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Nirvana in Bloom

Thirty years ago, the night before ‘Nevermind’ was released, the now-legendary Seattle trio played a blistering show in Boston. Soon after that, everything changed.

Brent Schoonover

Thirty years ago Friday, one of the most consequential days in modern music history occurred when Nirvana, A Tribe Called Quest, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden all released seminal albums. To celebrate the occasion, we’re looking back on September 24, 1991, by diving into the legacy of Nevermind and The Low End Theory, plus using math to determine whether any other release day in the past three decades stacks up.

On the night of September 23, 1991, the members of Nirvana were so bored that they decided to play a new version of Twister. The band unfurled two of the game’s color-coded plastic mats on the stage at Bill’s Bar in Boston. Then they opened a can of Crisco. By this point, bassist Krist Novoselic had stripped down to just black briefs and a pair of white tube socks. Drummer Dave Grohl and lead singer Kurt Cobain then covered him with a thick layer of vegetable shortening.

“He had rubbed Crisco all over his body,” says Jane Sangster, who was there on assignment for MTV. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ I’m this young producer valiantly trying to plug the microphone in and ask questions. It was kind of wild.”

When Sangster inquired into what the hell was going on, Novoselic rubbed his chest, flashed a goofy grin, and said, “We’re playing Crisco Twister!” A few moments later, he and his bandmates started pelting each other with more Crisco. Then the game began. Soon the Smashing Pumpkins, one of four groups on the bill that evening, joined in. Their bass player, D’arcy Wretzky, handled spinner duties. Even Billy Corgan—who still had hair then—took a turn.

The game ended after only a few minutes, with Novoselic playfully attempting to wrap Grohl in one of the mats. “I think they were just like, ‘This isn’t working,’” Sangster recalls. “And that was the end of that.”

Afterward, the trio sat with Sangster for a pre-show Q&A. The breezy conversation kicked off with Novoselic alluding to the fact that during the earlier greased-up festivities, he pissed off the wrong people by draping himself in an American flag. “These patriotic jocks will probably be working me over within about half an hour!” he said. The three of them then riffed on their formation (in Aberdeen, Washington), their sound (Black Sabbath meets the Knack mixed with the Bay City Rollers), their favorite bands (alt-rock acts the Breeders, Shonen Knife, Sonic Youth, Melvins, and Mudhoney), and the recent filming of a yet-to-debut video that featured an apocalyptic high school pep rally. (“Like 300 kids showed up and just hung out,” Grohl said. “It was pretty cool.”)

Throughout the chat, Cobain hid behind his long blond locks. “He kind of had his head down and I had to ask him a question directly,” Sangster says. “He was more shy.” Nirvana closed the interview by cutting promos for MTV; a hunched-over Cobain, ever the smartass, called it “Empty TV.”

What wasn’t ever discussed was the Nirvana album coming out the very next day. Maybe Sangster forgot to ask about it. Maybe the band was sick of talking about it. Or maybe neither figured it was important enough to bring up. Whatever the reason was, the omission seems strange today. After all, the record was about to change everything.

Released on September 24, 1991, Nevermind was a melodic punk masterpiece, both ear-splittingly heavy and impossibly catchy. Cobain’s piercing vocals and clever disaffection quickly made him an icon to a generation of kids longing for someone to give voice to their angst. “It stopped traffic,” says Ted Volk, then a Boston-based promo man for Geffen Records, an imprint of which, DGC, had just signed the band. “I was 25 at the time. For me, it was … wow. Again, it was just something that you just never really felt. There was an energy that’s hard to describe.”

Four months later, Nirvana’s major-label debut knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts. The album’s explosive success helped put the Seattle music scene on the map and led to countless lucrative record deals. “As far as underground music went, everything was ready to break open,” says Kurt Davis, a.k.a. Yukki Gipe, lead singer of Bullet LaVolta, one of the groups that opened for Nirvana in Boston that fall. “There were thousands of bands. There was a really vital, really thriving scene that was just bubbling over.” And by early 1992, alternative rock had gone mainstream. “I think we all thought that things were going to be different from now on,” says Todd Philips, then the drummer for Bullet LaVolta. “It’s like the masses were sane for two years then lost their fucking minds again.”

Thirty years later, it’s easy to proclaim that Nirvana’s star power was obvious. Yet for every indication of inevitable fame, there was one pointing in another direction. Cobain’s magnetism and skill at stacking pop hooks may have set Nirvana apart, but they hardly resembled platinum-selling bands like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica.

But when Nirvana got to Boston that fall, the uncertainty had begun to melt away. The days the band spent there, it turns out, were some of their last as normal people. By the time they left the city, Nevermind had hit record store shelves, and nothing was the same.

“Kurt Cobain might not have wanted to be famous, but he wanted to be famous, you know what I mean?” says Kurt St. Thomas, then a disc jockey and the music director at WFNX, an independently owned rock radio station located in the blue-collar North Shore city of Lynn. “He wanted to be a musician. He wanted to live off of making music. He thought that if they were lucky they could be as big as Sonic Youth. Those were his heroes. He’s like, ‘If we could sell 150,000 records and tour Europe, we’re good.’”

In those days, St. Thomas was a Nirvana evangelist. He’d actually discovered them a few years earlier, when he heard “Love Buzz” playing in the background of a skateboarding video. “It was like, ‘This song’s awesome,’” St. Thomas says. “‘What song is this?’” He learned from an WFNX coworker that the track was off 1989’s Bleach, the band’s first album. When he finally got his hands on the cassette, he listened to it nonstop.

In April 1990, St. Thomas saw the trio play a show at ManRay in Cambridge in front of just 75 die-hards. Grohl hadn’t yet replaced drummer Chad Channing, but Nirvana still blew him away. “I’m just like, ‘the fucking greatest band ever,’” St. Thomas says. Backstage, Novoselic handed him a Nirvana T-shirt featuring a nude portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, only their faces were swapped out with the mugs of indie label Sub Pop’s cofounders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt. St. Thomas wore the rare tee, now worth thousands of dollars, until it was threadbare. “At that moment, they just became my favorite band,” he says. “No one knew who they were.”

St. Thomas made it his mission to introduce Nirvana to his audience. WFNX embraced alternative music before listeners had ever heard the phrase. Nirvana fit the profile perfectly. So in 1991, when the program director found out that the band was recording a new album for DGC, St. Thomas got excited. He began trying to enlist Nirvana to play WFNX’s multishow eighth-birthday celebration. He remembers calling his friend Mark Kates, a Geffen promotions director from Boston, to ask about booking them. Repeatedly. “He’s like, ‘You’re nuts, dude,’” St. Thomas says. “Everybody thinks I’m crazy because I want them so bad.”

Eventually, the band scheduled an East Coast tour leg for the fall. A gig in Boston suddenly made sense. At that point, St. Thomas recalls, Kates said the words that he wanted to hear: “We can make this happen.”

There were signs. Though there was little national media hype surrounding the release of Nevermind, those lucky enough to have already heard the record early had a feeling that it could be huge.

Back then, Kates was living in Los Angeles. His upstairs neighbor, a music video producer, spent the summer of 1991 blasting an advance cassette of the album. “Every night,” says Kates, who had helped DGC sign Sonic Youth. “I’m not exaggerating.”

Sangster got a copy of that tape from her colleague Amy Finnerty. The young MTV staffer worked closely with Nirvana and pushed the network to pay attention to the band. “She said, ‘Jane, you’ve got to hear this,’” Sangster says. “It just knocked me off my feet. I listened to that cassette I think a zillion times. I would tell anybody that would listen, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to hear this.’”

“It was like being punched in the face out of my stereo, you know?” says Philips, who heard the album along with Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago when both were in L.A. recording with their own bands. “It just worked perfectly. Both of us were like, ‘Holy shit.’ You could hear it. It was exactly what everybody needed at that time.”

Everybody just didn’t know it yet. St. Thomas was determined to change that, so he hounded Geffen until the label forked over the album’s lead single. The track was loud, snarky, nearly unintelligible—and an undeniable anthem. As soon as he heard the song, St. Thomas asked the record company to let him debut it on his evening show. In August 1991, WFNX became the first major radio station to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

WFNX’s phones lit up fast. “I said, ‘This song’s going to change music,’” St. Thomas says. “The craziest shit I’ve ever seen. ... Every time we’d play it, it’s just like, ‘What is that?’”

This was a two-pronged victory for WFNX. They broke one of the biggest hits of the ’90s and beat their more established rival to it. Boston’s WBCN, by then a corporate-backed rock radio titan, didn’t initially play Nirvana. “We were psyched because we were the little radio station, and we’re just doing anything to try to pull anything away from ’BCN,” St. Thomas says. “I mean, it’s super competitive. We were barely surviving.”

Before long, WFNX got the jump on their biggest competitor yet again: On August 29, Geffen allowed St. Thomas to premiere Nevermind, in full, on his show. What’s unclear is how many people were listening.

Nirvana arrived in Boston on September 22 on the cusp of fame. Twelve days earlier, DGC Records had released “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Excitement was building over Nevermind, and the band was playing increasingly crowded shows. But they still weren’t making enough money to afford a nice hotel. So, Kates says, Nirvana passed up the Back Bay Four Seasons favored by the Rolling Stones for a Howard Johnson’s that later turned into a Boston University dorm.

The area’s rock scene was fertile at the time, having birthed, among others, Mission of Burma, the Pixies, the Lemonheads, and Buffalo Tom. The city also had an abundance of live-music venues. In certain neighborhoods, it felt like there were more clubs than Dunkin’ Donuts. Lansdowne Street, which ran right behind Fenway Park, was home to Axis, Avalon, Venus De Milo, and Bill’s Bar. For its birthday party, WFNX took over all four.

The night before the $5-a-head charity concert, which Nirvana played for free, the band had dinner with a group of Geffen reps, including Volk, at Division 16 on Boylston Street. It’s where St. Thomas first met Grohl. “I don’t know that Chad Channing’s not in the band anymore,” he says. “There’s no internet. They just show up and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is our new drummer, Dave.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, hi.’”

The two Kurts bonded over the uncommon spelling of their shared first name, their rural upbringings, and their love of Evel Knievel. St. Thomas also brought up the first time that he saw Nirvana live. “When I went to that first show at ManRay they were blown away because they were like, ‘You work at a commercial radio station?’ They were kind of taken aback,” he says. “So I reminded them of that, and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah!’”

After dinner, the group walked to the Rathskeller in Kenmore Square in hopes of seeing the Melvins, one of Cobain’s favorite bands. But Cobain wasn’t on the guest list and the doorman refused to let him in. Then: “All of a sudden out of nowhere, in the most bizarre fashion ever, this woman swoops in and grabs the bouncer’s arm and says, ‘You’ve got to let this guy in the club right now,’” Volk recalls. When the bouncer asked why, Volk says she replied, “Because this is Jesus Christ and you’ve got to let Jesus Christ in the club.”

The woman was musician Mary Lou Lord, who later said that she’d heard about Nirvana from a radio DJ friend. It was too late to see the Melvins, but once inside, Cobain and Lord talked. That weekend, they began a short romantic relationship. Before they left the club that night, Cobain interacted with a handful of young fans. “We’re walking down the stairs and two kids are walking up the stairs wearing Nirvana T-shirts,” Volk says. “And at this point there’s 20 people left in the place, and those two kids look like they did just see Jesus Christ.”

Two more young men then approached Cobain, much less pleased than the first group. One, Volk claims, called him an asshole. “He goes, ‘Wait, what did I do?’” Volk says. The fan explained that he was too young to get into the next night’s 21+ show. “And so Kurt looks over to Mark [Kates] and says, ‘Is that true?’” Volk recalls. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, I guess it is.’”

But when the kids said entertain us, Cobain listened. Kates says that the concerned frontman quickly asked whether Nirvana could play an all-ages show the night after the WFNX event, the same day Nevermind came out. Axis was available, so the band booked it.

The afternoon of the WFNX party, Philips made it from his Beacon Street apartment to Axis on Lansdowne Street early enough to catch Nirvana’s sound check. When he walked in, they were in the middle of playing a skull-rattling version of “Aneurysm,” a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” B-side.

“The volume was loud—uncomfortably loud,” Philips wrote in 2011 in the now-defunct Boston Phoenix, which shared an owner with WFNX. “I gave their sound man, Craig Montgomery, the stink-eye and told Cobain after the check that his Univox Mosrite copy sounded too thin. He laughed and said, ‘Girls always tell me that it’s too thin.’”

To Philips, who was there for Bullet LaVolta’s sound check, it felt like a normal day. “You know, they weren’t famous yet,” he says. “We all came from the same place. We all came from this weird circuit where like 200 people would come see your band.” But, he adds, “You could feel this energy.”

For St. Thomas, that day was nothing short of a whirlwind. After all, making sure nearly a dozen bands were in the right place at the right time was a logistical nightmare. He does have a fond memory of picking up Smashing Pumpkins at another Howard Johnson’s, near Fenway: “I just remember going, ‘Smashing Pumpkins, get in the minivan.’”

St. Thomas also had to deal with the fact that Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana were suddenly way too popular to play Axis, a boxy room that fit fewer than 1,000 people—much smaller than Avalon, which that night was hosting the event’s two “biggest” acts, the Wonder Stuff and School of Fish. Needless to say, more people were trying to get into Axis. “There’s a line down Lansdowne Street,” St. Thomas says. “Everybody wants to get in. Nobody wants to go to the other clubs. It’s a problem.”

That evening, St. Thomas managed to corral Nirvana for a pre-show interview. Novoselic spent part of it stuffing balloons under his shirt in a jokey attempt to look pregnant. “Dave wasn’t there at the beginning,” St. Thomas says. “I was like, ‘I’m here with Kurt and Krist.’ And then he comes walking in and he’s like, ‘What, you don’t say anything about the drummer?’”

After finishing up with St. Thomas, Nirvana broke into the game of Crisco Twister. The stunt mostly fell flat. If you watch the video of it, you can see a shaved-headed Philips sitting off to the side. Kurt Davis, Bullet LaVolta’s singer, didn’t participate either. “I don’t know if I was trying to be too cool or whatever, but anytime that there’s a lot of hype surrounding something, my imposter detector starts going,” Davis says. “So I sort of stand back a little bit at a distance and see what happens, you know?”

Perhaps it’s a good thing that Crisco Twister was short-lived—it was, after all, almost showtime. Smashing Pumpkins were the second band to play at Axis, before local favorite Bullet LaVolta. During their 35-minute set, the Pumpkins sped through songs from their recently released first album Gish. “Only time for a quick fuck,” Corgan said before their last song. “Then we must go.”

Bullet LaVolta, whose album Swandive was also released the following day, came next. “It didn’t really matter if we were on or off that night (it was a 6 out of 10 in my opinion),” Philips later wrote in the Phoenix. “This was Nirvana’s night.”

As midnight approached, Axis was packed. “The walls were dripping with sweat and everybody is jammed shoulder-to-shoulder,” says WFNX DJ Duane Bruce. “There is not an inch of space.”

But Cobain was nowhere to be found. St. Thomas dispatched Bruce to find the lead singer, who was at DV8, the club above Axis. “I go up the stairs and I meet him about two-thirds of the way up,” Bruce says. “And I just said, ‘Kurt, put your hand on my shoulder. I’m just going to steam train you right through this crowd. … At that time, I’m 6-foot-1, probably 275. I’m linebacker size. And I’m just pushing people the fuck out of the way.”

Cobain finally reached the stage. But before Nirvana launched into their set, St. Thomas introduced them. “And it’s kind of weird, actually, because there’s all these hardcore punker kids,” he says. “They’ve been standing there all day. They literally bought tickets, went to Axis, and just never moved. So they’re right at the front of the stage, and they’ve just been waiting all night. And I walk out there, they start giving me the finger and shit.”

Taking in the sea of obscenities and a deep breath, St. Thomas managed to do what he’d been looking forward to doing all night. “Could you please welcome the fuckin’ coolest band in the world,” he said. “Nirvana.”

After St. Thomas’s intro, Nirvana launched into “Aneurysm.” Standing stage left in a long-sleeve Sonic Youth T-shirt and ripped jeans, Cobain sang the first lines of the song like his floppy blond hair was on fire.

Come on over, do the twist, a-ha
Overdo it and have a fit, a-ha

To St. Thomas, starting that way felt like a pointed decision. “They’re like, ‘Fuck you. We’re going to open with the B-side,’” he says. The crowd only had to wait a few minutes to hear the A-side, though. In a recently surfaced video of the concert’s first four songs, Cobain belts the famously nonsensical chorus in a way that suggests he still hadn’t grown tired of the soon-to-be smash hit. The footage is dark and grainy, but the band’s chaotic, head-banging energy is crystal clear.

“I remember standing, watching the show, and just being fixated,” WFNX producer and on-air personality Julie Kramer says. “Just completely fixated. And it was amazing. It was smoky, it was dark, it was loud. People were going fucking ape shit.”

David Gwiazdowski, then an Emerson College student who later interviewed the band for the campus radio station, spent the show near the stage. He left in pain. “I got three days total of tinnitus,” he says.

Nirvana mostly let their music do the talking that night. Cobain barely addressed the crowd. Novoselic was a bit more vocal. About halfway through the set, he mentioned Nirvana’s new album and announced that there would be an all-ages show the next day. “Everybody here with fake IDs, don’t sweat it,” he said. “You can get in hassle-free tomorrow night.”

Cobain somehow seemed to get stronger as the evening wore on. At the end of “Rape Me,” the 12th song of Nirvana’s 50-minute set, he moved up to an almost disturbingly high octave. It may have seemed impossible that a man that small could have such a hair-raisingly powerful voice, but disbelief was a standard reaction to Cobain.

Never ones to pander to their new record company, Nirvana closed the show with three songs off Bleach. Cobain blurted out, “Good night,” before the finale, “Negative Creep.” And then the show was over.

“That’s when I knew,” says St. Thomas, whose 1992 interviews with Nirvana ended up being released by DGC as a promotional album. “When I saw the line of kids going down Lansdowne Street, standing there … I’d never seen anything like that.”

Over the next several months, everything changed. Grunge, for better and worse, became a pop culture phenomenon, and Nirvana became the biggest band in the world. From that point forward, Kurt Cobain wasn’t just a celebrity—he was an icon.

But there were a few moments of normalcy left. The morning after the WFNX event, Nevermind came out. Kates recalls picking up Grohl and Novoselic at their Howard Johnson’s and driving them to the Boston record store Newbury Comics to see if the album was selling. There were no screaming fans. “I was thinking, ‘Man, kids are going to be like, freaking out buying this record,’” Kates says. “And it was not like that at all. It was as if it wasn’t even a Tuesday.”

As promised, Nirvana headed back to Axis that night to play an all-ages show. Admission cost five bucks. It didn’t even sell out.


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