Nirvana Smells Life At The Top

Circus - May 31, 1992.

Nivana on tour

By Dan Hedges


"Tour... tour... tour," Dave Grohl of Nirvana says in Virginia, so fried-out that he’s starting to drool. "Ever since I’ve been in this band, we’ve been touring. Five nights of playing. Two days of doing press. When we’re not on stage, we’re eating, or sleeping, or shitting, and that’s about it. It’s enough to drive anybody insane." Scoring triple platinum with ‘Nevermind’ has its bright and darker sides.

That’s life at the Top O’ The Charts, ladies and gentlemen. For drummer Grohl, guitarist Kurt Cobain, and bassist Chris Novaselic, scoring triple platinum with Nevermind has its bright and darker sides.

Sure, the three can finally afford to order extra-large Cokes with their burgers and fries. And the band’s grunge-pop success (along with that of fellow up-and-comers Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam) has definitely put the Pacific Northwest on the rock map.

But it’s also sent record label folk, hordes of them, winging toward Seattle to wave contracts at anything with a lumberjack shirt and a pulse. And for Nirvana, it’s meant that lots of people suddenly want them to explain what they’re doing. Why they do it. How they do it. And what it all means to the Future of Mankind.

As Dave Grohl insists, "We’re the last people to analyze anything we do. It’s usually by mistake or luck. MTV had a lot to do with how the record went, exposing kids in the midwest who don’t have an alternative record store that sells music from the subculture. But if you want to know why we’ve taken off? We have no idea."

Nirvana’s mainstream TV appearances (as on Saturday Night Live last January) have introduced them to a wider audience. But more importantly, the exposure’s proved (in an era of studio gimmickry) that the band is the same grungy slopfest onstage as it is on your tape deck. No mirrors, no tricks...maybe a guitar gets trashed during the final chord. What you see is what you get...which just might be the cornerstone of Nirvana’s success.

"We take advantage of live television," the drummer points out, "although TV station floor managers in England flip us out. They’re so uptight. They’re all running around like chickens with their heads cut off, ‘Ohhhhhh nooooooo. . . what are we gonna dooooooo?! We’d decide, ‘Let’s send these people to the hospital, put em in straightjackets.’ So we’d blow the roof off the place. Then we’d see em at a pub afterward, and they’re drunk and going, ‘Ish gr-rrreat whassh you guys played. Never head a band so wunnerful... ’"

A band of the people? A band that’s all things to everyone? Not quite... though Nirvana’s goal has always been, Grohl recalls, "to shake things up with songs you could sing to, but not be your average pop sing-along band."

Before work began on Nevermind he goes on, "We went into our rehearsal space every day for months. We came up with so much stuff where'd we’d go, ‘God! This is the best thing we’ve ever done!’ Then we’d forget how to play it. So many songs got thrown away until we finally said, ‘Maybe we should start recording them on a cassette.’ So we’d record them on a cassette, then lose the cassette..."

Nirvana’s ‘89 debut, Bleach, fared well under the wing of Seattle’s tiny Sub Pop label. Due to the success of Nevermind, Bleach is enjoying a second wind as it climbs the Billboard chart. But even after it became crucial, career-wise, to move to a more global company, "We were wary of having other people make decisions," Grohl admits. "Even suggestions were a threat. We decided that DGC was the only label worth a shit. They might even be worth two shits. They knew where we were coming from."

Whether Nirvana’s newer fans totally understand where the band’s coming from is another matter. As Grohl notes, "Everybody and their brother knows ‘Teen Spirit,’ but we get people in the front row who look puzzled if we play anything off Bleach. We had a strong underground following before Nevermind. That’s how we thought it would stay. We looked at Sonic Youth and saw them jumping into the major market. We thought, ‘It worked for them, so maybe it’ll work for us.’ We had no idea it would get this insane.

Fame at last.

"Yeah," Dave Grohl says grimly. "Our first big dose was when we found out we were going to be on the cover of a major magazine. We thought, ‘Jesus, that means our faces are going to be on every newsstand and in every 7-Eleven in the country.’ Now, it sounds cool. But to have every serial killer in America staring at your picture as they’re paying for a six-pack? I mean, think about it. That’s scary."