Article with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic interviews
By David Fricke.
The first concert was in Toronto, at the Opera House, on September 20th. The last gig was a homecoming soiree in Seattle on Halloween, at the Paramount Theatre, with Mudhoney and Bikini Kill. In those six weeks, singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl of Nirvana released their first major-label album, Nevermind; played another twenty-nine shows across North America; and were profoundly forever changed. Nirvana's next and last three years together would be a Molotov cocktail of euphoria, terror, paranoia, triumph, depression and unrealized possibility (they would make only one more studio album).
But this tour was all of that, compressed into a whirl of days. A critically well regarded underground punk band, playing clubs with capacities often in the low hundreds, Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl walked offstage every night into total surreality, caught between the oily fawning of a rude, hungry industry and the blind adoration of mobs drunk on the chorale of Cobain's ironic smack at slacker ennui, "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Between Toronto and Seattle, Nirvana became public property at hypersonic velocity; they never recovered. Novoselic and Grohl are still here to talk about it, with a distance that has allowed humor and wonder to show through the regret and dark, blank spots. "It's so hard to remember everything," Grohl admits. "I wish I'd kept a journal. I wish I'd taken pictures. I felt as confused then as I do now about the whole thing."
Cobain remembered too much: On April 8th, 1994, his body was found in a room over the garage of his Seattle home. Exhausted by his life, Cobain died by his own hand. He was twenty-seven. "I called Kurt 'The Windmill,'" says Novoselic, "because he would say something, then five minutes later he'd completely contradict himself. And he would laugh; because he knew he did it. There would be times when he really wanted to be a rock star, and there were times when he hated it. He just couldn't figure it out.” “He was living in this tiny apartment in Olympia, WA by himself. He was always cranking out art: this new painting, this new sculpture, and some weird collage. He liked to be left alone. Then he got sucked out of there, and he was put on this pedestal." But that was not where his songs were written, not where they came alive. Whatever the fall '91 tour became by the end- sensory overload, a crush of love, irreversible rock history- Nirvana repeatedly proved their heart and worth in performance. And it was in playing every night that they found the last reliable pleasure left to them as a band. "Playing those songs was almost meditation," Grohl contends. "You would lose yourself, although you were still in control." He recalls, "listening to live tapes and seeing everybody's grins. There was a conscious effort to please ourselves- and then maybe everyone else."Novoselic agrees: "That was what kind of band we were, man. We were into playing. If a rehearsal or a show was not so good, we were concerned about it. I really liked playing with Dave. I loved playing with Kurt. I miss playing with them. I lost a friend. I also lost a band." One measure of how good Nirvana aspired to be was how little they toured in early and mid-'91- at least compared with their long-term raids between '88 and '90, when they were the hot guns at Sub Pop Records. Grohl became Nirvana's fifth drummer (if you count the comings and goings of the Melvins' Dale Crover) in September 1990. "When I joined the band," Grohl says, "I came from a hardcore band [Scream] that toured as much as possible, six to eight months a year, because we didn't want to come home and get day jobs. When I joined Nirvana, there was no touring for the first eight months. All we did was rehearse and write songs. I thought, 'What have I joined?'” Why did Nevermind take so long [to make]? “To get it totally right," Novoselic insists. Nirvana's 1989 album, Bleach, was essentially a studio document of the band's barbed live blur (and recorded for virtual peanuts: $606.17). Nevermind was made taut, thick and sleek, to come out of radios like a chrome fist. But Novoselic points out that "we played every song off of Nevermind live. We were just playing them more aggressively."
Officially released music of this tour is scant: a few songs from Halloween at the Paramount Theatre, scattered across B sides; a 1992 promotional interview CD; and the 1996 live compilation, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. Grohl and Novoselic do not rate the Halloween show highly; they recall being distracted and overwhelmed by the sense of event, and by the camera crew filming the concert. Some of the pair's clearest memories are, in fact, extra musical: the bloody melee between Cobain and a vicious bouncer at the foot of the stage in Dallas; hanging out at R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck's house after playing at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia.
But Nirvana were in transcendent form that year, and their shredded-metal majesty - the glam slam and soft-loud whiplash in Cobain's songs; the sour serrated arc of his voice; Grohl and Novoselic's high-speed interplay - leaps off the Wishkah numbers, taped at the tail end of '91 in Europe and California: "Drain You," "Been a Son," "Lithium," a still fresh and feral "Teen Spirit." "They knew they had something wonderful and special," says Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who saw "a bunch" of Nirvana shows that season. (The two bands had previously shared bills together.) "When they did that headlining tour, they were so innately powerful in a way that was completely un-jaded."
Yet not unfocused. "We would photocopy a set list and stick with it," claims Novoselic. The favored opener was "Aneurysm," a pneumatic sizzler from the B-side of "Teen Spirit." The last blast would be the '89 EP track "Blew" with, Novoselic notes, "a freak out at the end where things would get smashed up." At the Metro in Chicago, Grohl and Cobain totally demolished the drummer's already hideously battered kit - as an excuse to get the tour manager to buy Grohl a new one. "There was no music," Grohl says. "The audience watched for fifteen minutes as Kurt and I were bouncing the shells, trying to splinter them, trying to get rid of this set and handing it to the audience." But Grohl insists that: "as much as we had a love of bands that just made noise, like Flipper and Scratch Acid, we also felt obligated to perform. Kurt never wanted things to sound bad."
Cobain, however, could not find a way to feel good about his windfall. Instant fame and public recognition of his gifts came at a devastating price: his self-esteem. "The mainstream came and grabbed us," says Novoselic. "I'm a pretty easygoing guy and have a lot of patience. But Kurt wasn't. Kurt despised the mainstream. That's what 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was about - the mass mentality of conformity." When the Mainstream came for Cobain, "he felt ashamed - for everybody." So for those six weeks in the fall of 1991, Nirvana roared across America as if their lives and sanity depended on it. Because they did. "When we got together, we totally rocked," Novoselic declares in proud memory of his band. "And that's what we did. That's all we could do."