always a pretty story,” he said. “The band wasn’t always pretty, or always in tune. This is not Nirvana unplugged. It’s Nirvana unedited.”
Seattle music writer Gillian Gaar first heard Nirvana when she was reviewing a Sub Pop Records compilation album in the late 1980s. She was so unimpressed she didn’t bother to mention the band in her piece, though she discussed almost every other song on the compilation.
That changed when she heard the band’s first album, “Bleach.” She wound up becoming a big fan – and would later spend six years working on the box set, tracking down rare recordings and helping create a 60-page booklet that accompanies every edition.
“I started working on it in 1998 and never imagined it would take six years,” she said. “We were working with a 2001 release date, for the 10-year anniversary of Nevermind. Then the lawsuits happened. All this work we had done was put on hold, and we thought, ‘Are we ever going to get back to this?'”
Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl wanted to release the box set earlier, but Love disagreed, arguing that a best-of-Nirvana CD should come out first. They wound up in court, but settled; the box set was delayed to make way for the best-of disc.
Gaar found the final product satisfying, but sad.
“The DVD starts with them in this little room rehearsing, then at the end they’re again in a little room rehearsing,” Gaar said. “There seems to be an underlying sadness coming through. That was part of the soul of the band in a way, that there was always a melancholy bittersweet feeling running through their music. Even the title, ‘With the Lights Out,’ seems to me to be a little sad.”
The title comes from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which includes the refrain: “With the lights out/ it’s less dangerous/ here we are now/ entertain us.”