Nirvana is in the air again. Spin recently asked, “What does Nevermind mean now?” and The Onion looked back at the Axl Rose/Kurt Cobain relationship circa 1991. Even Amy Winehouse‘s recent death shook up those old “27 Club” cobwebs.
I get it. Nevermind was an epochal release, 20 is a nice, round number, and Kurt Cobain was a fantastic musician and a classically tragic figure. However, as phenomenal as their entry into the mainstream was, how Nirvana got from Bleach to Nevermind is actually the better story. The band’s search for the right drummer paralleled Cobain’s maturation as a songwriter, and to fully appreciate what went down in the late summer of 1991, we have to go back a year to 1990.
As the year dawned, Nirvana was still recovering from a six-week European tour opening for Tad, a miserable experience by all accounts, despite incipient rumblings of Nirvana-mania throughout Europe, especially England. They were about to embark on a west coast tour, again opening for Tad, which should tell you about the reality of Nirvana entering 1990. They were filled with insane amounts of potential, but they were still a band with one album, one single, and a few one-offs to their name.
The Blew EP was technically released in December 1989, but only in the UK, and apparently for about 15 minutes. It’s impossible to find and prohibitively expensive, and I’m pretty sure those two elements are connected. Blew is also easy to overlook because it contains two tracks from Bleach (“Blew” and “Love Buzz”) and two songs that later appeared on Incesticide (“Stain” and “Been A Son”). However, the Blew version of “Been A Son” is much rawer than the cut on Incesticide and includes a rare Krist Novoselic bass solo.
More significantly, “Been A Son” was another move away from the drop-D textbook that informed Bleach. “Love Buzz” hinted at pop, but it was “About A Girl” that made Cobain’s pop sensibility obvious. “Son” showed that “Girl’s” power-poppishness wasn’t a fluke. In fact, producer Steve Fisk asserted that the song had “total Lennon harmonies, right out of Rubber Soul.” Beatles by way of Mudhoney, to be sure, but Rubber Soul is an apt reference. “Son” sounds like a heavier, faster “You Won’t See Me,” a Paul song with John and George delivering the distinctive high harmonies crudely, but effectively replicated by Kurt.
Nirvana – Been A Son
Blew EP, 1989
In February, Nirvana went on a short west coast tour, again opening for Tad. I know this because my radio station (KCSC, Chico State) was sponsoring the Blue Max show scheduled for February 21.
I’ve mentioned this before, but Chico was ideally situated between Seattle/Portland and San Francisco/LA. Between roughly 1984-1993, bands going up and down the west coast played the Burro Room, Blue Max, etc. because Chico was a convenient break in their long-ass drive, we were consistently fun (i.e. predictably drunk), and Thursday-Saturday was a guaranteed draw.
How was the show? I have no idea. Like a goddamn moron, I managed to lose my fake ID a week earlier. The Max couldn’t have held more than 300 people and maybe 25-30 showed up. Tad wasn’t exactly a big draw and everyone who’d heard of Nirvana was at the show, except for me. Fudge-packing, crack-smoking, Satan-worshipping motherfucker! Why’d I have to remember that??? Stupid hippocampus.
Fortunately, Bleach was re-released two years ago and the 20th anniversary package includes a February 1990 show recorded within a few bong hits of the Chico show. It’s a monster performance that again reveals the melodic genius lurking in the Cobain software.
Nirvana – Molly’s Lips
Pine Street Theatre, Portland, OR
February 9, 1990
We’ve had 20+ years to get used to Nirvana’s take on this Vaselines song, not to mention Kurt Cobain’s catholic musical tastes (Bowie, Meat Puppets, etc.). But, try and hear this with fresh ears. How the hell do you get from the original to the hummable squall heard at the Pine Street Theater? Just so you can appreciate my appreciation, here’s the original in all its twee glory:
Vaselines – Molly’s Lips
Clearly, this Cobain kid wasn’t hearing music like the rest of us.
THE SMART SESSIONS
In early April 1990, Nirvana hooked up with producer Butch Vig at his Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. Kurt had written several new songs, so the band booked a week’s worth of studio time. And while Vig would soon become very well-known as the Nevermind and Gish producer, in the spring of ’90, he was probably better known for recording Killdozer, The Fluid, and Australia’s King Snake Roost. Not exactly household names.
Seven songs were ultimately laid down, including five songs later to appear on Nevermind: “In Bloom,” “Imodium” (an early version of “Breed”), “Pay To Play” (an early version of “Stay Away”), “Lithium,” and “Polly.” The other two songs completed were “Dive,” which appeared a few months later as the B-side to “Sliver,” and “Sappy,” which appeared on the No Alternative comp (1993) as “Verse Chorus Verse.”
Look again at those seven songs. That’s a murderer’s row of badassery. If Cobain’s songwriting had been mostly potential, the Smart Sessions were a clear indication that he’d stepped up a level or three.
Nirvana – Pay To Play (early version of “Stay Away”)
Download full set of demos at Captain’s Dead
From what I understand, the upcoming Nevermind reissue will include these demos in remastered form, so I’m sure you’ll soon be privy to superior sound. But, even a slightly degraded recording can’t disguise the fury that Nirvana was about to become. It’s punk, but not punk. Rock, but not rock. Pop, but not pop. Whatever you called it … and it sure as shit wasn’t grunge … these seven songs foretold big things.
If there was a complaint about the Smart Sessions, it was the second-rate drumming. Chad Channing was a nice enough guy, but these songs deserved a far bigger sound than he was capable of delivering. Six weeks after recording the demos with Vig, Channing was sacked from the band. The songs were clearly there, but the band needed a drummer good enough to push Cobain to even greater heights. Where, oh where, could such a person be?
Let’s fast forward to August 20, 1990, when I popped my Nirvana and Sonic Youth cherries at the Crest Theater in Sacramento. See this ticket stub with the autographs of 3/4 of Sonic Youth? That is my actual ticket from the show, not some bullshit eBay tomfoolery. Both bands were fandamntastic and sitting in on drums for Nirvana was none other than Dale Crover of The Melvins. I didn’t expect him to join Nirvana, but for one night that lineup most definitely did not suck.
“I told them, whatever you do, do not jump into my drum set. DO NOT.”
–Dale Crover’s one condition on agreeing to the seven-date west coast tour
Crover hooked up with Nirvana for a handful of west coast dates, but he had previously played on “Paper Cuts,” “Downer,” and “Floyd The Barber,” which I’ve discussed before. The benefit of having Crover behind the kit is that he locked down the rhythm section in a way Chad Channing could only dream of. That sturdy foundation gave Cobain the luxury of stretching out on guitar, not that he was Brian May or anything. But, if Kurt could find a guy from the Dale Crover school of big bottom, the band … and his songwriting, in particular … could take the next step.
The Sacramento show was notable for reasons other than the loss of my Nirvanaginity. That night saw “Lithium” played in full for the first time ever. When you think about that song in its eventual incarnation, it’s impossible to hear it without the badass, heavy drum sound. It’s probably not coincidental that it made its live debut at a show featuring Dale Crover.
Nirvana – Lithium
Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA
August 20, 1990
In mid-September 1990, two or three weeks after the Sonic Youth/Nirvana gig, a hardcore band from Washington DC played the Burro Room. Featuring Peter Stahl on vocals, his brother Franz on guitar, a bong-rattling bassist/vocalist named Skeeter Thompson, and a manimal on drums named Dave Grohl, Scream didn’t just kick out the jams, they sucker punched them in the throat. Even if you’re not a huge punk/hardcore fan, Scream’s output from 1988-90 (when Grohl hit his peak) is well worth checking out: No More Censorship (1988), Fumble (released in 1993, but recorded in 1989), and the Your Choice Live Series (1990) from which the song below comes.
Scream – Show And Tell
The Oberhaus, Alzey, Germany
May 4, 1990
Scream was clearly influenced by Bad Brains, especially the Stahl boys, who owe an obvious debt to H.R. (Peter) and Dr. Know (Franz). That said, Earl Hudson is no Dave Grohl. I don’t mean to insult Hudson, but Grohl has to be one of the 10 or so greatest rock drummers ever. Does he have any weaknesses? If you know what they are, by all means, let me know. On “Show And Tell,” you can hear Skeeter playing off Grohl to lock down the rhythm section and Franz working off him rhythmically and during the solo.
Two people who’d probably agree with this assessment are Kurt Cobain and Chris Novoselic. As fate would have it, they attended Scream’s show the night after their Chico gig, at
the I-Beam SOMA* in San Francisco. They witnessed firsthand the wrecking crew that was Dave Grohl. So, when Skeeter flew the coop on Scream a day or two later, Grohl called his buddy, Buzz Osborne from The Melvins, and asked him, “What up?”
* Thanks to reader Lil’ M for the SOMA heads up.
THE HEAVY SHIT
What up was Nirvana. Dave came to the infamous Motor Sports International Garage show on September 22 (probably within a week of Scream’s implosion), with Mudhoney’s Dan Peters filling in on drums. The picture above was taken the following day, when Cobain, Novoselic, and Peters were interviewed for the British magazine, Sounds, and Grohl just happened to be there.
Of course, Grohl became Nirvana’s official drummer a few days later, about 15 seconds into his formal audition. Peters, who appeared on the epic “Sliver” single, remained sanguine about the decision. “Dave suits them way better than I did, he really does. To me, that’s more important. He’s got the heavy shit right there. He beats the fuck out of those drums.” Yes he does.
Three weeks after the Motor Sports show, Dave Grohl played his first show with Nirvana. The road to Nevermind was now wide open.
Dave Grohl’s first show with Nirvana
North Shore Surf Club, Olympia, WA
October 11, 1990
0:00 – Love Buzz (cuts in)
3:00 – Scoff (6:46-7:24 cameraman swinging around blindly)
7:24 – Sliver (7:39-7:59 mostly blackness)
9:19 – Turn Around [Devo] (cuts out)
A pretty great excerpt, despite the fact that a minute is wasted video, and Grohl doesn’t know “Sliver” yet. (Fitting, since “Sliver” was the Peters track.) But, Dave brings unrelenting heavy ordnance and a race car crankshaft. No OFF switch. That’s what the band needed as a power trio, but that’s especially what Cobain needed as a songwriter.