Takeoff: The Oral History of Nirvana’s Crossover Moment
A defining period of Kurt Cobain’s legacy, as told by the underground bands that witnessed it firsthand
Friday, April 8, 1994. I can still recall the news broadcast near word-perfect: “Kurt Cobain, leader of the grunge supergroup Nirvana, has been found dead in his Seattle, Washington-based home with gunshot wounds to the head — apparently self-inflicted.”
Words hit hard at age 14, and these were words that mattered to me. My words, on the other hand, I don’t think they matter — that’s why in my book, I Found My Friends, I wanted to give the spotlight to people who had shared life in the underground with Nirvana, because their experiences felt important.
For at least a decade, every time I’ve browsed a bookstore and seen a title on Nirvana I’ve always thought, “Oh, another one?” That sentiment has been in my head ever since I started writing about the band, and I hope it has kept me honest and led me to create a different take on a well-known tale.
I Found My Friends came about because it was a fun way to spend my nights. I have a day job that pays the bills, so I never have to write for any other reason than I enjoy it. Tracking down musicians the world over who, by chance, had shared a stage with Nirvana was a pleasure that kept me working through ’til dawn. It’s been a privilege learning what it was like to slog round the indie circuit, to play to indifferent crowds, to try and get noticed back when there were hundreds of bands living, dying, and being forgotten in the bars of the United States.
I hope people can imagine being there, can picture standing in the sweat-soaked heat of a darkened room, hemmed in by a crowd, looking up toward the stage or out of the wings and thinking, “These guys are going to change the world…” That’s what this chapter is about, the tours of late 1991 when everything changed. And, boy, did things change… –Nick Soulsby
Nirvana was on a major label, but still saw themselves as part of the underground, no different from their indie-label friends. In the late summer of 1991 they had just finished work on Nevermind — a record they had polished for months, doing everything they could to ensure it might be a hit (at least, an underground one) — and were preparing for its release in September with various industry showcases for media and record-industry executives. Yet alongside the major-label business, they were still planning an appearance at the International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia and chipped in a three-year-old song to the accompanying compilation — it was a statement of their continued allegiances.
SLIM MOON, WITCHYPOO: I called them up and they immediately contributed. It was part of a two-day whirlwind in which Calvin and I were calling a lot of bands. We put together the lineup to that album in less than 48 hours. Nirvana were initially scheduled to play the IPU, but changed plans later to play Reading. At the time that they gave me the track, we all believed they’d be playing the fest.
“Beeswax” was the first Nirvana original since the previous September. There had been over eight silent months between the Blew EP and the song “Mexican Seafood” on a C/Z compilation, then for the year after that, just one single and three unremarkable cover songs. Nirvana’s rep had built despite almost no new music. Nirvana would never play Olympia again. They had to cancel their festival slot to support Sonic Youth. Having performed 160 shows since the start of 1989, the band hammered out a further 76 between August and December 1991, their heaviest spell of touring ever.
DON FLEMING, GUMBALL: The three of them all had an intense vibe, serious. Dave, super-serious, Kurt serious in a sadder way — more of a deer-in-the-headlights look at times. But at least at that moment they were genuinely wanting to be a great band; that’s what was fun about catching them at that moment. A band enjoying playing with each other, enjoying the friendships they were making. I think it meant a lot to them to have Sonic Youth being their mentor and a champion at that time, I think it gave them a lot of confidence that wouldn’t have happened as much otherwise, not getting that record deal — maybe that wasn’t a good thing actually... Backstage we were sharing a dressing room, I remember mainly that there was one bottle of whiskey and we were fighting over it. During their set, Krist had taken it out and had it onstage and one of us, maybe me, snuck behind him and got it from behind the amp, brought it back to the dressing room.
I loved them, a great band — Kurt was a great songwriter; it was fun to play with them. But at the time, they weren't Nirvana yet, they were just a cool band I was psyched to see and play with.
However, armed with their new songs Nirvana was making a genuine impact.
I do remember being on tour in Europe at that time and going to places Nirvana had played and listening to [people] talk about having seen them. And the thing that was very distinct to me at the time was that the people who were mostly raving about them were women, girls — they loved the band and that was something I didn't usually see. It was usually guys — “Hey, did you check Tad? He’s so fucking amazing!” Or Dinosaur Jr. or... It was very unusual to me, striking, to hear women raving about the band. That was something that was different and did give them more mass appeal. Kurt was a James Dean to a lot of females — he had that dark look, songs, bad-boy-but-take-care-of-me thing. Appealing. And the crowds that I saw that were really talking about them, it was one of the things that was really apparent to me. Usually you didn’t hear girls talking as much, especially with punk or grunge sort of bands, it was more a guys’ game, but this opened it up and that seems key to their mainstream success.
LISA SMITH, DICKLESS: What always stood out was Kurt! Krist was fun to watch because he had so much energy, but all eyes were usually on Kurt. All of us girls would joke about not ever having babies with the exception of having his!
JOHN LEAMY, SURGERY: We met some girls in Sweden who were annoyingly obsessed with Bleach. That was the real rumblings in the distance for me. I was trying to get laid, and these girls wouldn't stop talking about that record. So, I listened to it ad nauseam for a long weekend.
Nirvana now had a timely first taste of festival crowds — just as the fruits of their summer labors were starting to leak, they were to be seen by tens of thousands.
ERIC “DANNO” JEEVERS, PARADOGS: Paradogs were one of the very few Dutch bands on the Ein Abend In Wien showcase festival, we were very much the critics’ sweethearts — fair is fair, we weren't too bad, either! In most of the publicity, I think Paradogs had a big color photo and Nirvana a small black-and-white one. That doesn’t mean we were superstars, though — hell no — but Nirvana was an up-and-coming band like many others. By the time the festival was on, there was a buzz that they were the band you should go and see, because “Teen Spirit” was getting a lot of airplay and all that. I think by then we realized they should have had the color photo!
JB MEIJERS, CHARMIN’ CHILDREN: I clearly remembered that those were the guys from the Bleach album and wondered where the fourth guy was. I have never told this to anyone. I really dug that record. I was a member of the Sub Pop singles club and therefore received every single Sub Pop release... I thought of them as the best thing ever, but I saw Dinosaur Jr. as the band that should’ve knocked Michael Jackson from the throne... Who would have guessed... Nirvana? Really?
With the Rotterdam festival marking the tour’s end, Nirvana celebrated by making drunken fools of themselves.
They wrecked the backline, including my Marshall. I was not cool with that... We shared a dressing room — we were an obnoxious bunch, but I remember them pushing that a bit further… There was an accordion door that split the room right in two. After someone in the Nirvana camp threw a banana to us, John, our singer, closed that door.
ERIC JEEVERS: I missed the whole equipment-smashing bit, although backstage the security’s porto-phones were buzzing and we heard what was going on. Personally, I don’t get a kick from seeing someone wrecking guitars, so I went to see some other band — and later on ran into Mr. Grohl... Dave tried to nick our six-packs of beer.
He was dead drunk, and we told him to cut it out. Like, “If you want a beer, here, you have one, but don’t take a whole six-pack, OK?” Then he started making masturbation gestures with the beer, and I put a friendly arm around him [and said], “Know what, let’s see if there’s any cool bands to check out.” He agreed, but in the corridor, he slipped over some spilled beer, thought I had pushed him or whatever, and he attacked me. It was pretty easy to dodge his blows and I didn’t feel like hitting him back — I mean, he had trouble standing up as it was! So, anyway, security saw what happened [and were like] “Ah, another of those Nirvana guys...” and they had a little chat I think...
September 23, 1991 — Boston. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been out for two weeks. But local pride had muted the release of Nevermind; it was just one more good album at the time.
LEX LIANOS, CLIFFS OF DOONEEN: Boston had its own thing going on and the feeling was that Seattle was trying to take over Boston’s mantle as a cool music town. Honestly, at the time I wasn’t a big Nirvana fan.
I liked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a bit, but didn’t really get it until much later... The bigger deal was that the local station had chosen us to open this night that the entire industry was buzzing about. The guy that essentially discovered us and gave us a shot on the radio was Kurt St. Thomas. He was the program director of WFNX and this was their show. He was probably Nirvana’s biggest supporter at the time and was among the first to play their record...
They were fine, nothing earth-shattering, kind of garage-bandy. Our stage and light show was much more big-venue-oriented. Probably overshooting where we were at in our career (medium clubs), but we wanted to be playing arenas and approached it that way. They just kind of got up there and played. I got zero feeling they were the next big thing and that everyone would flip out... Eric Sean Murphy and I were most interested in meeting the Pumpkins. But when we introduced ourselves to Billy Corgan, who I think was chatting with their drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (who I think is incredible), they were so rude it was a bummer. We said hi, that we were playing before them and we thought their band was amazing. Billy says, “Yeah, we know,” and turned his back on us. Probably one of the biggest arses I’ve met in the industry.
FLYNN, CLIFFS OF DOONEEN: We were so focused on what we were doing in Boston at the time. We were very aware of Nirvana and the Seattle sound, but felt we had our own “sound” brewing in our hometown... Outside the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, sitting in the band van and one of our songs had just played on WFNX 101.7, then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on shortly after. I remember thinking, “This will be huge...” Cliffs were on the rise in Boston. We were so into what we were doing that we did not pay too much attention to everything else. At least, I didn’t. We won an award that night, as well, I believe... like a people’s choice award that was presented after we played. I remember MTV interviewing us and all the bands that night. It was one fantastic night that went by way too quickly! I also remember Smashing Pumpkins on the bill, and there was a great buzz about them also. I don’t remember a media frenzy about Nirvana that night...
The impact of MTV was immeasurable to bands at the time. Nirvana had the right video, sound, and song.
GILLY ANN HANNER, CALAMITY JANE: When I first heard “Teen Spirit” we were in Seattle putting together artwork for our album. We went into Kinko’s to copy the artwork and lay it out — it was on the radio. Everyone thought, “This is awesome, what is this?” It sounded so different to how they played it live. All of a sudden all of us collectively went, “Oh my God, it’s Nirvana! This is their new record? They’re going to be huge!” Goosebumps, that moment when we could just tell that. From then we saw their video on MTV and it was all surreal.
LINDSEY THRASHER, VOMIT LAUNCH: One weekend we went to San Francisco to play a show and somewhere I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then on the way home, we stopped at a gas station and heard it again. It seemed like we heard it five times that day and it didn’t let up…
ALAN BISHOP, SUN CITY GIRLS: I was at work in an office that always had MTV going on the TV with the volume turned off, and I looked up and saw this band playing. They looked familiar, but I couldn’t place them... I watched the rest of the video and when the band name and song title appeared at the bottom of the screen... it became crystal clear: It was those Nirvana guys...
JOHN PURKEY, MACHINE: It’s when I went into the shop and I’m looking at all the magazines, and they’re on the cover of almost every single magazine — not just the music magazines — and I just thought: Wow... That’s when I really knew something was happening to my friends.
DON FLEMING: The label thought it was cool, but they didn’t see it coming at all. There was only one guy there who was really working it personally to really push it, John Rosenfelder. He was the college music rep, so he would push records to college radio... The rest of the label didn’t even realize the record was out and were caught happily surprised when the record did break. There could have been other people pushing it, but John is the one I knew and with him it was like, once things started rolling, it gave him even more to work with. But he was in from the get-go, before it took off.
GLEN LOGAN, BIBLE STUD: My impression of Nirvana pre-Nevermind was that they were a cool band among the so many other incredible and cool bands in the area. They did not, however, stick out head and shoulders above other bands in the area to me. That is not taking anything away from them; it is more a statement of how strong so many other bands were. From my perspective, I think they found a bit of a new voice on Nevermind in a way that positively did separate them from everyone else. I know some folks who perceive Nevermind as a sellout. I, however, think it was the opposite and actually a braver thing to do.
RICK SIMS, THE DIDJITS: Nirvana was just another band from Seattle until Nevermind in terms of popularity. I know they were well-liked and drew bigger crowds than us, but they weren’t massive. There were certainly other bands that were “bigger,” like Fugazi, but they operated on a different plane. There was an atmosphere of promotion and commercialism that revolved around Nirvana. Fugazi had an anti-promotion vibe and more of a cult-like grassroots following... My personal opinion is that it wasn’t how well they played live that got them so wildly popular. They exuded a cool in songwriting that hit just at the right time. Couple that with a bazillion-dollar PR budget and the bubbling up of the so-called grunge movement and they hit at just the right time.
KEVIN ROSE, THE WONGS: There was a strong current of anti-commercial “alternative” feeling at the time just before Nirvana became worldwide; college radio seemed to favor SST bands with leanings toward Jane’s Addiction and reverence for the Bad Brains.
MIKE HARD, GOD BULLIES: The industry did not know what to do with bands like us, and of course wanted nothing to do with some of us. Rock & roll reached entropy and the music of the 80s was a backlash. And of course we had Ronald Reagan saying there is a definite need for greed. There was still a need from the music industry to exploit this, minus the politics, but they could not figure it out, of course. So they tried using their past formula for success on the alternative scene. Alas, a cute, young, highly photogenic, 24-year-old with blond hair and blue eyes becomes a poster child for grunge. Kurt Cobain fit the “Johnny Bravo” suit... I am sure the industry thought Nirvana seemed very safe and exploitable at first. Unintelligible lyrics, familiar chord progressions ripped from the best classic rock tunes, blond and blue-eyed frontman. No apparent political motivations. Just another recycling job for the industry.
The rest of October vanished as the band romped around the Northeast, then plowed a path home, gig-by-gig, across the U.S.
GARY FLOYD, SISTER DOUBLE HAPPINESS: Nevermind hit heavy rotation in the middle of our time with them… I remember their road manager telling everyone backstage one night the CD had hit 1 million sales that day. They seemed almost embarrassed... All the rest of us were so happy for them, and they were low-key and, as I said, really humble-acting... Kurt was a super-respectful and sweet, beautiful man. Punk-rock gentle, kind person. After a big show one night I was headed into their room planning to say, “Congratulations on all this... you deserve it, so happy for you...” When I walked in, he said, “Hey, good show.” I said, “Thanks.” Before I could go on, he said, “I’m so sick of people telling me congratulations and how they are happy for me — it’s all so funny and weird that this is happening.”
I swallowed and said, “I bet, can I get a beer?”... I remember being in the middle of nowhere one night in the van — dark and nothing around — some crackling radio station was on, and they had a recorded intro saying in a big rock voice “the sound of the 90s” and “Teen Spirit” came on... We all just looked at each other and said, “Damn!”... The tour had been booked before it all happened so most of the clubs were too small for what was happening!
It was chaotic every night... It was so much fun to see and hear them just rip down the walls every time they played. You could taste the energy!
LYNN TRUELL, SISTER DOUBLE HAPPINESS: We were asked to do some West Coast shows with them... I heard later that Krist was a fan and got us on the bill. Krist came to our backstage in Houston and introduced himself and hung out awhile and we talked about music... I introduced myself to Kurt in Phoenix during soundcheck time.
I walked up to a table where he was standing and eating his Taco Bell meal. We shook hands and had only a few words — he was eating, after all... I remember listening to KUSF in San Francisco and DJ Terror Bull Ted played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his show, and he introduced it saying something like, “Nirvana may be on a major label now” — a real catchphrase coming out at that time — “but they still got their sound and it is rad!” Something like that. The seven shows we played with them were totally insane and one couldn’t help feeling that something big was breaking out.
ERIC MOORE, RAWHEAD REX: Krist and Dave were really funny, outgoing, and well... like most of us, drunk. Kurt was very reclusive and surrounded by a coterie of people who had dyed hair and looked smacked-out... We opened for them the day (I think) Nevermind went gold in the U.S. And hanging out backstage with Mudhoney, watching Nirvana at their fucking peak... fucking amazing. I tell people all the time.
That night, Nirvana was the best rock & roll band in the world. The best rock set (and drummer) I’ve ever seen to this day... I wasn’t nervous at all, but with all of the lights and cigarette smoke I couldn’t really see the crowd. Oh yeah, and I made a point of stealing beer from Nirvana’s dressing room. Because no one was downstairs in the dressing rooms, they were all up top watching Nirvana!
STEVE BIRCH, SPRINKLER: That night is a bit blurry for me, as I was sick as a dog, running a 101-degree temperature and sweating like a pig... They did seem kind of dazed by the rocket ride of adulation that was hitting them. What I remember most is standing in their dressing room right after meeting them and having their manager come in and excitedly tell them that their record had just gone gold.
Kurt just looked at him and said something like, “What does that mean?”... When Nirvana hit the stage, there was definitely a shift in the air or something, and it got special. That was probably the best show I ever saw them play, and they seemed happy and on the top of their game, and while Kurt was, in hindsight, using, there were no symptoms of that in this performance.
GARY FLOYD: Dallas, we played our set — people were happy — this was one of those clubs that it should have been bigger, packed! … All at once, the crowd noise level went up double and we tried to see what was happening. All hell broke out. Later I’m hearing about the [Hells] Angels chasing the band... Kurt hit a big bad bouncer with tattoos on his face in the head with his guitar — oh, well!
LYNN TRUELL: All I can truly remember is that the band had to “escape” out the side door and into a cab to flee the club.
ANNE EICKELBERG, THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282: The audience was very young and acted like they were seeing and hearing God. The kids had overrun the area from well before sound-check time. We were shocked to see big lines and masses of kids as we pulled up to the club in the late afternoon. After Nirvana’s set, when people were leaving, a young man grabbed my arms and looked at me with the wild eyes of the newly converted and kept repeating, “Did you hear that? Did you hear that?”... I know a monitor board was smashed and there was a fight and Kurt had to be snuck out of the club after their set because people wanted to beat him up... Nirvana had an agent or road manager who carried a briefcase full of cash to pay for stuff they broke. But mostly I remember that we had to wait for what seemed like two hours to get paid at the end of the night because of all the drama... Kurt was under the protection of his handlers from the label (I assumed that’s who, anyway).
He was never by himself, and not really with his band — he was with a guy who looked like a suit. He looked remote, unapproachable, and unhappy.
MARK DAVIES, THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282: Kurt was crowd-surfing... the security guy jumped in and ended up getting smashed over the head with the guitar. Chaos set in and I recall Novoselic jumping up onto a really high monitor tower and crouching there so as not to hit the ceiling. Then at some point all the band was off the side of the stage and disappeared for a while. At some point there was also a confrontation outside of the club... There was definitely someone bleeding from a guitar over the head, and the show was paused for many minutes. Definitely an apocalyptic sort of feel that night... Kurt did seem like a bit of a wild card, like he might unhinge at any point.
LYNN TRUELL: In Tijuana, Dave was not feeling well and wanted to nap in their van, so he asked me to do sound check for Nirvana that day. Pretty cool for me. I think we played “Love Buzz,” and another one or two songs... One of the nuttiest things I have ever seen was in the Tijuana club: It was three levels, and people were jumping into the pit from the second — even third — level. It was horrible, scary, and amazing; surely people were hurt! But the energy of the band and crowd was uncontrollable.
GARY FLOYD: Mexico, that was a completely, 100-percent nuts, out-of-control thing to witness — packed with kids who walked over from San Diego, drunk as hell, no real number on how many or crowd control. Lynn Perko [Truell] and I were standing behind the curtain right behind their drummer in this walkway... Outside were hundreds of kids beating in a huge folding door. We looked out at the crowd with tons of people jumping off the third-floor balcony and the band super-loud and right behind us, the beating on the folding metal door — we were just hugging each other and laughing. I was yelling, “We’re here! We are here in this time seeing this!” It was one of the big spiritual moments in my very spiritual life!
ERIC ERLANDSON, HOLE: There was this “golden calf” air about them at the time. But they seemed to be having such fun, and enjoying the attention while still trying to fuck with the system the best they could.
It was also the beginning of Courtney and Kurt’s relationship. So that new love, push and pull of romance, was also happening concurrently. I remember running out onstage during Nirvana’s encore at the Palace show and jumping on Kurt and pulling him down. Dave and Krist both jumped on top of us and it became a sweaty dog pile. Just fun fucking around!
Given the strong bond between L7 and Nirvana, plus the latter’s genuine interest, it made sense that they paused to be the only all-male group at a Rock for Choice Benefit on the way home.
LYNN TRUELL: It was absolutely intentional that women were represented at this show. L7 had a lot to do with Rock for Choice — they were its major organizers. We all felt strongly about a woman’s right to choose, at that time and now. It was pretty obvious what was being highlighted — a woman’s rights to choose and to rock! And we did and still do.
JILL EMERY, HOLE: Sad to say I have to even think it’s an issue this far in the future, if the Republicans had their way, they would close down every clinic. It shocks me there are Republican women in office who are fine with them being involved in women’s reproductive rights... Honestly, at that time, it felt like a swooping-in whirlwind: All you could do is play, hold on, and watch your back... Kurt seemed OK, but basically Courtney sprayed the scene. As the drug thing escalated, no one was emotionally available. Dave and Krist were super nice dudes, I would say Krist was a sweetheart and completely down to earth; I remember Dave just enthusiastically daydreaming about his own band, guess it wasn’t too much of a daydream... It got to the point where both bands were forced (mentally) into onstage antics, Courtney being stripperish and Nirvana feeling like they had to break their instruments, it even happened with Mazzy Star just seeing how little light they could use onstage, it just happens.
Although they played the Paramount Theater in Seattle on Thursday, October 31, Nirvana were onstage in Bristol, U.K., the following Monday. At least they weren’t alone in feeling rushed.
PAUL THOMSON, MIDWAY STILL: At midday nothing was happening, I was sitting at home in south London; five hours later we were sound-checking in Bristol using Nirvana’s backline! I think the call came from Lawrence Bell, who said that Captain America’s van had broken down and did we fancy opening for Nirvana? Duh... yes! That was it, all in the van and on the road within an hour. Played a great gig to an amazing crowd and then got to see one of our favorite bands rip the place up from the side of the stage. Result! But it was just luck that we were Captain America’s label mates that we got the call... By the time they were due to play here (our gig with them was the very first of the Nevermind tour), it was clear that this was an extremely popular record, but I don’t think anyone thought it would be so massive. I remember first hearing it at our press agents’ and people being genuinely blown away. The audience at the Bristol show confirmed what we thought.
It was a packed and very excited crowd. There was a lot of Novoselic jumping about and Dave doing his head down drumming. The whole thing looked and sounded great... I don’t imagine they would think twice about what they were doing onstage, just not that kind of band.
They just did what came naturally. I don’t think they even smashed up their gear that night! The U.K. tour, like the U.S. shows over the previous two months, had been booked without any expectation that Nirvana was anything worth worrying about.
The Bierkeller wasn’t particularly pleasant: in a dodgy part of town, dark, smelly, maybe 500 capacity? But for us, that was a step up. Venues in the U.K. for bands like us were generally small, hot, dark, and smelly. If you got a dressing room, that was a major bonus. But it suited the music and the audiences at the time. The place was rammed full by the time we started and everyone was buzzing that they were going to see Nirvana. I think there were people all around the stage with little or no security. I don’t know what other venues they played, but the Bierkeller was exactly that, a mid-level indie venue. In London they played Kilburn National, which was maybe 1,000 people?
GORDON KEEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: Witnessing, firsthand, venues being packed night after night, the amount of people locked out and trying desperately to get in to see Nirvana, the palpable feeling of expectation and excitement from the audience inside the venues — more so than any other gigs I’d witnessed as a musician or as a fan — all led me, and the other guys in Captain America, to realize that this was special.
ANDY BOLLEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: They played decent-sized venues in London at the Astoria and Kilburn National, but in Edinburgh, for example, they were playing in a really small club. I also remember the Glasgow QM show; we must’ve snuck in hundreds of people it was so jam-packed. One show at Nottingham Rock City there were literally people weeping in the streets outside the venue, hundreds of people who couldn’t get in. You could’ve played two nights at venues twice the size and still not met the demand.
NAOKO YAMANO, SHONEN KNIFE: When we toured with them in 1991, the capacities of their venues were between 1,500 to 2,500, but all shows were sold out and the audience was very enthusiastic for the band. They were just breaking. The members of Nirvana, especially Kurt, were very busy for promotion booked by the record label…We hired a van with a Scottish band, Captain America… We basically toured in our own van, but a few times, we had a ride in Nirvana’s tour bus from hotels to venues. They were very kind to us.
DAN TREACY, TELEVISION PERSONALITIES: The gig at the Astoria was a very last-minute thing for us. We got a phone call out of the blue from Kurt’s manager. Apparently Kurt had asked for us. We were supposed to be on first, but ended up going on before Nirvana. I got the impression the other support bands were a bit pissed off about that. Nirvana were lovely guys… They played very loud! We played quite well… Kurt watched us from the side of the stage. We got some of their fans on our side… Had a brief chat with Kurt at some point…
I couldn’t understand him very well, but it turned out we had a mutual love of the Terry Jacks’s song “Seasons in the Sun”… Kurt asked, and I think he was testing me, what the B-side was: “Put the Bone In.” We connected… I had no inkling at all he had issues, but Kurt in particular seemed a little uncomfortable with the sudden success.
But I couldn’t say what that was down to. He was very introvert[ed], shy… He and the rest of the band were a little unsure, but also enjoying it. Their time on the road was starting to show, with the band beginning to tire. In one petulant moment Cobain would turn a performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into sarcastic comedy when irked by the demands of a TV show’s directors.
ANDY BOLLEN: The demands placed on them had increased. They were very busy doing promo work for TV, radio sessions, interviews all the time. I recall a general conversation and the band were on basic wages, on a tight budget and still hadn’t received any royalties. At the time, the figure may have been $250 a week, a grand a month or something. I was impressed but looking back, it’s not life-changing.
The effect of fame at that level for Nirvana just meant more and more time on the road, more shows; they grew tired but kept the momentum going.
GORDON KEEN: It was wonderful to share the time we did with a band who were genuinely blown away by the reception they were receiving and before the media madness surrounding them got to the level it did. I remember us driving round and round outside a hotel in England in our tour van with Dave Grohl clinging onto the bonnet shouting for us to drive faster. It was hysterically funny... We also sat with Kurt, Krist, and Dave watching their Top of the Pops recording when they intentionally hammed it up. At the time that was a big thing. They were worried they had gone too far, and we were reassuring them that it was just the right thing to have done.
PAUL THOMSON: We hardly saw them, really. We had to walk through their dressing room to leave, and I remember Kurt was prostrate on a sofa like he was asleep. The others seemed happy enough. I don’t think they were aware of what madness was coming, they were just playing their gigs and pleased they were busy. We went to a very crowded after-show party in London after they had played Kilburn a week or so later and Dave Grohl made a point of coming over to us to tell us he thought we’d been great in Bristol, which was nice. And Dec [Kelly] ended up going out to a club with Kurt. Kurt fell asleep with his head on Dec’s shoulder... They seemed fairly nice, normal guys at that point. A bit sleepy, though…
Despite all that was going on, Cobain and Grohl still took time out to play a benefit for the children’s hospital in Edinburgh despite being unwell.
ANDY BOLLEN: I did see him really ill in Edinburgh. But it was more glandular, his voice was gone, a doctor was called; we actually thought it was game over, the tour would be stopped, but he made it through.
MURDO MACLEOD, THE JOYRIDERS: The gig that Kurt and Dave did with us was not just by chance. We had asked them to do it. I called and spoke to Kurt when they got to the U.K., and asked if they'd do it, as a “secret” gig, and he agreed. We got the audience by advertising our acoustic gig “with very special guests.” I think everyone knew who it was going to be, because they knew we knew them, and Kurt had mentioned us, as he liked our single. They had played in town the night before, or were playing the next night — I can’t remember which. We played to an unbelievably packed room (about 200 in a space designed for about 80) with no sign of Nirvana. After an hour or so, everyone started to leave, berating us for bullshitting them. We knew better. Kurt and Dave showed up when there were about 30 people left. We locked the doors, they played six songs, and then we and they and a bunch of our good friends all sat about until God knows when drinking and shooting the breeze. It was lovely. I have no idea how much we raised.
Regardless of their rocketing popularity and success, they still supported their friends. They weren’t saints, let alone angels, but they brought the communal spirit of the underground to whatever strange land was opening up for them.
ANDY BOLLEN: They were warm, friendly, respectful, and generous. They let us use their gear every night. In terms of approach we were a shambles, we got drunk, had a great laugh; I think Nirvana really enjoyed our company. They gave us their rider every night.
They had this punk-rock sharing thing; they didn’t act like a big band. I think they sensed we were struggling. We were signing on, in vans that were breaking down, it was chaos! They wanted us to play the mainland dates in Europe with them, too, and were prepared to let us share their bus and gear, but we couldn’t afford to do it.
Amid the chaos Cobain kept writing. The band was already practicing new material.
I didn’t want the others to see me doing something so uncool as writing, so the only place I could go was Nirvana’s dressing room. Kurt would be either sleeping or writing, or chatted with me. I can’t believe now that he was annoying me by talking to me... I remember over the tour sitting watching them hone “All Apologies” every night. The sound caught by their sound man, Craig Montgomery, was better than the version on In Utero. It sounded more dramatic and powerful, the bass more resonating, like Joy Division.
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