Backstage Pass: Kurt Cobain Before Fame | Music | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Backstage Pass: Kurt Cobain Before Fame 

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When Nirvana’s first tour was being organized Bleach, their debut, was still at the pressing plant, so I was mailed a three-song demo cassette comprised of the two songs from their limited-edition first single and one from the forthcoming LP. I had to admit it was pretty damn good. Even my timid, notoriously noise-fearing program director at the radio station loved it, drawn in by Kurt’s uncanny way with a pop hook. (I held on to the tape, which turned out to be smart. In 2012, I sold it on eBay for $1,000.) But when Bleach came out it really killed me. “Blew.” “Floyd the Barber.” “School.” Grinding, dark, super-raw basement grunts that seethed with genuinely pissed-off punk-metal rage and violent, shuddering stop-start dynamics. And there was “About a Girl,” a haunting garage lament with a groove that pierced your brain like a steak skewer. The week I got the record I ran into Dulli and told him I thought it was amazing. “Dude, I know,” he said, shaking his head. “I know.”

So on July 21, 1989, Nirvana was set to come to town. Well, technically, the next town over. I’d set up a bill with them, Minneapolis band the Cows, and local act Blue Othello at a tiny place called the Top Hat, a one-time titty bar (still had the stripper’s pole on stage) across the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky, where I was booking punk shows at the time. I was psyched. Despite the raves of the Afghan Whigs to others and the late-night radio airplay I was giving Bleach, however, the turnout was bleak. But it didn’t matter much, because for reasons that are still unclear Nirvana cancelled the Midwestern leg of their tour and beat it back to the Northwest. (The Cows, however, delivered one of the greatest sets I’ve ever seen, their singer Shannon Selberg performing with both arms in casts after having fallen through a rotting floor and onto the kitchen stove in a New York squat after a show at CBGB.)

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The rescheduled Nirvana date was October 6, 1989, and by then I was booking gigs at a neighborhood redneck joint called Murphy’s Pub in the Clifton Heights area of Cincinnati. The shows happened in the bar’s back room, which had a legal capacity of 75. The fire code wasn’t exactly challenged that night, as only about 30 people attended. But Nirvana was even better live than on Bleach. Just unrelentingly brutal, and incredibly loud. They opened with that album’s “Negative Creep.” I stood listening in the middle of the not-quite-half-full room as its crunching riff rattled my abdomen and made the hairs on my neck buzz. I remember Krist Novoselic wearing a Tad t-shirt and prowling the stage, his bass slung lower than I thought humanly possible. Chad Channing was the drummer then (he’d be replaced by Dave Grohl later) and along for the ride as the merch man was the group’s short-serving second guitarist, Jason Everman (depicted on the Bleach cover and listed as playing on the album, even though he didn’t). Everman was visibly frustrated that the band had asked him to sit out the tour and was still hopeful he’d be asked to rejoin (he wasn’t). Soon after that event, I moved onto booking a nearby basement club called Shorty’s Underground and it was there that Nirvana was next supposed to play, on April 14, 1990. Unfortunately, they again rescheduled, and the show was moved to May 10. By then, though, word had spread and the crowd was much better, though there were still less than 100 people there (I wanna say about 75 or 80, max). Again, the band was awesome. I remember Kurt almost hitting his head on the stage’s ceiling, which was very low; Krist had to hunch down even lower than he normally did when he played.

Not long after that the band signed to Geffen, Nevermind came out, and cultural history was written in sweeping strokes. I remember seeing the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV and being both blown away by the song and in utter disbelief that the network was actually playing something that was so angry and raw. And I really got the sense that change was in the air one night when I was at Beat Club, a now-gone frat disco at a strip mall near the University of Cincinnati campus. The DJs at Beat Club played the worst new wave dance music imaginable, but many of us scenesters used to go there anyway because it was where all the hot U.C. chicks went. Anyway, sure enough, at the end of the night the DJ put on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and really blasted it. The place went ballistic. “Wow, these people like this song, too?!” I thought. Maybe there was hope for mankind, after all. And I have to say, for all the times I’ve heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is undoubtedly one of the most pervasive rock radio staples of all time, I’ve never gotten sick of it. I still think it’s a fantastic song. And if that’s not testament to Kurt Cobain’s genius as a songwriter, I don’t know what is.

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