The 1991 Nirvana Show That Began an Enduring Legacy of Pop Stardom
October 1, 2021 — Philadelphia, PA
Thirty years ago today, I attended a show at a small, dank club in Philadelphia to see a band I had never heard of until that afternoon, Nirvana. It was six days after the release of the album, Nevermind. At first listen, the album seemed a combination of the lead-foot tread of heavy metal with the raw sensibility of punk, and it had catchy pop hooks, too. You couldn’t get the songs’ infectious pop hooks out of your head, despite their heavy core.
At the club, the air was thick with anticipation. Even though I wasn’t familiar with the band, there was a buzz of excitement in the air that said something awesome was about to transpire.
From that first crisp set of drumbeats from Dave Grohl, I could tell that this was no ordinary dive bar band. Their playing was tight. Grohl, bassist Krist Novaselic, and singer/songwriter and guitarist, Kurt Cobain, seemed relaxed and loose with each other and with their material. There was a sense of joy that comes from mastery emanating from Cobain, in his raucous guitar licks and the transcendent longing of his vocals.
But as the crowd got going, and body surfers started to be passed along by a sea of outstretched hands packed tight near the small stage, I could also sense that Cobain was hanging back. Already I could see a reluctance in him to embrace what was transpiring that night, with the crowd going nuts for him and the others in the band, swaying and smashing together like one organism with a few members being passed aloft from hand to hand over the sea of bodies.
Cobain looked down at the stage in front of him a lot, seemingly unsure what was happening to him and the band, and even more unsure if he liked it. What was happening was the beginnings of fame.
Three weeks later, the songs of Nevermind were being played non-stop on pop music radio. It wasn’t like Cobain had a choice about fame anymore.
Cobain seemed completely overwhelmed and unprepared for fame, which would aggravate his heroin addiction and ultimately wrack him to the point of despair. In a Rolling Stone interview of January 1994, just 3 months before Cobain’s death by suicide, he told a writer that playing this series of shows in 1991, after the band got a little traction, but before fame skyrocketed them to stadium shows and the stratosphere of rock stardom that they still occupy thirty years later — was his fondest memories.
I can still hear the echo of the fuzzy guitar in my head, three decades later. As I hum Cobain’s irrepressible melodies, see the pounding of the instruments, and feel the release that their unique electrified pop melange of heavy metal and punk provides, I think about what pressures the unbelievable fame that followed the show I attended by just 3 weeks unleashed, just like Cobain’s explosive, propulsive music compels you to hum along despite knowing that there’s a darker meaning to the music than just a bright hook and a catchy melody.