As they walked further and further into the Rock section, Meredith posed the ultimate loaded question of the second half of the 1990s, the question whose answer would tell you everything you needed to know about a person, whether they were a friend or someone to shriek at. “Do you think Courtney did it?” Paul feigned ignorance. “Did what?” He was a massive Nirvana fan, but keep in mind, Kurt Cobain was less than two years dead, and the Smashing Pumpkins had quickly succeeded Nirvana as the most important rock band in America—not only to Paul, but to millions of other people.
By all indications, there was nothing left in the Nirvana vault, and contemporary suspicions proved correct: “You Know You’re Right,” released in 2002, was the only bona fide fully realized unreleased song by Nirvana. Pretty good song, but besides demos, sketches, and jams, that’s it. Some of it’s great, most of it’s repetition and live versions, bootleggers scamming kids like Paul with multiple dubs of the same festival show or MTV appearance instead of the rare songs and outtakes he was promised on the “creative” CD designs.
Paul trusted the Outcesticide series exclusively, and by 1996 it had already revealed multiple treasures: “If You Must,” “Blandest,” “Token Eastern Song.” Meredith had heard them all, but at the moment, more than anything, she wanted to hear Paul’s answer to the question: Did Courtney do it? “No.” She looked at him. “Why would she? I don’t like to think about it.” The PA in the store announced the time—FIVE-THIRTY—and began playing “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots. Meredith sighed, “I think about Kurt every day.” Paul looked at her like a bum. “Every day?” Meredith nodded. “Yeah.” She looked up and sighed again. “Especially when charlatan im-postors like this” She gestured to the PA, “—are inescapable.” Scott Weiland was clean at the moment, and STP were about to release their third album, but its tour was indeed scuttled early on by more drug problems from Weiland, who died in 2015 of multiple drug toxicity.
But on that night, in the Virgin Megastore of Union Square in Manhattan, Scott Weiland and STP were on the heels of the biggest bands in the business—namely, the Smashing Pumpkins, who Paul kept trying to return to. “You’ll love their album Pisces Iscariot. It’s a B-sides, rarities, and outtakes collection, like Incesticide, but it’s even better, it’s like a parallel album to Siamese Dream—” she interrupted him, “Sounds like a nightmare.” Meredith reminded Paul that Billy Corgan’s voice made her skin crawl, and she couldn’t stand to listen to them, him, or Paul talk about them anymore, as much as she liked Paul. Down another stairwell, I followed them deeper into movies, as they relaxed into a detente over Kurt, Courtney, and Billy. Paul promised to listen to Elliott Smith and see Julian Plenti live. Meredith made no such promises about the Smashing Pumpkins.
Down the escalator that night, I saw snow dunes gather and snowflakes fall against the windows above as we went deep into a vast, red library of movies for sale, all on offer, in an empty store in the middle of Manhattan, one night in January 1996.
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