Kurt Cobain died for somebody's sins, but not mine. The anointed grunge Buddha is as big now as he's ever been, which is to say pretty fucking big. When Nevermind hit number one, less than four months after its release, it was selling roughly 1.2 million copies a month. No one sells like that anymore and no one ever will again, but Nirvana is still popular—and Cobain even more so. Within the past five years he's knocked Elvis out of the number one spot on Forbes's list of top-earning dead celebrities; you can own him as a figurine or on a lunch box, or you can buy pre-ratty Cobain-edition Converse and cultivate your own aura of junkie manque.
It's hard to believe that 20 years have gone by since Nevermind changed everything in its wake. And it's hard to imagine an album doing that now, even if we had a fully functioning record industry. But Nirvana's supersize ghost lingers, and every few years the corpo-coffers get to clangin' hungrily for every last penny in the pockets of anyone who's still got a head-shop Cobain poster pinned to the wall.
Nirvana retrospectives and reissues to date include the live From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996), a no-nonsense best-of simply called Nirvana (2002), the weighty rarities set With the Lights Out (2004), a best-of culled from that set called Sliver: The Best of the Box (2005), Live at Reading (2009), and vinyl reissues over the past two years of Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero, and Unplugged. Now, with 90s grunge nostalgia at high tide, Universal offers up one of the bone-driest examples yet. The "super deluxe" four-CD/one-DVD 20th-anniversary version of Nevermind, which comes out on Tuesday, is built around two different mixes of the album—as if anyone listening on earbuds on a bus is going to be able to tell them apart. Does anyone imagine that kids deafened by two decades of increasingly shitty mastering and overcompression—aka the loudness wars—will be able to hear the difference between the familiar Andy Wallace radio polish (most of disc one) and the original Butch Vig mix (all of disc three), which still has some punk blood coursing through its bass rumble?
The Vig mix made the rounds as a bootleg not long after Nevermind hit big, as did the Smart Studios recordings Nirvana made with him in April 1990 (part of disc two)—they're pre-Grohl demos, and reveal nothing except that Chad Channing was the inferior drummer. There are eight boom-box tracks from the band's rehearsal space (most of the rest of disc two), but their novelty is short-lived. Who wants to listen to anybody's scuzzed-up cassette-tape demos? Every track that wasn't on the original release of Nevermind—the BBC sessions, the B sides—has already made the rounds as a bootleg or seen proper release in a better form. And what's on disc four and the accompanying DVD? The reliable filler of live recordings. Zzzzz and good night.
Nevermind is a great record, but lord, what a boring thing to offer fans. There's not even any fresh meat for the obsessive collector scum who go for this sort of thing. Yet this bottom-of-the-barrel commemoration also carries wonderful news: there's nothing left to scrape up.
Cobain's nasty, sudden exit at the height of his fame means that the lost tracks, alternate versions, outtakes, live takes, piss takes, and demos have all been packaged and turned out. His former labels have had 17 years to weave those scraps into dollars—and they're clearly diluting what's left in order to make it last. Universal is stacking up the editions of Nevermind for a last hurrah, with not just the "super deluxe" set but also a two-disc "deluxe" version and a straight-up single-CD remastered reissue of the album. Oh, and you can buy the DVD by itself too. This is the beginning of the end—though if you squint, you can see the "Heart-Shaped Box in an Actual Box Shaped Like a Heart 25th Anniversary Box" and "Nevermind in Mono" galloping this way on the horizon.
It's funny, this latest Nevermind coming down the pike two weeks after Winterland, a five-CD (or nine-LP) box of live Jimi Hendrix recordings from 1968. Hendrix is, of course, the most repackaged and reissued artist we've got—a model provider for the dying major labels. Hardly a holiday shopping season has passed in recent memory when he wasn't revivified in some immodest box. Nirvana, as this pitiful set makes clear, doesn't have such an infinitely expandable catalog. Cobain is not our Jimi—he's our Jim. Nirvana, punk bona fides be damned, has become an analogue to the Doors for today's misunderstood, stoned teenagers: a died-young druggie poet-totem.
Those who know their music history understand the injustice that such a comparison does to Cobain. At his most brilliant, Morrison was a cliche-prone hack, and to make matters worse he was fronting the Doors. Cobain was a gifted songwriter and a perfectly decent lyricist, with a voice that somehow channeled the pain of the known universe.
All the Nirvana boxes and anniversary editions prey upon a simple wish—the wish to relive the singular moment of revelation, the feeling of being possessed for the first time by "Smells Like Teen Spirit," its pure abandon, its stuttering pound, the implacable tension between verse and chorus, the feral grain of Cobain's voice. That wish is there in anyone who ever heard Nirvana and loved them. But you never get as high as the first time.
This is clearly understood by every company that owns a piece (labels, publishing houses), everyone with a claim to stake (Love, Grohl, Novoselic), and everybody with some marketable crumb to pimp out (Michael Azerrad, for instance, has made plenty of hay with his Cobain interview tapes). And Cobain, whose heart was once heavy with Olympia-cized punk dogma, isn't here to refuse any of it. He's dead, so fuck him. In life he was a commodity, and his death made him more of one. As Everett True wrote in 2007's Nirvana: The Biography, the intervention staged shortly before Cobain's suicide focused as much on getting him into rehab as it did on cajoling him into headlining Lollapalooza. Now he's no longer an impediment to anyone's potential revenue stream.
It's easy to speculate about what Cobain and Nirvana would have become had he lived. The band's next album could've been a Chinese Democracy-like fiasco, especially embarrassing in light of Cobain's original genius-flash. He could've gone Corgan and released music with steadily diminishing returns for a decade plus. He could've joined the Foo Fighters. He could've taken the Reznor path, "retiring" after a steady, respectable career. (Who knew then that Eddie Vedder would turn out to be the real punk among Cobain's grunge-era "peers"?) Revisiting Nevermind is like flexing a phantom limb made up of Nirvana records that never were. That's all it means now, all that's left—fantasy. The tomb is empty; let the dead buy the dead.