THE SMALL WOODEN BUILDING at 4230 Leary Way NW, in the residential Seattle district of Ballard, didn’t look like the epicentre of a revolution. But the sign on the door confirmed to the 20-year-old Kurt Cobain that this indeed was Reciprocal Recording. It was here that the first releases on independent Seattle record label Sub Pop had been made by local bands Green River and Soundgarden, releases that would be the cornerstones of a new sound and style that would go on to alter rock music in the final decade of the 20th century.
On 23 January 1988, Jack Endino, the producer of those records, had a routine engagement: record a demo for some kids from Aberdeen, a glum, isolated logging port, population 16,000, 83 miles south-west of Seattle on the Pacific coast. One of them, Cobain, had called to book the session, saying he was friends with the Melvins’ Dale Crover, who would be playing drums. The Melvins were the only serious band of note to come out of Aberdeen, and Crover was revered as a skin-pounder in the John Bonham tradition. His involvement was sufficient reason for Endino to take the otherwise inauspicious booking. As well as lacking a full-time drummer, the group didn’t even have a name.
As they got to work, Endino noted three things. First, how tall the bassist Chris Novoselic was (Novoselic didn’t start calling himself Krist until 1993). Second, how serious singer-guitarist Cobain was. Although several months older than Crover, he seemed much younger. He was also very shy, displaying none of the proto-rock star elan that characterised the likes of Green River’s Mark Arm or Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. But then, Nirvana weren’t from Seattle, they were from the sticks. If Seattle was geographically and culturally isolated, Aberdeen was off the map.
“Maybe they were a little naive, but at the same time they weren’t full of themselves,” says Endino. “A band that grows up in a rural area generally doesn’t have any positive reinforcement for what they’re doing. There may be no clubs to play, there may be no gigs, there maybe no audience, they have to really enjoy what they’re doing and be quite determined about it.”
Jack Endino’s third observation occurred roughly 71 seconds into recording Cobain’s vocal on a song called ‘If You Must’. “Whoa! I thought, This guy’s got a great scream! Which is a valuable thing in rock’n’roll.”
At that point, no one would guess just how valuable Kurt Cobain’s scream would prove. But over the course of three recording sessions with Jack Endino during 1988, this shy young man would beguile first Seattle and soon everyone who heard him. Here was the world’s first glimpse of Nirvana.
Before joining Bruce Pavitt as a partner in the fledgling Sub Pop label, Jonathan Poneman had been a DJ for Seattle’s college station KCMU and a booker at various clubs. By early 1988 there weren’t many local acts he hadn’t heard of. So when Jack Endino mentioned Dale Crover’s quiet little friend who looked like a gas attendant but had an incredible voice, Poneman was sufficiently intrigued to drive out to Reciprocal to pick up a tape. The label bore the words “Chris, Dale and I”, though the band were now calling themselves Nirvana. Poneman started playing the cassette on his return journey. Roughly 71 seconds into ‘If You Must’ his jaw nearly hit the steering wheel.
“I was thinking, I don’t know what to make of it. Then he goes into this great cathartic scream and then it goes into the chorus, which isn’t really much of a chorus. I was like, Oh… My… God.”
Poneman took the tape to Pavitt, who worked as “tape returns co-ordinator” at the Muzak Corporation, from where he surreptitiously ran Sub Pop. Also working day jobs at Muzak was Mark Arm, now busying himself with his new garage-punk outfit Mudhoney. Neither Pavitt nor Arm saw what Poneman was fussing about.
“There were aspects to that Nirvana thing that I remember thinking were unnecessarily complex,” recalls Arm.
Undeterred, Poneman arranged a meeting with Cobain and Novoselic to suggest that Nirvana make a single for Sub Pop. He booked the band’s first Seattle gig on 24 April 1988, as part of the Sub Pop Sunday showcase at the Vogue club. The audience mostly comprised of other Seattle musicians curious to check out this new band from out of town.
What they saw was three nervous and ill-matched young men. Novoselic towered over the grim-faced Cobain, a southpaw playing a right-handed guitar upside down. More heinously, drummer Dave Foster — another Aberdonian drafted in as a replacement for Dale Crover — wore a moustache. Seattle’s punk rock scenesters were tolerant of deviance, but moustaches retained unacceptably macho connotations. Yet if the group’s odd visual impact was one thing, their sound was quite another.
“Nirvana starts playing,” recalls Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters. “But the soundman’s not even in the house. We’re all standing there going, It sounds like shit! Next thing, the sound guy arrives in a panic, turns on the mixing board and the speakers and suddenly it’s like, Boom! And they don’t have any idea this is happening, either.”
Thanks to a mix of naivety and anxiety, Nirvana had walked onstage at the appointed time, regardless of the fact that the club wasn’t ready for them. “Anyone who says, I saw that show and I knew there were great things to come is lying through their teeth,” says Mark Arm.
Shortly after the ill-fated Vogue gig, Cobain made the ambivalence he felt towards Seattle’s music club gig explicit in a letter written but never sent to Dale Crover.
“Our demo has been pirated recorded and discussed between all the Seattle SCENE luminaries. The Dude Johnathan [sic] Poneman… got us a show at the Vogue on a Sub Pop Sunday. Big deal. There was a representative from every Seattle band there just watching. We felt like they should have had scorecards.”
The next time Jack Endino saw Nirvana was on 11 June, 1988, when the band arrived at Reciprocal to record their debut single for Sub Pop, a cover of ‘Love Buzz’ by ’60s Dutch band Shocking Blue. They had a new drummer in tow: the moustachio’d Dave Foster had been replaced by Chad Channing. Hailing from Bainbridge Island, a Seattle suburb separated from downtown by a ferry ride across the Puget Sound, Channing fitted into the band’s outsider profile both by his geographical otherness and his spacey personal demeanour; Bainbridge Island was infamous locally for its deep hippy roots.
Endino thought it odd that their first single was a cover. Chris Novoselic had discovered the song on a bargain-bin album and it quickly became a highlight of live shows. But the idea to make it the band’s first release was Sub Pop’s. “Having no other offers [from other labels],Nirvana went along with it,” says Endino.
Cobain might have grumbled at the label’s influence — the B-side was Nirvana’s own ‘Big Cheese’, purportedly inspired by Poneman (“Big cheese make me/Mine says, ‘Go to the office'”) — but he was more vexed by the delay in releasing the record. Sub Pop had become an official business on 1 April. In order to boost cash flow, Pavitt and Poneman devised the Sub Pop Singles Club, whereby subscribers paid upfront for a monthly series of limited-edition 7-inch 45s. The inaugural Single Of The Month was ‘Love Buzz’/’Big Cheese’. It eventually appeared in November 1988, and instantly sold out its 1000-copy pressing. By now, Sub Pop taste avatars such as Mark Arm were firm fans. “The first thing that jumps out at you is Kurt’s voice,” says Arm. “It’s got that indefinable quality.”
But the ambitious Cobain felt resentful. Nirvana were regarded as an opening act for local bands. “We feel like we’re not accomplishing anything by playing the club circuit,” Cobain wrote in another unsent letter, this time to Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees. “Sub Pop is having financial problems and the promise of an EP & LP within the year was just a bullshit excuse for Johnathan [sic] to keep us from scouting other labels. So here it is eight months later and we finally put out a damn single. We’ve sent the demo to a few labels. But no response.”
Regardless of whether or not Cobain was crediting Sub Pop with unwarranted Machiavellian qualities, Nirvana were sufficiently dubious of the label’s prospects that they decided to book studio time to record their debut album with their own money. But in recognition of the fact that no other label had expressed interest in releasing Nirvana’s music, they would also eventually approach Sub Pop and demand a contract.
“Chris Novoselic was at best sceptical about Sub Pop and he didn’t want to release any music to us unless there was an agreement,” says Jonathan Poneman. “So he knocked on Bruce’s door and asked where it was.”
Novoselic himself remembers it differently. “I don’t remember. It was Kurt’s idea. I didn’t have enough business acumen to be sceptical.”
With a new contract behind them, Nirvana decided to dedicate their time to music. Novoselic had quit his job as an industrial painter and split from his girlfriend Shelli. The bassist would make marathon round trips in his white Dodge van to pick up Cobain in the town of Olympia, then Channing in Bainbridge Island, then go back to Aberdeen, where they practised in a room above Novoselic’s mother’s hair salon. They listened endlessly to a cassette Channing had made with Swiss metal band Celtic Frost on one side and US power-poppers The Smithereens on the other.
So it was that the band turned up at Jack Endino’s studio on 24 December, 1988 to begin work. They proceeded at pace; recording and mixing took place over six days during the holiday period, finally wrapping on 24 January, 1989. “Kurt would usually write lyrics at the last minute,” says Novoselic. “I’d go and buy beer and then bring that back, then we’d have the basic tracks done and the vocals and then we’d start mixing.”
Endino billed them for 30 hours’ work in total: $606.17. That they could make an album so relatively cheaply was a source of pride. Nirvana were broke, yet resolved to paying for the album themselves. They did so thanks to Jason Everman, a guitarist and old schoolmate of Channing’s. Everman had made money by working as a fisherman in Alaska and offered to subsidise the recording costs. Having recognised the potential of the Dale Crover demo, he doubtless considered his move both altruistic and a sound investment. By way of thanking him for lending them the money to make the album, they credited him on the back cover with playing guitar (even though he hadn’t); he even appeared on the cover photo.
Much of the material on the recorded album still reflected the bludgeoning influence of the Melvins, but this was leavened by some punk-influenced noise that suggested Cobain had been more impressed by the Sub Pop template than he may have cared to admit. One song, ‘School’, was a band in-joke about the institutionalised codes of the Seattle rock cliques: over a satirically primitive riff, Cobain screams: “You’re in high school again!”
Yet the album’s standout track sounded unlike any other band. Plaintive and simple. ‘About A Girl’ suggested that Cobain was destined to transcend whatever genre exercises were unfolding in the Pacific Northwest at the time.
“Kurt would sit in the bathtub and listen to Meet The Beatles,” says Novoselic. “He said he’d figured out The Beatles — what he thought that early Beatles formula was.”
‘About A Girl’ stood out from the rest of Nirvana’s songs. So much so that Cobain apologised to Endino for it.
“Kurt was like, OK, just so everyone knows, I might do more of this sort of stuff in the future, too,” says the producer. “It was funny how he presented it to me: I’m going to do a pop tune now, just bear with me… And of course, I’m just the guy in the studio: oh whatever, sure! Great! Nice song!”
In February 1989, shortly after finishing the record, the band undertook a brief tour — their first road trip beyond the Washington State borders. While driving around San Francisco, Cobain and Bruce Pavitt became fixated on an Aids prevention poster campaign, urging drug users to, “Bleach your works”. It would provide the inspiration for the album’s title: Bleach.
After yet further delays while Sub Pop’s cash flow caught up, Bleach was released on 15 June, 1989. By then, Nirvana was a quartet: Jason Everman had joined in February as second guitarist. But his tenure lasted just five months. During a gruelling US tour to promote Bleach, the atmosphere between Everman and the others became increasingly tense. In New York, Cobain and Novoselic decided that Jason had to leave. They cancelled the remaining dates of the tour, got back in the van and drove in silence for 50 hours straight, coast to coast, from New York to Seattle. No one actually told Everman he’d been fired.
“The van just kept going and going and going,” says Novoselic. “And that was it. It was kind of understood that it wasn’t happening any more.”
Having played briefly with Soundgarden after leaving Nirvana, Everman eventually joined the US army, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Presumably hand-to-hand combat was a breeze after serving time in Nirvana. “I joined the army because I had a specific agenda: to develop the warrior aspect of my personality,” he told The New Yorker in November 2008. Today, Everman is studying philosophy at New York’s Columbia University.
“He never did get his money paid back,” reflects Krist Novoselic.
Twenty years on, Bleach is the most successful album Sub Pop have released, with more than 1.7 million copies sold. Modest initial sales were soon augmented by its successor Nevermind‘s phenomenal impact. Yet untainted by either Nevermind‘s commercial calculation or In Utero‘s scabrous response to fame, it remains the one Nirvana album suspended in a state of innocence. Jack Endino estimates that the 330 records he’s made since Bleach combined don’t get as much attention. “I’m really glad it sounds as good as it does considering we only spent 600 bucks on it. If it sounded terrible I’d be really upset, but it sounds OK! Iggy Pop told me it was his favourite Nirvana record! I’m OK with that.”
Krist Novoselic, now a political activist, writer and occasional musician, has the requisite clarity to assess the album he and his friends made 20 years ago.
“It’s the quintessential grunge record,” he says, “but it has a pop sensibility, which revealed where the band was headed. That’s song craft. And that’s a tribute to Kurt Cobain, his vision and his skill as an artist. The record’s a tribute to him.”
© Keith Cameron, Q, May 2009