Rock and Roll Heaven

Smells Like Teen Spirit

As Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were becoming who they were, so was I

Photograph by Redferns
Kurt Cobain was having "fun."

More than half the songs Nirvana played at Liberty Lunch in Austin in October 1991 were unfamiliar to me — several were from "Bleach," which I wasn't cool enough to own, a few were B-sides and two wouldn't circulate as recordings until the release of "In Utero" two years later. At the time of the show, "Nevermind" was only a month old, and I'd spent merely one week with the cassette. In concert, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" packed a distinctive punch, but it didn't strike me as a hit; I was more irked by the absence of my favorite song from the album, "Lounge Act."

Now closed, Liberty Lunch was not a big venue. Ticket prices for shows in the '90s were student friendly: They could typically be procured at Waterloo Records for $5-$8. The Nirvana show was no different.

I remember the concert more for its frenetic feel than any vivid sense of detail. Kurt Cobain's lyrics were garbled and indecipherable. The guitar solos were gloriously sloppy. Dave Grohl's drums could be felt inside the sternum.

Twenty years later, a friend burned me a copy of the concert. I never got around to listening to it. In the mid-'90s, I saw jazz legends Cecil Taylor and Max Roach play a free concert in a New York City park. By design, there was no official documentation of the show. Years later, I searched the Internet for any evidence of it before realizing my experience with their free improvisation that evening was made more special because of its elusiveness.

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And that's pretty much why I left that Nirvana bootleg on the shelf. But writing here on the 20th anniversary of Cobain's death, it seemed worth trying to parse through what I remembered about that show and what I didn't.

I remember the show starting slowly, with a song that wasn't on "Nevermind." And how the music quickly reached a torrid tempo, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. I seem to recall bass player Krist Novoselic did most of the talking. I also remember feeling different that night than I had at previous concerts. I was someone in a new place (San Antonio), surrounded by new people, smack in the middle of hitting reset on who I was and who I wanted to be.

I remember the evening as one of growing chaos spurred on by the way Cobain took thoughts and feelings and projected them outward as though he were trying to shed an itchy skin. The musicality of the songs didn't really make an impression and at a certain point, the set list became of little consequence. The sheer physicality of the music was enough for me.

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At the end of the show, I think it was Cobain and not Grohl or Novoselic — but again, I can't be sure — who said something about the show being "fun." "This was fun," or "we had fun." I remember thinking the choice of word was puzzling. To a lifelong introvert, the show had felt like a release — something that had to happen the way it happened. Cobain's seemingly cathartic performance gave me the impression that it was that way for him, too. Was it fun? A better question would be: Was it even supposed to be?

A few nights ago, I finally got around to playing the bootleg. The recording cuts off before any reference to fun, so that will have to remain unconfirmed. The show opens with Vaselines' "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam," and closes with Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz." "Aneurysm" was the second track, the one where after the initial quiet spell things shifted from melodic melancholy to pounding frenzy.

I can't recall if the feelings the recording loosens in 2014 are the same as the ones the performance did in 1991. The metallic grinding on "Drain You" could very well have been my portal into industrial and noise rock, and its build-and-release were so indebted to the Pixies. With the howl before "no recess" on "School," it sounds like Cobain was trying to crawl into somebody else's throat. "Pennyroyal Tea" showed a nuance that informed the band's "Unplugged" show.

That show would be the only time I saw the band. Within a couple of months, Nirvana's club days were over. Everybody knows how the story ended.

I don't play Nirvana's albums much anymore. The lyrics seem more of a challenge these days. They were sincere, grotesque and surreal, which isn't the sort of combination that makes for easy appreciation as one ages. They're grounded by a restlessness that I related to at a period in my life when I had no girlfriend, a few fledgling friends and no sense of what I should be doing.

The more somber lyrics are the ones that have crossed time with me. They're the ones that don't rage so much but convey a longing for a Leonard Cohen afterworld, as glum as it sounds — a sense of connection to a youth that has long since past.

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