New Nirvana Material: Will Fans Buy It?

When a catalog is so noteworthy, and yet so pitiably small as Nirvana's—three studio records, an outtakes collection, an inconsistent box set of demos, and multiple live shows that duplicate most of these songs again and again—a passionate base of support turns into something like a church. And like any religious order, true believers protect canonical gospels from the Gnostic. In 2009 the Church of Kurt Cobain objected most strongly to the revelation that an "avatar" of the Nirvana lead singer would appear in the next version of the Guitar Hero videogame—which allows players to simulate performing their favorite hits in the guise of various, well, rock heroes. And not just an avatar, but an "unlocked" one, which could be used to play—perish the thought!—non-Nirvana material. "You can even make Kurt Cobain sing a motherf--king Bush song. He does it all while dancing like he's at a Phish show, accompanied by a mohawked skeleton drummer and an angel-winged, top-hatted bassist. It's nuts," the tastemaking Web site Pitchfork moaned, adding: "On the plus side, it's not like Kurt Cobain can kill himself a second time."

And yet, the Guitar Hero contretemps may not have been the most audacious provocation lobbed at the Church of Kurt in 2009. Before I can explain, you should know that this is, unofficially, Nirvana Nostalgia Week for music retailers. Both of Cobain's labels, Sub Pop and the David Geffen Co. (now part of the Universal Music group), are putting out new(-ish) material from the band, just in time for the holidays.

The more interesting, complicated, and—depending on your membership in the church—potentially problematic release is Universal's official issue of a much-bootlegged concert: Nirvana's headlining show at England's Reading Festival in 1992. In the year after the breakout success of Nevermind, Cobain's life had changed considerably. His marriage to Courtney Love was fodder for rumors of drug abuse in the press, and Cobain's health was an open question toward the end of the year. At Reading, Cobain tweaked the audience (and the press) by having himself rolled out in a wheelchair as he sported a wig and hospital gown. He crooned a line from Amanda McBroom's "The Rose," and then staged a collapse. After getting back up, the band blazed through a 94-minute set, playing most of their repertoire. The show instantly became the stuff of legend, with write-ups in Rolling Stone and the British press. (The rock magazine Kerrang has also placed the show at the top of its "100 Gigs That Shook the World" list.) But the performance was not without its quirks, either. Cobain, already bored with the popularity of his megahit "Smells Like Teen Spirit," started its iteration at Reading with a piss-take reference to the Boston hit "More Than a Feeling" before doing the song for real (the chord changes used by the two songs are similar, but not exact). Cobain also contradicted Dave Grohl when the drummer denied the rumors that this would be the band's last show, before pivoting once again and saying he was just kidding.

While you can see all this and more on Universal's new DVD of the Reading date, what's strange about the stand-alone CD version (which is also available in a deluxe box with the DVD) is how these moments have been excised. Also missing on this CD: a heartfelt tribute Cobain offered to his wife before debuting "All Apologies." Certainly economics are at play here: the concert was more than an hour and a half long, while a standard CD holds only 80 minutes. (And perhaps there was an impulse to avoid paying royalties to Boston for both the DVD and CD.) The early Nirvana cover "Love Buzz" also didn't make it onto Universal's CD version, either. But at 78 minutes, it's clear there was room for including a little of the between-song Kurt on the stand-alone disc, too.

All practicalities aside, these edits also have the effect of changing the entire flavor of the concert as it happened. In between songs on the DVD version, we see Kurt stomp off the stage to change guitars—without a word to the audience, leaving his bandmates to fill space by cracking awkward jokes. On the CD version, the band blazes through one anthem after another, efficient and, you'd assume, happy to be there. It's a Nirvana live show you could listen to while working out at the gym. But of course Kurt wasn't totally happy to be at Reading, playing for a stadium-size crowd. In his suicide note not all that long afterward, he took himself to task for not enjoying the big audiences enough. That he still was capable of raw onstage power while feeling personally ambivalent is beside the point. What's off-putting about this CD release of the Reading concert is how it hopes to make us forget that fact while we're sweating it out on the elliptical trainer.

Though my own membership in the Church of Kurt isn't terribly consistent, it seems to me that this futzing with the actual recorded history is more problematic than the Guitar Hero virtual scandal. A cursory look at our less legally constrained remix culture shows a robust—and often celebrated—desire to put Cobain in new contexts, at any rate. During the mashup craze of the mid-2000s, 2ManyDJs smooshed together Nirvana's totemic anthem, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," with "Bootylicious" by Destiny's Child, and no one much complained. (It was a bangin' combo.) Critical darling Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, has paired Nirvana songs with Salt-n-Pepa's "Push It" and Young Jeezy's "Soul Survivor" on his two most recent remix CDs without incurring Pitchfork's ire (in fact, it has been to their unambiguous approval). Viewed in that light, the Guitar Hero gambit—while not particularly appealing on an aesthetic level—doesn't really do anything that isn't being done (better) elsewhere. But if our nostalgia is going to be courted every holiday season with new, Nirvana-for-real tchotchkes—indeed, if we're going to have our latent desire for more Cobain tempted by what is arguably inessential material—why bother to leave any of it on the cutting-room floor? Give it to us raw and uncut or not at all.

That's the route Sub Pop, Nirvana's first label, has taken, in remastering and rereleasing the band's first, independent album, Bleach, which is also out this week. Famously cut for $600 by producer Jack Endino in 1989, part of the reason the sessions cost so little was that the band recorded over unfavored takes in order to save tape. (Oh, the analog '80s!) That means there aren't any studio goodies available to tack onto this 20th-anniversary package. Thus, Sub Pop unearthed a previously unreleased, contemporaneous live show by the not-yet-world-beating band, and had Endino remaster that concert for use as a bonus alongside the new release of Bleach. The show in question is a tight 30-minute set from a Portland, Ore., club in 1990. Chad Channing, not Dave Grohl, sat behind the drums during this era, and his straightforward, enthusiastic beating fits the intimate-sounding scene. Overall, it's a charming document that any Nirvana aficionado should appreciate, as it includes a rare live performance of "Dive," and a couple of other curiosities. (It's also nice to have Nirvana's debut album remastered, so that it plays on your iPod with a loudness equal to the band's subsequent work.) It doesn't make any claim to being their biggest show, or the best anything. It's just a document—one that, when we remember how much we miss Cobain & Co., a lot of us backsliders will be glad to have lying around.