March 1 – Germans Saw Grunge’s Last Hurrah

The funny thing about history is that more often than not, you don’t know when you see it being made. Such was in all probability the case for several thousand people in Germany on this night in 1994, crowded into an old abandoned airport building in Munich. They figured they were just at another rock show, but history shows it would turn out to be the final performance ever by Nirvana.

Hot on the outrageous success of Nevermind, the trio had released In Utero in September, 1993 to a confused fan base but largely good reviews and had spent the subsequent months promoting the hell out of it. Although two decades on, the album may not sound that out-of-place when compared to its predecessor, it seemed at the time that no matter what Nirvana did, it wasn’t going to satisfy its new, huge fan base. Returning to their punk roots was going to alienate the newbies who heard them played next to U2 and The Cure on radio; too radio-friendly a sound was sure to annoy the hardcore fans and earn them the title “sell-outs.” The pressure on Kurt Cobain was intense. As the NME noted in its review, In Utero was a “profoundly confused record” that veered between punk and pop, “like a great band staggering around looking for a direction.” They considered Cobain to be “scared of the contentment he’s slipped into.” Nevertheless, the British publication graded the album an 8 out of 10; Rolling Stone was even more enthusiastic, rating it a 4-and-a-half out of 5 stars. The album entered the U.S. charts at #1 and was at #3 in Canada within days and earned platinum status in both countries by the end of September.

While popular in Europe, they didn’t have quite the same level of super-stardom, which no doubt was something Geffen Records wanted to fix. So after wrapping up an initial American tour for the album on Jan. 8 in Seattle, the band departed for a lengthy and grueling tour of Europe, with shows almost every night in February in Germany, Spain, France and even Slovenia. To fill out their sound, they brought along a couple of female cellists and guitarist Pat Smear (who would later join Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters).

The demands of the tour, and of stardom in general, wore on Cobain. He was suffering from stomach problems that had plagued him for much of his life, and while apparently happy with his new wife Courtney Love, he presumably was stressed out by being apart from her so much of the time. All of that didn’t help him with his drug issues. Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2013 that In Utero could be seen either as a “remarkable achievement (but) you can also remember it as a really f**-up time.” He recalled his time together with Kurt recording the album and touring for it thusly: “Living with Kurt was funny. He isolated himself in a lot of ways, emotionally. But he had a genuine sweet nature.” The isolation and physical strain was noticeable during the tour. Fan site livenirvana.com considered their Valentine’s Day concert in Paris the best of the whole tour but by Feb.22, in Italy it remarked that “Cobain is conspicuous by his near total silence between songs.”

The original international airport in Munich had been replaced by a new one in 1992, and eventually was redeveloped as a convention and shopping center, but in the years between, the Flughafen-Munchen Riem had been used for rock concerts and raves. Nirvana had been booked in for the first two nights of March.

The band took the stage and surprised the crowd by opening with a grungy but decent cover of the Cars song, “My Best Friend’s Girl,” a rather reasonable tip of the hat given that the Cars themselves had originally been considered “punk” but were picked up on by the mainstream audiences when Cobain was a kid. (At another show on the tour, they’d opened with a cover of the Knack’s “My Sharona”.) The fans ate it up but the night seemed ill-fated. The power went out briefly a few songs in, causing them to have to stop and then kick back into “Come As You Are” when the power came back. Ironically, Krist Novoselic joked at that point “Grunge is dead. Nirvana’s over.” And while they did traditional songs from their setlist such as “Dumb”, “In Bloom” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, they somehow didn’t perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, their signature tune. They’d been performing the song right after “Come As You Are” on the tour, so whether they just forgot it or made a conscious decision to cut it that night is open for debate. Either way, Cobain’s voice was struggling. Even a healthy man would get worn out from screaming his way through nightly sets of their music He was suffering from bronchitis and his voice was fading through the concert. Laryngitis was setting in.

About 70 minutes after they kicked off with the Cars’ song, they set into “Heart-shaped Box”, the album’s biggest hit and the song they closed all the In Utero concerts with. It was the shortest concert of the tour. As they left the stage, they likely still expected to be on the same stage doing the same material the following night, but Kurt’s laryngitis soon put the kibosh on that. A number of March concerts were canceled, and Cobain headed to Rome to meet up with Courtney and enjoy a bit of R&R – rest and relaxation rather than rock’n’roll. On March 4, she found Kurt unconscious on their hotel floor in Rome, in a coma induced by an overdose of Rohypnol (a prescription insomnia drug) and champagne. Whether it was an accident or a suicide attempt, we’ll never know. We do know it caused the band to cancel 25 or so remaining European concerts scheduled for the spring.

They returned to Seattle. Grohl recalls the last time he saw Cobain, at their accountant’s office. “He smiled and said ‘hey, what’s up?’ and I said ‘I’ll give you a call’ and he said ‘Okay.’ Remarkably, Grohl doesn’t mention the final German show at all in his recent memoir and pays surprisingly little attention to the Nirvana era in general. 

Days later, Cobain was dead from a gunshot legally ascribed as a suicide but right up there with Sasquatch and Area 51 when it comes to conspiracy theories.

History is funny. Presumably Novoselic had no idea on March 1 that Nirvana was over, yet his joke hit the nail eerily on the head.

In Utero went on to sell about 15 million copies worldwide; Grohl went on to long-lasting success fronting the Foo Fighters and posthumous live releases kept Nirvana fans somewhat satisfied through the ’90s, but after this night, no one would ever see Kurt Cobain yelling out anthems for a generation again.

The Cars song as well as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Drain You” from the March1 concert were released as part of their Live and Loud DVD (most of which was recorded at a Seattle concert from the same tour.) And should you have been in attendance in Munich that night, know that not only did you witness a piece of music history but that you might be in possession of some valuable keepsakes. In recent years, tickets from the concert were fetching  upwards of $2500 on e-bay.

January 23 – Odd Little Studio Led To Odd, But Huge, Band

The future of popular music changed jarringly this day in 1988 in a nondescript little triangular building on Leary Way in Seattle. The wood-paneled former Triangle Foods store had since 1984 been a music studio known as Reciprocal Recording and in it on this day, Nirvana were recording for the first time. About six hours and $152 later, their first demo tape was ready.

In retrospect this seems like a big deal, but at the time it was nothing much. The Seattle scene was bubbling under, but the band with Kurt Cobain drew scant attention, although they had been playing shows in the Puget Sound area for a year or more, under a variety of names including Throat Oyster, windowpane and Skid Row (before Sebastian Bach’s band of that name from the east coast became well-known). It had been a unit since Cobain ran into Krist Novoselic, or “Chris” as he spelled his name at that point, at a Melvins show. Curiously, the two went to school together at Aberdeen High School a couple of hours outside of Seattle, but didn’t know each other then. Once they hooked up, and added a drummer – they ran through them in a Spinal Tap-like procession in the early years- and played loud, hard music. They were influenced by acts such as Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith that Cobain’s father had introduced him to, local bands like The Melvins, punk acts like the Sex Pistols and Husker Du and in Novoselic’s case, the Smithereens who he listened to repeatedly while going to and from shows.

They opted for the name Nirvana because as loud and brash as they were, Cobain didn’t want a “typical angry or stupid-sounding name for a punk band.” They went into the studio, that day manned by sound engineer Jack Endino, with Dale Crover, the drummer from The Melvins (a band whose name comes up time and time again in stories about the early grunge and ’80s American punk scenes) . The band had temporarily lost track of their “official” drummer, Aaron Burckhard when Kurt and Krist had moved from Aberdeen closer to the metro area. How do you think that guy feels now about not answering his phone or taking a busride into the big city? Continue reading “January 23 – Odd Little Studio Led To Odd, But Huge, Band”

January 11 – Alternative Was The ‘Alternative’ No Longer

Was it the day alternative rock became “regular” rock? Nirvana took over the #1 spot on the Billboard album chart this day in 1992, knocking Michael Jackson off the top. Fittingly they also ended up on national TV that night too, with a performance on Saturday Night Live

It clearly showed the public was ready for something new and edgy. While the previous year, R.E.M. and U2, as well as hard-rockers Metallica, did have #1 records in the U.S., the charts – and radio – were dominated by the likes of Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, Gloria Estefan and Roxette. Nirvana showed that the grunge movement was hardly a minor trend – and no one was more surprised than their label. The president of Geffen Records said “we didn’t do anything- it was just one of those ‘get out of the way and duck’ records.” Insiders say Geffen expected Nevermind to sell, optimistically, 250 000 copies. By this time it had already surpassed a million. It would go on to spend a second week on top before being displaced by Garth Brooks, and over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. Rolling Stone was equally surprised. Though they had given it a 4-star rating (appreciating the ‘dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and sonic restraint”) they noted that “postpunk stars from Husker Du to Soundgarden have joined the corporate world without debasing their music” which leads to “depths of commercial failure….Nirvana is the latest underground bonus baby to test the mainstream tolerance.”

While Nirvana itself would prove short-lived (obviously owing to the early death of main man Kurt Cobain less than two years later), the popularity of drummer Dave Grohl’s later band, the Foo Fighters, and of bands like Pearl Jam, Puddle of Mudd and Limp Bizkit showed that the trend of loud rock being mainstream was not such a flash in the pan.

September 10 – A Banner Day For Alternative Rock…And Antiperspirants

I hate to say it, but Gen X is getting old! As evidence of that, consider that today their/our ergo “anthem” turns 30. Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as a single on this day in 1991, a couple of weeks ahead of their mammoth Nevermind album. Like it, love it or hate it, there’s no denying it was one of the most popular tunes of the decade and hugely influential on the whole music industry.

Nirvana had by then been around in the Seattle scene for three or four years and put out a couple of indie records. But in ’91, the wheels began to turn as they added drummer Dave Grohl and were signed to a major label – DGC, a branch of Geffen Records. The label had big expectations for the hard alternative rock effort. Maybe it would sell 100 000 copies and be in almost the same league as the Pixies or Jane’s Addiction! It eventually went on to sell about 300 times that.

By now the story behind the song has become something of modern folklore. Kurt Cobain had been out with friends, including members of another local punkish band, Bikini Kill, doing Kurt Cobainy-things – spraying graffiti on walls, drinking, doing a few drugs. They all went back to Kurt’s rental apartment. This was pre-Courtney Love, and Cobain had been seeing one of Bikini Kill (she may have just broken up with him, details seem a bit fuzzy from the people involved.) Another member of that band, Kathy Hanna, scrawled … depending on which story you read, she either spray-painted it or wrote it large in Sharpie market – “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall. Now, Teen Spirit was then a new and popular women’s deodorant made by Mennen, and his girlfriend liked it. Hanna wrote it as a sort of insult, suggesting Cobain smelled like her, and by extension was basically her property. Kurt however, thought it was a brilliant bit of praise, suggesting that he was full of teen spirit, the spirit of rebellion and all that. About six months later, he phoned Hanna and asked if he could use that for a song. “I thought, ‘how is he going to use ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in a lyric?” she remembered. She told him to go ahead.

The song was recorded, built on a four-chord riff that borrows, ahem lovingly, from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.” Krist Novoselic said it “captures Kurt’s hatred of the mass mentality of conformity.” Producer Butch Vig says “I don’t know what ‘teen spirit’ means, but you know it means something intense as hell.” Cobain himself admitted “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies…we used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet then loud and hard.” And he used his own catchphrase in it. “Here we are now, entertain us” was a line he often yelled upon arriving at a party.

Now, in the fall of 1991, North American radio was chock-full of Whitneys and Boys II Men, Michael Jacksons and Wilson Phillips. R.E.M. had surprised the industry by going from college rock heroes to multi-million sellers, but other than that, there wasn’t too much adventurous going across the airwaves. And Nirvana didn’t change that overnight. The song caught the ears of some alternative rock stations like L.A’s KROQ (where it was their #2 song of the year, behind R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) but it wasn’t quick to make an appearance on ordinary hit radio, nor on MTV except for a couple of late-night hard rock specialty programs. However, the buzz built, MTV eventually succumbed to requests and played it all day long and with other TV appearances the song eventually took off. Before long it was #1 on Billboard‘s Alternative Rock chart, and not long after that the single hit #6 in the land overall. All the while, the buzz about the band grew and sales of Nevermind grew exponentially, going platinum within months. The sound took off elsewhere too, with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hitting the top 10 in Canada and the UK and #1 in New Zealand and France. The album continued to sell, and demand for plaid lumberjack shirts took off. Grunge was here to stay (for about five years, that is.) Eventually the album went diamond (10X platinum) in both the U.S. and Canada, and the song itself is platinum in the States and UK.

Of course, this shook up radio and the floodgates were opened to other loud, alternative bands. Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Bush all soon found themselves media darlings and some suggested that the term “alternative rock” should be applied to acts like ZZ Top and Kiss by the mid-’90s, so dominant was the new grunge sound.

Many dubbed it the “Anthem of Generation X” and its appeal is undeniable. It recently topped one billion times streamed on Spotify, ranking it among the elite dozen or so songs to ever be played that much, including Toto’s “Africa”, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and one other ’90s song – “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Accolades piled up for the song, including the NME calling it the #2 best song of all-time, and Rolling Stone ranking it ninth-best, but best song since 1971. They suggest it “wiped the lingering jive of the ’80s off the pop map overnight.”

Not everyone was of that mindset though. Time suggested it was “maybe the album’s worst song.” And Dave Grohl, aka the song’s drummer, says “it did become the one song that personifies the band…do I think it’s the greatest single of all-time? Of course not. I don’t even think it’s the greatest Nirvana song.”

And what does Teen Spirit smell like? Apparently you can still find out. Although nowhere near as popular as in the ’90s, Colgate-Palmolive now make Teen Spirit deodorant, in two scents.

March 13 – Clapton Plugged Into New Market By Unplugging

While we readily think of bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club having their careers “made” by MTV, one of the biggest career-boosts the video network ever gave was for an unlikely artist. On this day in 1993, Eric Clapton‘s Unplugged hit #1 in both the U.S. and Canada. Later Nirvana would also top charts with their album gleaned from the MTV show, but that wasn’t nearly as surprising as Clapton. After all, Clapton’s career pre-dated MTV by close to two decades, and he was not one of the aging artists who really jumped in to the deep end of ’80s video revolution , unlike say George Harrison or Paul Simon.

The concept of MTV Unplugged was simple and effective – take artists usually known for rock performances and have them play their songs in a stripped-down fashion using largely acoustic instruments. In Clapton’s case, he performed mostly using an acoustic Martin guitar. “Slowhand” did his set in England in early 1992, performing 20 or so songs for the crowd, of which 14 made the CD. It included quite a mix of material, including old Blues standards like Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk” and Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” as well as some of Clapton’s own songs, most notably “Layla.” and “Tears in Heaven.” The latter tear-jerker was written for his four year-old son who’d fallen to his death in 1991 and was released on the Rush soundtrack before Unplugged hit shelves.

It was quite a different sound for the rocker many consider the best rock guitarist of all-time, decidedly more laid back than some were accustomed to (although when you think about it, many of his familiar tunes like “Lay Down Sally” were anything but raucous rock numbers). Critics were of mixed opinions. Entertainment Weekly graded it A- calling it “A charmer…(with) just the right combination of intensity and giddy fun”. Rolling Stone, in an article on his career at that point compared him to The Beatles and The Stones and thought this record “A delight because of its atypical focus” although noting it was a “mere shadow of his electric virtuosity.” Others like crusty New York critic Robert Christgau yearned for more rock and remembered wistfully his hard rock days “relegated to the mists.”

No matter what the critics thought, the public loved it. It ended up going diamond-status in both the States and Canada, 4X platinum in the UK and when all was said and done, selling well past 20 million copies , making it his biggest-seller ever and handily reviving his career which had been rather in the doldrums. The Grammys agreed as well. They gave it the Album of the Year trophy and picked “Layla” as Best Rock Song, an award many might have thought it should have won 20 years earlier!

November 9 – A ‘Hole’ Lot Of Courtney

On this day in 1998, about four years after Nirvana’s last trip to the top, the “widow Cobain”, Courtney Love and her band Hole were atop Billboard‘s modern rock chart for the only time, with this single.

The song is the title track to the band’s third album, and although it sold fewer copies in the U.S. than the grungier predecessor (Live through This) it opened up new markets for them , doing far better in Canada and Australia. The album seemed a little brighter, smoother and more melodic than the previous Hole work, no doubt in part due to the touch of Billy Corgan. The Smashing Pumpkins’ front man (and perhaps boyfriend of Courtney at the time) helped her with the writing and guitar work, including on this hit.

He apparently composed most of “Celebrity Skin” while she composed the literate lyrics that seem to illustrate her conflicted, love/hate feelings about her star power. At the time she was beginning to have something of a movie career and was well-known, if not well-loved, in the music world, meaning everything she did made it onto “Page 6” rather regularly. She said of it, “I mean, here’s the celebrity, and we all know it’s stupid and ephemeral, but why not foster it? Why not feed it?”

Rolling Stone , which liked the album, said the title track was “full of cloudless energy that seems to explode the malaise that has surrounded Love since husband Kurt Cobain’s death.” The song exploded up to #24 in Australia, the band’s best performance to that point and became their third top 20 in the U.K. In her hometown of L.A., it was massive, being the #8 song of the year on superstation KROQ… even higher than the follow-up which was about the city itself, “Malibu.”

Courtney has said lately she’s working on new music but no details have emerged.

May 16 – Nirvana’s Forgotten Third

Happy 55th birthday to a guy who’s more outspoken now than when he was famous backing “the voice of a generation”- Krist Novoselic. Not necessarily better known though; even when he was in the hottest band going, he seemed to be the one people didn’t notice.

The bassist formed Nirvana with Kurt Cobain a little over 30 years back when they became friends in Aberdeen, Washington and enjoyed similar punk and heavy metal music… although their first band, in which Kurt drummed and Krist sang, was a CCR cover band! In Nirvana, Krist didn’t seem to merit much notice behind the mercurial frontman and beside the charismatic drummer. Since Nirvana’s untimely demise, Novoselic formed a couple of significantly less successful bands (Eyes Adrift, Sweet 75, Giants in the Trees and at times Filthy Friends with Peter Buck of R.E.M.) and has occasionally shown up on stage with Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters and even Paul McCartney but has kept himself busy trying to affect change.

He started an organization called Jampac (Joint Artists and Musicians Political action Committee) in response to a proposed law that would have made it illegal for those under 18 to buy music described as “erotic” in Washington, and has written entertainment as well as political columns for Seattle Weekly . Of late, he’s become an accomplished pilot and earned a degree in social sciences at Washington State, all the better to help promote his “anarcho-capitalist/socialist” viewpoints.

He says of Kurt Cobain’s death, “he was probably pretty ripped. If he’d had a clear mind, he probably wouldn’t have done it.” Novoselic successfully lobbied to have Joan Jett sing Kurt’s parts at the Nirvana induction ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

January 19 – Husker Du The Blueprint For ’90s Rock

The shape and sound of much of the ’90s was made on this day in 1987, although few knew it then! Husker Du released their great, powerful yet tuneful Warehouse:Songs and Stories double album.

The Warner record was the last for the Minnesota trio that influenced a whole range of musicians, most notably Nirvana who all echoed the sentiments of Krist Novoselic who said “Nirvana was nothing new, Husker Du did it before us.” Dave Grohl was also a noted fan and has appeared several times with Husker’s singer/guitarist Bob Mould since. Not only did Husker Du break the ground for what would become “grunge”, they also were highly influential among underground rock bands of the ’80s by being the first American indie “punk” act to sign with a major label (Warner Bros. in 1986) and put out records that sounded much the same as their indie work had. this showed the likes of R.E.M., Sonic Youth and later Nirvana that getting backing of a big label wasn’t necessarily “selling out.”

As for Warehouse, it was a bit of a departure for the trio, but not a drastic one. The band had made a name for themselves with short, powerhouse rockers dished up grittily. On Warehouse , years of maturing and a bigger budget helped make the sound a bit more palitable without compromising their energy or anger. Unlike their previous five records, this one they wrote and rehearsed in an old Twin Cities warehouse (hence the title) rather than on stage and they took full advantage of a decent studio to overdub some guitars and a keyboard bit here and there. The songs though were pure-Husker Du, and if anything more angry than ever, owing to a personality clash between Mould and drummer Grant Hart (according to many a couple who were splitting up romantically during the recording) who also wrote some of their tracks.

Rolling Stone considered the record a “viable candidate for album of the year”  but the public weren’t as enthusiastic. Although it hit #31 in New Zealand and squeaked onto the Canadian album charts, it missed in Britain (where they’d had good success in the mid-’80s on the indie charts with singles like “Makes No Sense At all”) and more importantly, in the U.S. despite the catchy single “Could You Be The One?” getting decent play on MTV.

Allmusic later graded it a full 5-stars and perceived what made it special: though it had “fuller production… to their credit, they never sound like they are selling out” and Bob Mould “nearly arrives at power pop” with his songs, something that “pointed the way to the kind of ‘alternative’ rock that dominated the mainstream in the early-’90s.” Or to paraphrase, being an innovator pays off in respect, but not dollars!

January 13 – Monster Was A Scary Tour

A few days back we recalled the Smashing Pumpkins ill-fated tour, today, another seemingly cursed one. R.E.M. begin a major world tour this day in 1995 (their first of the decade) to promote the recently-released Monster album, which had debuted at #1 to good reviews.

The opening show in Perth,Australia went OK, but things went downhill through the long months and miles which followed. Along the way, drummer Bill Berry -while onstage at a Swiss show- suddenly had a pain “like someone had dropped a bowling ball on his head.” Thankfully doctors quickly found not one but 2 brain aneurysms. Shortly after he recovered and returned to the tour in May, bassist Mike Mills got sick and had a benign tumor removed. Singer Michael Stipe then fell ill with a hernia problem. And in Ireland, a happy outdoor show was marred when two fans drowned while swimming at the concert.  All the while, the death of their friend (and fan) Kurt Cobain wore heavily on Stipe, who played the song “Let Me In” with Peter Buck using a guitar that had been owned by the Nirvana singer. The tour wound down in Georgia in November with the band feeling lucky to emerge intact.

Or at least more or less so. The health scare made Berry re-evaluate his life and he quit the band not long afterwards. They didn’t tour for their next album, New Adventures in Hi-fi (much of which had actually been recorded during the Monster tour) and when they hit the road in 1999 for Up, they did so for the first time with a new drummer, Joey Waronker. Maybe the Beatles were even smarter than we knew, giving up touring when they were at the peak of their popularity.

January 11 – Nirvana’s Very Good Day

Was this day 28 years ago the day alternative rock became “regular” rock? Nirvana took over the #1 spot on the Billboard album chart this day in 1992, knocking Michael Jackson off the top. It clearly showed the public was ready for something new and edgy.

While the previous year, R.E.M. and U2, as well as hard-rockers Metallica, did have #1 records in the U.S., the charts- and radio- were dominated by the likes of Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, Gloria Estefan and Roxette. Nirvana showed that the grunge movement was hardly a minor trend- and no one was more surprised than their label. The president of Geffen Records said “we didn’t do anything- it was just one of those ‘get out of the way and duck’ records.” Insiders say Geffen expected Nevermind to sell, optimistically, 250 000 copies. By this time it had already surpassed a million.

Rolling Stone was equally surprised. Though they had given it a 4-star rating (appreciating the ‘dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and sonic restraint”) they noted that “postpunk stars from Husker Du to Soundgarden have joined the corporate world without debasing their music” which leads to “depths of commercial failure….Nirvana is the latest underground bonus baby to test the mainstream tolerance.”

It was a very good day for Kurt, Krist and Dave. Not only did Nevermind take the top spot on the album chart, that very night they made their network TV premiere, being musical guests on Saturday Night Live, helping “Smells Like Teen Spirit” gain even wider exposure.