THE RAIN-sodden streets of Muggia (a secluded town in Northern Italy that acts as the border with civil war-torn Yugoslavia) are seemingly empty. Nirvana bass player Chris Novoselic, his wife and yours truly are taking an after-dinner stroll en route to the Teatro Verdi, tonight’s link in the chain of gigs that have sent the band halfway round the world and back, and the silence is deafening.
I begin to wonder aloud if anybody is aware that Nirvana are playing here tonight. I mean, what if only the local populace turned up with hardly enough body heat between them to keep warm, never mind break into a sweat! Chris, who is by now past caring how many people he struts his stuff in front of, simply smiles knowingly and wanders towards a group of people who are gathered outside an iron garden gate. Their attention is drawn to a small creature that is huddled in a corner of the gateway, a hedgehog that has lost its bearings and is sheltering there in preference to being squashed by some crazed Italian driver.
Chris is entranced as the hedgehog sniffs the air for slugs, rolls a black beady eye in his direction and promptly curls up into a tight, neat ball of flea infested spikes.
“Oh wow,” he exclaims, “A European porcupine!” it seems that Chris has never encountered a hedgehog before and he is excited by the experience. Is Chris fond of wildlife in general, I ask his equally fascinated wife. “Oh yes,” she replies, “we have cats back home.”
The small crowd gradually disperses to regroup later for the other big attraction in Muggla that evening. Meanwhile, trouble continues to brew inside the Teatro Verdi, a medium-sized hall that boasts a prettily painted theatrical stage. There’s still no heat, the power is on the blink and the promoter chooses to play dumb whenever Nirvana’s canny Scottish tour manager Alex attempts to squeeze another drop of information out of him. That leaves the rest of Nirvana, guest band Urge Overkill and an impatient road crew plenty of time to pace around the freezing, empty hall while somebody tinkers with the generator.
Outside, the hedgehog-watch committee’s ranks have been swelled somewhat by an army of invading Yugoslavian fans from across the border. Already the glass doors are beginning to warp dangerously with the combined body weight that is being pressed against them, and so it is eventually decided to open up and let them in, despite the fact that it is warmer on the street than it is inside.
Nirvana drummer David Grohl recognises one of the shapes that shifts before him and calls him over, “Hey! It’s the Flying Man,” he drawls good naturedly, “howya doin’?” The Flying Man turns out to be one of the personalities that Nirvana have innocently attracted on their latest Euro-tour, a shaven-headed stage diver who has apparently perfected his enthusiasm for self-expression into an art form. The Flying Man can leap from the highest balcony and slip into the arms of the crowd below barely causing a ripple and tonight, he promises David, he plans to do something special.
By now the Teatro Verdi is packed with several hundred chain-smoking Nirvana fans who, after a few hours, have turned the little air left into a sulphurous smog. When Nirvana eventually hit the stage the crowd has grown into a 1,000-strong force of fans, a pushing (but not unruly) crowd who are blown away as soon as guitarist Kurt Cobain, Chris and David launch into the opening bars of ‘Drain You’, where all heaven and hell is suddenly let loose.
As anticipated, however, it is not until the rush of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hits that the throng melts into a sea of outstretched palms which wave gently as the opening breeze of the song slowly strengthens. When Kurt hollers the command, “ENTERTAIN US!” the breeze is suddenly whipped up into a gale and 1,000 fists respond as one air-punching force before quietly subsiding into another verse.
The mood is one of pure, unfettered excitement. Even though Nirvana must have played ‘Teen Spirit’ hundreds of times, they are as caught up and astonished by the song’s soul-tugging power as the crowd is. I catch a glimpse of Kurt and Chris locked tenderly into the root of the song’s riff and at the mask of ecstasy that has lit up David Grohl’s features as he hammers home precise drum strokes like a man possessed.
Of the Flying Man’s promised acrobatic stunt there was nothing, perhaps he too had been sucked into the riptide of the song and was unable to swim for the shore. Whatever, how could anybody follow that?*
THE NEXT day we congregate in Bloom, an arts centre which is situated in Mezzago, a town that is an expensive taxi ride outside Milan. “We’ve been here before,” murmurs Chris as though he is experiencing a feeling of deja-vu. Nirvana don’t seem too enthralled to be back so soon. Still, at least the problems of no power and heat are no part of tonight’s hectic schedule.
The main problem that has since arisen is that Italy is to have a nationwide petrol strike starting the following evening and that means the entire touring party could be stuck without fuel. Nirvana have decided to take Alex’s advice to cancel the next gig and head for Rome.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of fanzine writers, fans, Italian rock journos and well-wishers keep pulling at Kurt’s sleeve to drag him into a corner and ask him questions or beg for souvenirs. When he has run out of answers and guitar picks he ambles backstage to sit in the cupboard that is the band’s dressing room and wait to get back onstage in front of another wild crowd.
“It just seems to be the same amount of people every night,” Kurt mumbles. “The same type of people are coming to our shows and the majority of people who have been into us before are the ones that are always at the front. Those are the people that we really focus on, the people we can see.
“A lot of the time I can’t even tell if there are people out there in the audience because most of the venues we play the lights are right in my eyes. After a while so much sweat is in my eyes and burning them that for half the show they are closed tight.”
The Teatro Verdi crowd certainly seemed to adore what Nirvana were playing on stage the other evening but, when no encore seemed to be forthcoming and a tape of Frank Sinatra was offered instead, the natives did seem to become a little restless.
“Yeah,” agrees Kurt with a shrug. “There are times when we don’t wanna do encores because we’re not having enough fun and I guess they suffer for that. It depends on how much money they paid. I asked how much money they paid to get in last night and that was going to make the decision as to whether we did an encore or not. But then we thought, we’ll do an encore anyway because most of them were Yugoslavians who are going through tough times right now.”
I ask Chris, who was brought up in Yugoslavia before his parents moved to America, how it felt for him to supply his fellow countrymen and women with some much needed ‘Teen Spirit’ during this difficult period.
“It seemed like they made it a big deal,” he groans. “I dunno, it was nothing special. A little bit of a treat but just like everywhere else, really.”
The world for Nirvana has suddenly shrunk and all of it looks the same. Their relentless tour schedule, which continues into the early months of next year, has no room to allow Kurt the luxury of writing any new songs. Any new material has to be written and performed on the hoof, where nobody but the band really catches on with what’s going down.
With so much free-form, unreleased material floating about, Alex has issued a ban on all unauthorised tape machines. Anyone found wielding one will have their tape snatched and added to Alex’s growing collection. The constant touring of Planet Earth is certainly getting Nirvana the coverage their record company craves, but is it getting to them? Chris doesn’t think so.
“Nawww, it can’t really f– us up because we never cater to all that mainstream stuff. If people like the music then that’s fine. We might as well take advantage of it and spread the word that there are a lot of great bands and music happening out there.”
Meanwhile, Kurt, who is already bored about talking shop, readily agrees to tell me what new finds he has discovered for his record collection. Kurt’s main interests are children’s, novelty and spoken word LPs.
“That’s the section I usually head for first, the ‘Miscellaneous’ section…Long before I get to the rock section. It’s really fun to come across a Muhammad Ali solo album,” he enthuses. “I just got an Andy Griffith record and one which has this naked woman on the cover holding a cat on her lap. It’s called ‘My Pussy Belongs To Daddy’.”
Another hot find for Kurt recently was the master tape for stunt rider Evel Ekievel’s solo album. “It’s got an extra 30 minutes of ‘adult dialogue’ on it,” he snickers, “Evel talks evil.” Suddenly the call goes out summoning Nirvana to the stage. As they plug in, someone shouts out, “WE WANT SOME F– IN’ NOISE!” “OK!” agrees Chris quietly, “We’ll give you some f–in’ noise.” And then Nirvana proceed to make a beautiful f–in’ noise.
© Edwin Pouncey, New Musical Express, 21 December 1991