Nirvana: Breathe

Nirvana’s metamorphosis from callow punk geeks to the globe-stomping rock phenomenon of Nevermind took little more than a year. In between lay a chaotic tale of unfettered ambition, appalling man-management and the quest for the perfect drummer. Everything was going to be fine, says Keith Cameron.
If only they could remember to…

IT WAS THE night of Halloween 1991 when Seattle realised nothing would ever be the same again. The venue was the 2,000 capacity Paramount Theatre, and the stars were to be two of the bands which had made the city the most happening musical hub in the world. Led by the charismatic punkoid blues sage Mark Arm and armed with a raft of sleaze-caked classic tunes, Mudhoney had kick-started the grunge revolution that was epicentred on Seattle. Their third album, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, was just recently released on the local Sub Pop label, the imprint upon which Seattle’s unique sound was founded and which had also nurtured that evening’s other main attraction.

Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, had been released by David Geffen’s DGC label on September 24, a month after the Mudhoney record. With both bands scheduling six week tours of the US to promote their records at roughly the same time, they decided to hook up at the end of the dates and play two shows together, at the Fox Theatre in Portland on October 29, then the Paramount two days later. As friends, mutual admirers and former labelmates who had shared stages many times, they agreed to split the proceeds 50/50 and that each would headline one show: Nirvana in Portland, Mudhoney in Seattle.

But as their tour progressed, it began to dawn on Mudhoney that this arrangement might not be feasible. Not yet in the shops, promotional copies of Nevermind had been sent to radio stations and clubs across the country, and each day as they arrived at the venue for that night’s show it seemed like only one record was being played.

“Every club we walk into, every fucking club we hear ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’,” remembers Dan Peters, Mudhoney’s drummer. “We’re like, Holy shit, this record’s everywhere! So after six weeks, we arrive in Portland. And we say to Nirvana, Hey guys, how’s it going? And they said, ‘Our record just went gold today’. Ah…Um, I think our record sold a coupla thousand, yesterweek?! Their record went gold – I mean, at that time whose records go gold? Aerosmith go gold…”

It was a fait accomplis. Nirvana headlined both shows. In a mere six weeks they had become a phenomenon. Mudhoney could only watch as their fellow travellers sped past them, on their way to another, very different place. It would be a while before their paths would cross again. “Within two weeks of the tour it was obvious that’s what would happen,” says Mark Arm today, a handsome 40-year-old survivor of Seattle’s ’90s rock’n’roll meltdown, currently leading the rejuvenated Mudhoney. “It wasn’t like we were, Oh fuck them. It was amazing! The thing that bummed me out about the show was that someone had the bright idea of documenting it with a three-camera shoot. That got in the way of them connecting with the audience. I left halfway through.”

“When we get to Seattle it is over the fucking top,” says Peters. “The record’s gold, the show’s sold out, there’s a team of 20 cameramen on-stage, Nirvana’s already shooting a big budget video. We all left. You couldn’t get near the stage to see the band. I remember leaving and looking back at this theatre full of people going apeshit and thinking, Oh well, we get 50 per cent of this. Suddenly we became this little shunted-to-the-side band.”

The gold records and the pandemonium at the Paramount were just the initial evidence of what we now recognise as the significant episode in rock’n’roll in the last 10 years. Nirvana galvanised a generation and changed the world. But to do that, they had to galvanise and change themselves. The sheer magnitude of their commercial success might have been unforeseeable, even flukey; but the fact that they were successful at all was not. It was the result of a chain of events, calculated and orchestrated primarily by Kurt Cobain, that began in the wake of the release in June 1989 of their debut album, Bleach, careered through 1990 and culminated in Nevermind. In almost every respect – who was in the band, the type of songs they were playing, their business arrangements and personal circumstances – the Nirvana of Nevermind was a fundamentally different creature to that which had made Bleach. Dan Peters: “A lot of things changed at that time. But a lot of people take credit for Nirvana. And it’s the band – the band did it. All these other people lucked out. I guess a lot of people were in the right place at the right time, the band included.”

ON DECEMBER 3, 1989, Nirvana played to a few hundred early arrivals at the London Astoria, third on the bill at a Sub Pop ‘Lame Fest’ also featuring Mudhoney and Tad. Ten months later, they headlined the same venue, selling it out virtually by word of mouth and heralding the advent of Nirvanamania in the UK, a force that eventually spread around the globe. The first of these two shows was chaotic. It was the last night of a long, gruelling tour of Europe – 36 gigs in 42 days, taking in nine countries – during which the three members of Nirvana plus the four members of Tad had been crammed into a single Fiat van, alongside crew and equipment. They were tired, homesick and struggling to deal with the consequences of trashing their gear, by now a regular and instinctive (if illogical) response to the mounting frustration of having no money to replace the gear they had just trashed. Drummer Chad Channing was frequently in the firing line, as demonstrated by the layers of gaffer tape holding his kit together. In Kurt Cobain, the amiable, easy-going Chad was fated to play behind not only an exacting songwriter but one who considered himself to be the best drummer in Nirvana, having revealed an aptitude for the instrument while still a child and subsequently manning the traps with the Sellouts and the Stiff Woodies, two of the early bands he formed in Aberdeen, Washington with Krist Novoselic.

At least the Astoria saw Cobain playing a relatively unblemished Fender bought for him by Sub Pop’s co-founder Jonathan Poneman, following the demise of its much-abused predecessor six days previously at the Piper Club in Rome (a disastrous night where the acutely unhappy Kurt climbed into the rafters of the venue and threatened to jump and later announced he was quitting the band). But the latest guitar would go the same way, as yet another gremlin-afflicted show ended with as stunning and purposeful display of auto-destruction as can be imagined. The coup de grace arrived when Kurt hurled his guitar at Krist Novoselic, who smote the thing asunder with a single swing of the bass. For once, Chad had been spared, although the drummer for the gig’s headlining act wasn’t so lucky. Earlier in the set Novoselic began wildly twirling his guitar around his head, either oblivious to or heedless of the fact that it had no strap locks – a detail that suddenly became very apparent to Dan Peters, watching from side of stage, when the bass loosed its moorings and came flying directly towards his head. Instinctively, he stuck up a hand and caught the four-stringed missile. “Otherwise that thing would have struck me square between the eyes,” he says. “That’s my biggest memory of that show – I could have been killed by a bass guitar! But that’s how manic they were. Frustration can make for a good show sometimes.”

Part of Kurt Cobain’s frustration stemmed from the fact that on this tour, the band’s first outside the US, he had chosen to reveal Nirvana’s new direction, and its exposition was being stymied by the technical foul-ups. Amid firm setlist favourites like ‘Negative Creep’ and ‘School’, Cobain was including songs which suggested that, as opposed to the punishing, somewhat by-rote sludge rock which predominated on Bleach, Nirvana were increasingly making music that was accessible to anyone with an ear for a catchy tune. Songs like ‘Been A Son’ and ‘Stain’, ‘Polly’ and ‘Breed’, and a cover of ‘Molly’s Lips’ by faux naif Scottish pop primitives The Vaselines, would be in the set for the return to the Astoria on October 24, 1990. That night, the ensemble playing was giddy with wantonness, yet absolutely precision-drilled. This was riff-based pop music laced with a might and physicality that set its practitioners apart from their contemporaries. In less than a year, Nirvana had evolved from an intense but hit-and-miss live outfit into an awesome rock’n’roll group, a paragon of the art of the power trio, where the possibility of havoc is part of the thrill. The neophytes in the crowd, attracted by waves of praise from John Peel and the more perspicacious elements of the UK weekly music press, stood and gawped. Even those who had glimpsed a singular potency amid the mayhem of the previous Astoria show were dumbfounded. How could this be the same band? they wondered. It wasn’t. Chad Channing was out. Behind the drums, a fusillade of muscles, tattoos, hair and sweat, was one David Eric Grohl.

“In my opinion, Dave Grohl is one of the 10 greatest drummers of all time.” Charles Cross has the earnest, studious air of a rock anal retentive. He doesn’t reel off the other nine, but one suspects that’s only because MOJO doesn’t ask. As the author of Heavier Than Heaven, Kurt Cobain’s biography, he has been granted unparalleled access to the private thoughts of the man who made Nirvana tick. The recently published Journals are but an edited fragment of what Cobain wrote and Cross saw, hundreds as opposed to thousands of pages. Then there’s the hours of unreleased material: live tapes, demos, rehearsals. In his estimation, Kurt never regarded any of the many drummers Nirvana went through as his true peer in the band – Grohl included.

“Whoever the drummer was wasn’t going to have an equal part,” says Cross. “Dave Grohl has talked recently in interviews about how he never felt that secure of his job in Nirvana. I don’t think Kurt treated the drummer on an equal level, until Grohl, and even then there were times he complained, and there are certainly a number of rehearsals when Kurt is behind the drum kit. I’ve heard material where Kurt is the drummer. And it’s OK but it’s not as good. It’s nowhere near as good.”

Chad Channing was fired in May 1990, following the end of a month-long US tour. That Kurt and Krist bothered to deliver the news in person at his home on Bainbridge Island (a ferry ride across the Puget Sound from Seattle) is testimony to the affection they had for him; none of Chad’s predecessors were afforded such consideration. It was a painful moment, but Channing has always maintained the decision was a mutual one, that he wanted to leave the band as much as they wanted him out. He was weary: weary of Kurt’s black moods and moody silences, of long tours on shoestring budgets (the trio frequently had to share a single bed), and of gigs where he always had to keep one eye on what might be flying through the air in his direction. On one occasion it was a full jug of water – but most of the time it was Kurt himself. “That really is how the instrument smashing came about,” Cobain told Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad. “I got so pissed off at Chad that I’d jump into the drum set, then smash my guitar.”

Channing’s problem wasn’t that he was a bad drummer, more that he wasn’t the right kind of drummer. Specifically, that he wasn’t Dale Crover, the John Bonham-styled hard-pounding behemoth from Kurt’s Aberdeen-bred local heroes, the Melvins. Prior to Chad joining the band, Crover had played on the much-bootlegged January 1988 demo which subsequently saw Nirvana signed to Sub Pop – indeed, the versions of ‘Floyd The Barber’ and ‘Paper Cuts’ on Bleach are taken from this session, as the results of the subsequent attempt to re-record them with Channing were deemed inadequate – and Cobain longed to have him in permanently. While Chad could occasionally be sloppy, Crover never missed a beat. But he would always remain committed to the Melvins. In Cobain’s mind, the recruitment of Dave Grohl meant Nirvana were essentially getting the next best thing.

“IF YOU’RE playing drums behind Kurt you’re filling Dale Crover’s shoes,” says Dan Peters. He should know. The tale of Peters’ brief occupancy of the Nirvana drum stool is knotty and poignant: a vivid illustration of how ambition can undercut friendship. Having dispensed with Channing, Nirvana opted to fulfil a forthcoming commitment to support Sonic Youth for seven dates on the West Coast in August by hiring Dale Crover. In the meantime, they began auditioning for a permanent replacement. Even at just 23, Peters was a veteran of several Seattle bands, widely regarded as an ace sticksman, with a distinctive loose snare technique, and was available. Mudhoney were in abeyance following guitarist Steve Turner’s decision to return to college, and after bumping into Kurt and Krist’s respective girlfriends at a gig he let it be known he’d be keen to play with Nirvana.

“So I got a call from Kurt, and he was like, ‘Wow, you wanna play with us?’ I was like, Hell yeah, let’s hook it up and have some fun.”

Prior to rehearsing together for the first time, Cobain and Novoselic played Peters a tape of a session the band – with Chad – had recorded in April with Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin that all concerned believed was going to be the follow up to Bleach. Peters heard versions of ‘In Bloom’, ‘Polly’, ‘Stay Away’ (then titled ‘Pay To Play’), ‘Lithium’ and ‘Breed’ (then titled ‘Immodium’) that would be pretty faithfully replicated at the Nevermind sessions in Los Angeles the following year (the version of ‘Polly’ on Nevermind is actually the Smart cut, albeit remixed; shamefully, Chad Channing wasn’t credited). Dan was blown away by the strength of this new material. “They played me ‘In Bloom’ and I’m like, Wow! That’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard! I was floored about how great that was. Kurt’s like, ‘Cool, this is sort of what we’re doing now.’ So we start practising.”

Immediately, however, there were problems. On the day of his first Nirvana rehearsal, Dan watched as Kurt plugged into the biggest guitar rig that had ever been in the room – a cramped practice pad in Seattle’s industrial district which Peters had rented for the past six years – turned the amp up full and started playing. It was so loud the drummer couldn’t hear himself; nor could anyone else. “Krist has got his foot next to my bass drum so he can feel it. The next time we practised, I realise in the van they had this drum set with them. And they’re like, ‘Would you mind playing this drum set?’ I’m looking at this thing, it’s like something they dragged out of the garbage. It’s huge – a 24-inch kick drum, 14-inch rack tom, totally deep, and I’m like, Well, I’ll use bits and pieces, but I didn’t think it was necessary. So the problem remained, they couldn’t hear me. And I’m not a basher. But we did work on a brand new song, which I got to put my own stamp on. I got to write that song with them.”

That song was ‘Sliver’, a pivotal moment in Nirvana’s history. If anyone doubted the band’s pure pop instincts, here was the proof: a simplistic melody, insistent refrain, readily comprehensible lyrics about a universal childhood trauma, and over and done with in just over two minutes. Released as a single in September, Cobain admitted it was a conscious attempt to draw a line under what had been before, and what was coming next. “I decided I wanted to write the most ridiculous pop song I had ever written,” he told Michael Azerrad. “I wanted to write more songs like that.”

In fact, Nirvana never really did write another song like ‘Sliver’, confirming that Peters’ influence was very real. And the trio clearly functioned as a tight unit: ‘Sliver’ was recorded within an hour with Bleach producer Jack Endino at Seattle’s Reciprocal studio, using equipment loaned from Tad, who were making an album there. “They were having lunch between one and two,” explains Dan. “‘Sliver’s a great song. A great song will play itself, you know exactly what to do. It was written in a day and it came together in an hour. Good to go.”

“A good song is the most important thing, it’s the only way to really touch someone,” Cobain told me 1990, explaining his writing’s new directness. “You can have the most perfect ideals in the world and still can’t get your point across unless you have good music.”

After the Sonic Youth tour, Nirvana rehearsed with Peters for a show on September 22 at the 1,500-capacity Motorsports International Garage, the band’s biggest hometown gig at that point. In Peters’ mind, he was no longer auditioning for the job; Cobain and Novoselic had told him he was the man. Unbeknownst to him, however, as he tore into ‘Pay To Play’, the curtain raiser on what would be his one and only gig as a member of Nirvana, his bandmates had decided who their next drummer was going to be, and he was in the audience to see his new band for the first time. While in San Francisco, rehearsing with Crover for the Sonic Youth dates, Cobain and Novoselic had gone to see the Washington DC hardcore band Scream on the recommendation of Melvins guitarist Buzz Osbourne, and were knocked out by how great the drummer was – and how perfect he would be for Nirvana. Several weeks later, Scream broke up in Los Angeles. Their drummer, Dave Grohl, called his friend Osbourne, who in turn called Novoselic. Soon, Grohl – and his drum kit – were on a plane to Seattle.

The Motorsports gig was the stuff of legends, a seismic warning of the impending tsunami which would deluge the city a year or so later. Despite the set being marred by a continuous stream of stage invaders, Nirvana looked and sounded amazing (Peters played his heart out), their set brimming with new tunes that blew the minds of even hardened Seattle scenesters. “I remember a certain amount of excitement,” says Mark Arm, “like something was about to happen.”

The next day, at Novoselic’s house in Tacoma, 25 miles south of Seattle, Nirvana did an interview and photo-shoot for the UK music weekly Sounds. As far as this writer and photographer Ian Tilton were aware, Dan Peters was the new drummer in Nirvana; and though he said little during the interview, his image would appear on the front cover of the October 27 issue of the magazine, alongside Cobain and Novoselic. The article was to coincide with the band’s UK tour, for which Peters understood they were soon beginning rehearsals.

Also present at Novoselic’s house, chowing amiably at the pre-interview barbecue, was Dave Grohl. Ostensibly his role in proceedings was that of a fellow musician helping out friends, carrying gear and van driving, while he figured out what to do next following the demise of his band. At least, that’s what we – and Dan Peters – were told. Two days later, Cobain appeared on a local radio show hosted by Calvin Johnson, the prime mover behind the K record label, and announced that Nirvana’s new drummer was Dave Grohl. Only later did he summon the nerve to telephone Peters and tell him.

Initially, Peters’ reaction was one of relief. Rehearsals with Nirvana had been “sullen, tense” affairs, far removed from the jocular exchanges of four tight buddies he’d enjoyed with Mudhoney. He cordially wished Cobain every success. It was only when the Sounds article appeared – by which time the news of Nirvana’s latest new drummer was official – that things began to fall into place. “I found out Dave had been up there rehearsing, and probably knew the set better than I did. There were so many people at that Motorsports Garage show that knew he was the drummer – except for me. I was totally made a fool of. I’m on the cover [of Sounds], with Nirvana, blissfully ignorant. Matt from Mudhoney told me that Krist had come up to him at the actual show and told him I wasn’t going to be in the band anymore. And Mart’s like, ‘Have you told Dan?’ And he’s like, ‘No, we haven’t told Dan.’ Matt’s like, ‘You gotta fucking tell him, that’s bullshit.’ If they were honest with me and upfront with me I would have totally accepted it, but the way they went about it bummed me out, because they didn’t have the balls to tell me. The last thing I wanted to do was look like a chump, and I looked like a chump.”

This episode exemplifies perfectly Nirvana’s ostrich-like communication skills, a trait which endured throughout the remainder of the band’s existence. Amazingly, Peters doesn’t seem at all bitter. “It was more a blow to the ego, but I think my ego is fairly small. think, haha! Looking back on it 12 years later, I guess the sad thing is…I could have been the Foo Fighters! I’ll tell you right now that Dave was the proper drummer for them. It all made perfect sense once I saw them play with Dave. I think they made the right choice. The way they went about making that choice was…irritating.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that Kurt wasn’t able to talk to people more directly or let his feelings be known,” reflects Mark Arm, “because that would have saved him and everybody else a lot of anguish.”

JONATHAN PONEMAN does not see eye to eye with Charles Cross about many things. “Charley Cross is a fucking clown,” says Sub Pop’s major domo, a cuddly 43-year-old yak of a man. He hasn’t read Heavier Than Heaven, but is aware his portrayal is less than flattering. “Most bands on the label noted his shifty nature,” writes Cross, “and he was widely mistrusted. He had many strengths as a promoter – thinking small and operating within a budget were not among them.” Perhaps. But without the conceptual brilliance, acumen for publicity and true evangelical zeal for music displayed by Poneman and his then business partner Bruce Pavitt, it’s conceivable that none of those same bands would have transcended their isolated geographical and cultural milieu.

Certainly, Nirvana bridled at Pavitt and Poneman’s arch portrayals of the label and its artists – “They’re young, they own their own van, and they’re going to make us rich!” proclaimed the Sub Pop catalogue entry for Bleach – and by the time of the Motorsports show the two parties were barely speaking, Nirvana had been sending out tapes of the Smart Studio session to major labels and had engaged the services of a music industry lawyer to extricate them from Sub Pop. In turn, Sub Pop had been courting Sony with a view to securing improved distribution and a degree of financial stability: to this end, Nirvana were a prime asset, as Nirvana were only too aware.

“I think it’s inevitable that Nirvana would go on to a larger label, but I don’t think it was inevitable that the relationship between Sub Pop and Nirvana, which disintegrated to a large degree, necessarily needed to,” says Poneman. “I accept my responsibility in that deterioration, but in my own defence I will say it was driven by the times, my age, unfamiliarity with the circumstances…When you’re in your twenties and still feeling your way around and suddenly these media barons and tastemakers are telling you that you’re God – it goes to your head. And it went to my head, it went to Bruce’s head, it went to Kurt’s head and Krist’s head, and it would have been nice to have a little bit more trust.”

Where Poneman does concur with Cross is on the man whose arrival in Nirvana would decisively augment the group chemistry. “I think the most substantial change was Dave Grohl. I don’t know if compositionally he had any effect, but I’ve gotta believe that Kurt’s canvas, his ability to create…Well, ‘Teen Spirit’ is the perfect example, the dynamics of that song are so driven by Dave’s drumming. It wouldn’t be the song it is without him. I thought Chad was a much more adequate drummer in a lot of ways than he was given credit for, but Dave Grohl is one of the great rock drummers, period.”

IN AUGUST 1991, mere weeks before the release of Nevermind, Cobain told me: “I think denying the corporate ogre is a waste of time. You should use them, rape them the way they rape you. I don’t believe in closing off options to make your own world seem more important.” He then paused for a long while, before smiling: “I think ’empathy’ is a really nice word.”

Cobain wrestled with the contradictions of being an instinctive anti-establishmentarian trying to maintain his soul amid a corporate machine for the rest of his life. In 1990 he aspired to sign a million dollar record deal yet proudly displayed the tattoo on his arm of the K records’ logo, K being the ultimate repository of punk rock artistic integrity. Charles Cross thinks the economic realities of Nirvana’s situation – not long after the Smart session, Cobain applied for a job cleaning shit out of dog kennels, and was rejected – explain a lot. “I think he wanted a career in music, and he wanted to be successful. But almost from the moment he felt that inside him he realised it wasn’t going to play well, so he had to figure out a way to both be successful and have it appear that it happened by accident.”

But there was nothing accidental about the path Nirvana took once all the elements were in place. Heavy-hitting managers, major label patronage, a slick-sounding album with one classic song after the other: this wasn’t a half-hearted stab at commercial crossover by a group of carefree dilettantes. Nevermind was the declamatory fist in the air of angry young men with nothing left to lose and nothing to offer but themselves and their music. Because of their grounding in the punk ethos, global success was something to be ridiculed, because of its sheer elusiveness. Once achieved, so dramatically and unexpectedly, Nirvana were profoundly, and permanently, confused.

Mark Arm: “Krist Novoselic says, ‘We didn’t go to the mainstream, the mainstream came to us’ – and I disagree with that. I think the production on Nevermind was a conscious step to make a very commercial record. They crashed the gates of the mainstream.”

Dan Peters: “Why are we sitting here talking about this? It must have some kind of impact. I remember, just when we were starting to tour, Steve Turner said something about Nirvana and their songwriting: that in a perfect world Nirvana would be a Top 40 band. And Nirvana became a Top 40 band – but the world was not so perfect.”

© Keith CameronMOJO, January 2003

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