Credit: Steven J. Messina
Way back in 2009, one of my first books was issued, Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music – which also turned out to be one of my most popular and enduring.
But since the book featured well over 100 interviews with members of grunge’s “Big 4” (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains) plus others who were first-hand witnesses and/or contributors to a musical movement that affected the world, there were quite a few quotes that were cut.
Recently, I’ve gone back and compiled the best neglected bits as the new book I ♡ GRUNGE: ‘GRUNGE IS DEAD’ OUTTAKES, which serves as a worthy follow-up read – or companion piece – to Grunge Is Dead.
In this exclusive excerpt, we examine Nirvana’s rise from obscurity to suddenly being one of the world’s top rock bands – as told by the people that actually lived it.
CHAD CHANNING [Nirvana drummer]: Yeah, that is true [that Nirvana was supposed to record another album for Sub Pop after Bleach]. All of the songs we recorded actually made it onto Nevermind, except for the Velvet Underground cover we did, “Here She Comes Now,” which was kind of interesting – I actually wasn’t very familiar with the song. In fact, I wasn’t familiar with the song when we went in and did it. There wasn’t really any plans to do it. So, they started playing it, and I started playing drums to it – not knowing what it was recorded like originally from the band. I was totally in the dark the entire time. But it was fun anyway.
Not really. [In response to the question, “Did Kurt ever discuss what he had in mind for Nevermind before you left Nirvana?”] If he did, then again, it seems like whatever decisions were being made, he talked to Krist about it, and that would be about it. Those guys never really talked to me about what their ideas were for it. I was pretty much left in the dark. [Chad would exit Nirvana in early 1990]
KURT DANIELSON [Tad bassist]: Absolutely, he did. [Confirming that Dave Grohl copied many of Chad’s drum parts on several Nirvana tunes recorded for Nevermind] I heard those demos, too – long before – at Jonathan’s. So I knew that. The only one that I didn’t hear before was…well, first of all, “Sliver,” which Dan Peters plays drums on, and secondly, “Teen Spirit,” and “Come As You Are,” which Dave plays on, of course. And “Territorial Pissings,” and the other newer songs.
But I was really familiar with that stuff, and it’s not really even known that I’d become a hugely passionate fan, and was really hooked into that zeitgeist that was happening – sort of subconsciously – in Seattle at that time. We were all pulled into it. Looking back, it seems obvious, because there was nothing like it happening. But at the time, we didn’t really know what we had – it’s sad. At the time, innocence was the important thing too, so it was a paradox.
But getting back to Chad, I always thought his drumming was instrumental. And when Dan played briefly for Nirvana, it was a different Nirvana. And when Dave joined, it was a different Nirvana still. So I had three different versions in my head, and I could choose whichever one I liked at any given moment. I couldn’t say one was better than the other. Just different.
The thing that Dave automatically supplied was bruising power. Chaotic power – but controlled. He wasn’t afraid to be a little soulful and a little sloppy, either. But when it was demanded that his dynamics be right there, he was right there.
SUSIE TENNANT [DGC Records employee]: I think the first time I met them, they had just signed to Geffen – they hadn’t even started recording Nevermind. So, we hung out when they came to Seattle. Totally hit it off immediately. From that point on, whenever they would come to Seattle, they would stay at my house and hang out. Dave was go-lucky, really fun to hang out with. Krist the same, and Kurt was Kurt – he was great.
NILS BERNSTEIN [Former Sub Pop publicist]: I remember when Nirvana signed to Geffen, the Posies were on Geffen, and they sold like, 50,000 records. So, it was like, “Yeah, that’s about right. Maybe Nirvana will do as good as the Posies – that seems reasonable.” Naturally, one would assume that a band as commercial as the Posies would do better than someone like Nirvana, so you didn’t really think in terms of the sales going much higher than that.
JONATHAN PONEMAN [Sub Pop Records co-founder]: I was sitting in the backseat of Susie Tennant’s car, and Bruce was in the front seat. She said, “Listen to this.” I just went, “Oh my God. This is going to be the biggest record in the world.” But then again, the biggest record in the world for us could have been a couple hundred thousand. We didn’t really think in terms of sales.
The thing that I think in listening to that record, it sounded like something – even at that point in time – I could conceivably imagine on the radio. And not just KCMU, but the big rock stations that were popular in Seattle at that time. That to me was revelatory.
EDDIE VEDDER [Pearl Jam/Temple of the Dog singer]: I remember knowing Bleach, and I saw them at a little club called the Casbah – a gig that I thought my little band [Vedder’s pre-Pearl Jam band, Bad Radio] was going to get to open for, but something happened. I remember seeing that show, and you kind of knew great songs when you heard them – that kind of deal. Then I remember they played these little shows at the O.K. Hotel, which is right down the street from that little basement I was sleeping in, and somehow getting into the first one of those – which I think was the first night they played “Teen Spirit.”
CRAIG MONTGOMERY [Nirvana’s soundman]: A lot of us had that feeling, because people really seemed to connect with Nirvana. Like, all the hipsters were wearing Nirvana shirts. [Laughs] So, it wasn’t just another “indie band.” And it’s not just retrospect either – I had a feeling that Nirvana was really bubbling. Not that it was going to number one and sell multi-platinum, but Nirvana would be a solid kind of thing – that could at least sell a certain amount of records and do theater tours.
The analogy that everyone used at the time was Sonic Youth – Nirvana could be a “Sonic Youth kind of thing.” When it really connected with the kids the way it did, I wasn’t completely surprised. Especially after hearing Nevermind. The recorded version of “Teen Spirit,” it was like, “Wow. This is huge.”
BRUCE PAVITT [Sub Pop Records co-founder]: Totally got crazy. That was just unbelievable. I remember being at Mark Arm’s house and we were watching MTV. We looked at each other, and we just couldn’t believe that Nirvana’s video was getting played. All of a sudden, it was in heavy rotation, and I was getting phone calls every day from people all over the country, that said, “I just heard that song getting blasted out of a taxi cab in New York” or “I just heard that song played in a dance club in Seattle.” It was just unbelievable how universally accepted that record was. I remember hearing an advance demo of that and thinking it was really strong. I don’t think anybody was prepared for that response.
JACK ENDINO [Producer/engineer, Skin Yard singer/guitarist]: I was on tour with Skin Yard. We were somewhere in the Midwest, and we heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio – I think in somebody’s house that we were staying at. And we all looked at each other like, “Wow. How are we going to top this?” First of all, what the hell is this doing on the radio? This is Nirvana! What the hell? It was sort of like the world flipped upside down at once. Because we hadn’t been hearing a lot of the other Seattle bands on the radio – not on mainstream radio. You didn’t hear Soundgarden, Pearl Jam wasn’t out yet. It was a bit of a shock, suddenly hearing Nirvana on a radio in somebody’s house.
You sort of remember the first time you heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I remember where I was when John Lennon was shot, and I remember the first time I heard “Teen Spirit.” And then as we were touring, we started hearing more and more about this record. And when we went to Europe, it was the same thing. Everybody was talking about Nirvana, Nirvana, Nirvana. “Oh you’re from Seattle…do you know Nirvana?” “Well, I recorded their last record.”
This “Nirvana frenzy” was growing – and it would follow us as we were going around doing our tour. It was kind of crazy. We were on tour around Halloween – which was right when the record went gold. Just one of those things where, boy, who knew this was going to happen? Nobody would have predicted this. Soundgarden had more of a slow build. Nirvana just came out of left field.
KATHLEEN HANNA [Bikini Kill singer]: Once we got to D.C. and we were driving in, and seeing a huge “Smells Like Teen Spirit” billboard, I was really mad – because Kurt and Dave talked to me about doing the cover for the record, because I was a photographer. I was really bummed because I was supposed to do it – I always thought that picture was really ugly. I was like, “I would have done something so much better!” [Laughs]
And now I’m really bummed, because I didn’t know that the record was going to be such a big deal. I had all these drawings in my journal, and they were all bright colors – like this three square thing, with a picture of each of them with really bright colors behind them. And then a bunch of toys in the forefront, like some kind of soldier toy – Kurt was really into…he had toys. But, never happened.
MARK PICKEREL [Screaming Trees/Truly drummer]: We went to Dick’s Burgers up in the University District [with members of Nirvana]. And I remember just how strange it was a year or two later – after Nevermind went multi-platinum or whatever – to think that there was a time that neither one of them had enough money for just a basic fast food meal.
Order I ♡ GRUNGE: ‘GRUNGE IS DEAD’ OUTTAKES here.