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February to December 1987
One evening in April 1987, a sweaty-palmed and fidgety trio of young men purporting to be a band named Skid Row (and decidedly not the more famous hair-metal band) lined up at the doors of the Community World Theater, Tacoma-a ramshackle punk venue in a small town in Washington. There was no reason to notice them; they were nothing special. Just two house parties into their life as a band, with their first performance only a month earlier, this show was the big test. Their scrawny, fragile, and shy front man, at twenty years of age, wasn't even old enough to drink.
Sandwiched on a four-band bill, Skid Row's performance passed without incident or laurels.
BRIAN NAUBERT, Yellow Snow: A combination of having to tear down after our set, deal with our gear, and all the beer we drank-forty-ouncers of Old English, if I'm not mistaken-I'm sorry to admit it but I don't remember being impressed by anyone that night. We were a little bit shy and defensive because even though the punk scene welcomed us, we were not one of them. Yellow Snow was appreciated for having its own sound. Something that would be considered "indie" these days.
PAT WATSON, Yellow Snow: They were older than we were, I was sixteen, seventeen, high school-they seemed to be pushing past twenty. We were nervous because we were one of the young bands age-wise ... We might have bailed, so I don't remember if I saw them. But while we were playing our set-it was someone's birthday in the band. so we played the Beatles' birthday song and some guy yelled out, "The Beatles suck!" Really loud. And then Kurt Cobain said, "Shut the fuck up, man! The fucking Beatles rule!" Everybody laughed and that guy didn't heckle us again.
BRUCE PURKEY, Soylent Green: They were unique. Honestly, I wasn't sure what to make of them at first-noisy, a bit chaotic, unpolished. They could've easily, at first blush, been one of those bands you see a couple of times then fades away, never to be seen again.
AARON BURCKHARD, Nirvana: I lived right across the alley from Dale Crover's house; I was 'round there all the time, at Melvins practice every day. So, Krist Novoselic brought Kurt 'round-first time we'd met-and the very next day they asked me if I wanted to play drums. They knew I was a drummer, they needed someone and I said, "Of course! Yes!" But I didn't have drums, so we drove up to a friend in Westport and he set us up with some drums, and that same night we were in Kurt's living room set up playing. That was late '86; we were a band for two or three months before we played our first show.
The soon-to-be Nirvana boys probably sorely underappreciated they had grown up just as a wave of musicians came through the remote Aberdeen, Washington, area. The community of musicians was small enough too that they all knew one another, even if the absence of outlets except parties and practices affected everyone.
TONY POUKKULA, Black Ice: That area cultivated a lot of talent ... It was like there were layers of bands, so the band in front of us in school was Crystal Image, and part of that turned into Metal Church-those guys were a year or two ahead of me and it was full of camaraderie, to the point they'd let us come watch them practice or they'd swing by our pad ... Kurt used to come watch us too; he'd come watch just standing on our front porch-we had a big window, it was a beauty salon-he'd stand there and watch through the window ... Dale Crover and I used to jam all the time-we used to live less than a mile from each other, so I'd go down there and we'd play Iron Maiden ... Krist and Rob Novoselic were in there too-they lived just up from me, so I went over to their house and we listened to, when Metallica first came out, [a] Cliff Burton bass solo and we were all like, "That's bass?!" ... We saw those guys at school-Krist towered over everybody; you knew when he walked in the room it was Krist. Nice guy, pretty intelligent. But Kurt was super-quiet ... He was just one of those guys who would walk by and you just wouldn't notice him right off the bat. One day in school he passed up a note to the girl behind me; she passed it to me and it said, "Will you teach me to play guitar?" I told him, "Yeah, no problem." But it never happened.
DUKE HARNER, Black Ice: Since we were so young and there weren't any venues for young bands to play at, ours and other young bands mostly had small get-togethers at their practice rooms ... As for the radio stations and newspapers, you had to be a big name or be playing at one of the top local clubs to even get any kind of mention; neither source did anything for the young bands on the Harbor. At the time we were growing up, there weren't any underage clubs or venues, so it was practice, practice, practice!... My cousin is married to Mike Dillard [the Melvins' original drummer] and asked if I cared if they came by ... so they stopped in for about an hour. They didn't look too impressed but sat there and bullshitted us and had a few questions about amps and PA stuff. Later, I asked my cousin what they thought, and she said they weren't too into it: "No Ramones, no Sex Pistols, no Police, no Clash ... no thanks!"
Nirvana's first public performance in March 1987, in the small town of Raymond, had relied on their friend's willingness to make the connections for them.
RYAN AIGNER, Psychlodds: I was at these rehearsals two or three times a week, so I was just listening over and over again to them doing their set. Probably after the fifth or sixth time this discussion starts up ... I'm telling him, "Kurt, this doesn't sound that bad, you may not like it but it sounds OK," and he's like, "Yeah, I dunno..." He was pretty insecure about the whole thing. One time we had this discussion and I said, "I could picture this on the radio," and it was a real insult to him because our radio station locally had a bad reputation because they just played schlock rock. So I'm like, "No, that's not what I'm saying!" This is pre-'91, before anyone ever thought that there would be an alternative status-quo mainstream-it was insulting to insinuate that could ever happen, and I'd just done that. "How dare you say something like that! I wouldn't want that!" That's where the thing comes-"You don't believe me?" He replies, "No, no one would want to listen." I say, "I'll prove it to you..."
TONY POUKKULA: In the Raymond days, at that house, we'd party every night, doesn't matter what night it was! We'd have musicians in, didn't matter who you were, you could just come on down and play-not even necessarily bands, but play, we just wanted to hear. That house was very isolated, even if there was a fight out in the driveway it didn't affect anybody, very secluded.
RYAN AIGNER: I worked with a band called Black Ice. They were a very successful cover band that did shows locally ... these guys seemed so skilled and so talented, so good technically ... Tony Poukkula rented the house where the first Nirvana show went down-that's why it happened, because I'd worked with Black Ice. He was their guitar player.
TONY POUKKULA: I talked to Ryan and he was saying, "Hey, I've got these guys-Kurt, Krist, and Aaron-they've got a band together, they're coming up with some cool stuff, would you mind them coming by and jamming sometime?" It was Ryan's suggestion, and I just said, "Yeah, we're going all the time, just tell me when you want." It was pretty quick after that.
RYAN AIGNER: They didn't have the wherewithal, they didn't have the place, they didn't have the van, they didn't have the money, they didn't have the job ... I was a carpet-layer so I had all these things at my disposal and I was thinking in terms of networking-that's how my mind worked. So I put these pieces together and casually said, "What are you guys doing Friday? Let's do this thing..." Initially there was a kneejerk "Nah, we better not" ... I just finessed and kept it up-there wasn't a lot of pressure, they could go try it out and it'd be fun and they could try it out ... It didn't take a lot of effort on their part, put it that way. It's about a forty-five-minute drive, so we pile in and start playing.
TONY POUKKULA: Ryan's good. He'll have made sure they had their act together before they came down. To me it was just going to be the regular thing: a jam session. I had my guitar warmed up by the time they were setting up ... I didn't actually know the song. You'll hear me say "I don't know it!" That's why you hear the whammy bar going nuts, plus I was probably "on my way" ... After Ryan told me, "Hey, they don't really jam with people," I was like, "Cool, I'll go grab a beer," so I sat my guitar down and went into the kitchen and after a little bit Jeff opened his jacket and pulled his collar out and showed me he had that recorder going. I said, "Right on, they actually sound pretty good. They've got some cool stuff." ... They were really rough, but back then you can tell they were just trying to be themselves-coming up with some melody lines-it was different, definitely, to what we were used to. I was just having fun. Krist was standing on the coffee table with duct tape on his nipples and I was just sitting there laughing.
RYAN AIGNER: We weren't hated, but we weren't liked.... when you grow up in a conservative culture and you try to be liberal or avant-garde or artsy, then you get a kind of rejection-a feeling of "You're not welcome here." That's hard to take, growing up. The things you've heard, the negative things, about how Nirvana felt about Grays Harbor County, we didn't make that all up. We really wanted to be accepted by our peers and we really weren't until much later. It wasn't because we didn't try to do shows down here. It's what the Raymond show was-they went down, did their thing, and the crowd stood in the kitchen and went "Wow, what the hell is this?" I was in the room, Shelli [Dilley], Tracy [Marander] ... about four of us who would have been at the rehearsal if they'd been back in Aberdeen while the Raymond crowd looked through from the kitchen thinking, What the hell is that? and not running into the room like they did in 1991, '92, '93-not pogoing like they did at the Coliseum. We didn't forget that. Standing on the stage at the Coliseum in '92, I was a youth-group advisor for our church and looking out in the crowd I saw kids from my youth group looking up at me onstage and I'm looking out thinking, You were the guys who didn't think they were good enough for the radio-there's 16,000 people pogoing to "Teen Spirit"-I tried to tell you this in '88.
Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic-Cobain's best friend and a gregarious foil to his band-mate's quieter presence-and Aaron Burckhard were not the new Beatles. In this first incarnation they were blaring out a diverse vibe ranging from hard rock to psychedelic covers to sludgy punk-they weren't quite sure what they wanted to be, and that showed in other aspects of their behavior onstage.
SLIM MOON, Nisqually Delta Podunk Nightmare: Kurt was definitely showing his "performer" side already. To the best of my recollection, although he seemed nervous, he was dressed very outrageously, sort of a send-up of a glam outfit, and he did a memorable "solo" by squatting down and messing with all the controls on his effects pedals.
For some, however, there was an immediate connection.
JOHN PURKEY, Machine: I was in a band called Noxious Fumes-we did a lot of shows at the Tropicana, and Krist Novoselic would travel with the Melvins to the Tropicana ... I met Krist when he roadied for them. So, years later, one of those random nights where I went to the Community World Theater-didn't know who was playing-Skid Row was onstage ... It was maybe a couple dozen people-maybe twenty-five people or so ... I walked in and was like, Wow, that's Krist ... His band's cool ... Right on! Krist is on bass ... So I sat down and watched them play and totally loved it. The emotion, what I was hearing-I really liked. Kurt's voice really blew me away from the start, hands-down-it's a certain sound in his voice. After the show I approached Kurt and I asked him if they had a tape, a demo. He said they were going to record.
Recording was still some way off for this young band. April 1987 was a fresh start for Kurt Cobain in which he gained something that proved crucial to his artistic flourishing: a real home at 114½ Pear Street in Olympia. His parents' split in 1976 had torn him from the one he had known for eight years-the longest he'd been at a single address in his whole life. From age fifteen, his living arrangements had further imploded and for the next half a decade he didn't stay even a year at any address. At seventeen, eighteen, and again at nineteen he hovered on the border of homelessness and in the ultimate regression slept at the hospital in which he'd been born.
With nowhere lower to go, he climbed. It wasn't through pluck or courage, though. Cobain had a benefactor: his girlfriend, Tracy.
RYAN AIGNER: Tracy Marander was really involved with the scene and had become a big advocate of the Melvins early on-that's how she met Kurt. She was one of the few Olympia people buying into the little music scene that was happening down in Grays Harbor, which was pretty important because she validated what he was doing from a position of having this much vaster exposure to the music and artists going on around Olympia and the Evergreen State College, yet she was saying, You guys are kind of cool ... Tracy went to every Nirvana show. She was very supportive ... Krist had [his girlfriend] Shelli. She worked. He worked too, but he could quit working and not work for two-three weeks or a month; he was a painter so he'd work the summer months but then not work because it poured down with rain, so Shelli had this constant job that was always making sure the rent was paid and food was on the table. But when he was away from Shelli, he might or he might not have money in his pocket. Kurt was the same way, he had jobs when he absolutely had to-but he had Tracy Marander, and both Shelli and Tracy worked at this cafeteria for Boeing, worked graveyard shift there, but when either one of those guys didn't have their girlfriend around to support them, they might not have money in their pocket ...
Nirvana's next show in May nearly stopped before it started due to a simple case of youthful high spirits-possibly the whole case of spirits.
SLIM MOON: Krist was very drunk, and yes he was a jolly drunk but also sometimes very annoying. I remember parties where he set off fire extinguishers, broke furniture while dancing on tables ... His inebriation didn't affect the music, or at least I don't remember it being affected, but I do think that Kurt was less theatrical at that show.
This was a band sufficiently practiced that they could still go onstage when one-third of the band turned up blitzed ... Yet not so focused that the band members made a point of not arriving blitzed.
This was the closing event of the Greater Evergreen Students' Community Cooperation Organization (GESCCO), Nirvana's introduction to the unusually fertile musical environment of Olympia arising significantly from the presence of the Evergreen State College.
SLIM MOON: GESCCO came about because some college students figured out that they could get funds from the college for a "student organization" that they could use to rent a warehouse space and put on rock shows and art-gallery stuff. It was closing because the college had figured out that rock shows created an insurance liability. GESCCO was a big empty warehouse; it might once have been an auto garage.
GEORGE SMITH, Dangermouse: It came with money from Evergreen State College to cross-pollinate the college cultural scene with the Olympia cultural scene-it was definitely a planned endeavor to engage the two communities ... when it started there was a seminar where they invited everybody to come down and they had a big group discussion with somebody moderating and a circle of chairs and everyone could have their say about what GESCCO should be ... music dominated the scheduling, while the powers behind it were always trying to get more visual arts or theatrical arts, but it never really panned out. As much as anything bands are more organized; if you're touring, you might book a show two months in advance, so the schedule would fill up with music ...
Although small, Nirvana's April show had won them an early supporter.
SLIM MOON: I was not a regular organizer at GESCCO. I just ended up putting on that show because word had gone around that GESCCO was closing very suddenly, and I thought it'd be good to have a "last show." The bands that played were mostly picked because they were willing to play on short notice, although I definitely asked Skid Row because I had enjoyed their show at CWT ... The audience was punk rockers and college students. Mostly friends, people in the music scene in Olympia. I bet half the audience were in bands of their own ... For some larger shows like the Melvins, the organizers had brought in stage risers, but for the show you are talking about, we just set up a little PA in one corner.
This show went well enough that the band were invited onto the college radio station, KAOS in Olympia. The band's musical home at this period of time was usually Tacoma.
JOHN PURKEY: What happens is a lot of musicians come from here and they move-you'll hear that a lot. There's a lot of bands ... who are from Tacoma or were in Tacoma or had connections then move down the road. Someone like the Melvins, they never lived in Seattle. Pretty much their original stomping grounds were Tacoma and Olympia and being from Montesano, then they split, started touring, and ended up moving to L.A.... There was a house that Noxious Fumes and Girl Trouble lived at, it was called the Hell House, and it was pretty much the only place that punk bands played in Tacoma. There was one bar called the Bed Rock-they did a couple shows, but it was pretty much nothing. But the Hell House was basically the party house in 1983-85. They would have touring bands play there-Soul Asylum played there, a lot of different bands.
Krist Novoselic moved to Tacoma in 1987 and it was here, at the Community World Theater, that one of the residents of the Hell House, Jim May, would host five of their seven real shows between April 1987 and April 1988.
The Community Theater was a hub for bands; in a brief eighteen months the venue staged an astonishing 130 shows for all-ages audiences.
BRUCE PURKEY: Unless you were in a big city, and Tacoma is still relatively small, there was very little, if any, punk-rock community back in the early '80s. Most schools had a small group of three or four friends who were into punk. Punk was not cool in any way. You might as well have been the biggest nerd in the school. That's how people looked at you. So when you discovered another person into punk/underground music, you immediately felt a kinship ... The Hell House on Fifty-Sixth Street was a hub of house-party shows and welcomed any local band ... It wasn't until after some of the major venues like the Gorilla Gardens in Seattle closed that a real community of bands started actually growing and playing in Tacoma. Of course, the Community World Theater made it easier for a Tacoma band to find a place to play. Mid-to-late '80s you started to see a few bands becoming Tacoma fixtures: Soylent Green, He Sluts, Inspector Luv and the Ride Me Babies, Silent Treatment, Subvert, AMQA ... The Community World Theater was a rare thing. Run by Jim May, one of us. He didn't make anything on the venture, I'm sure. It was probably a huge headache, and I would guess it lost him money, but for a brief moment the kids had their own place to play. Sure, it was a former porn theater with no heat and a shitty PA, but it was ours. It is no accident that the Community World Theater is remember fondly by most everyone who ever played there, or saw a show there. It was as if, for a moment, the punks actually ran things ... It was how things felt for a few months right after Nirvana broke huge-essentially killing hair metal-it felt important, like we were finally noticed, finally being heard. Of course, it was short-lived and quickly coopted.
TIM FREEBORN, Sons of Ishmael: Compared to many of the places we played that summer-a barn in rural El Paso, a boxing club (the ring was being disassembled as we arrived), a garage, a couple of living rooms, a ramshackle VFW hall, a roller rink, a pizza joint-it seemed like a palace, the very Fillmore.
MIKE CANZI, Sons of Ishmael: I'm pretty sure that it was decrepit; most of the venues we played in were. I'd be willing to bet that there was red carpet in the lobby and that it was covered in cigarette burns and wads of blackened bubble gum, and that the smells of urine and mildew were an almost physical presence.
CHRIS BLACK, Sons of Ishmael: They had removed several rows of seats at the front in order to create a space suitable for moshing. However, I also recall most people sat in the seats that were still there and watched the show ... Later, when I knew there would be no sleep for me in the lobby of a haunted theater I, of course, headed out to the van.
PAUL MORRIS, Sons of Ishmael: This venue stood out, and the fact that it was rumored to be haunted made it doubly noteworthy. It is also unusual that we would sleep overnight in the venue as well, but for our promoter, Jim, this was normal ... I think he lived in the projection room.
GLENN POIRIER, Sons of Ishmael: I recall trying to sleep in the lobby on a blue vinyl bench by the popcorn machine in full view of the street outside the front doors. The theater was reputed to be haunted; I pity the ghost that had to endure that flatulent night air!
Nirvana returned in June, under the name Pen Cap Chew.
RYAN LOISELLE, Machine: We'd seen Pen Cap Chew at the CWT, and Skid Row. We'd go there every weekend, it didn't matter who was playing-it was our church.
DAVE CHAVEZ, Hell's Kitchen: Hell's Kitchen was a side band I started ... I had to quit when Verbal Abuse went on tour ... We only played together seven months. The show in question was the biggest highlight playing live, that and recording the HK demo ... I just remember they were a loose garage band with cool vocals ... Kurt wore a lot of clothes and was hella hot ... They looked like they sounded, so to speak.
Cobain would still do this later in life, compensating for his skinny frame by layering clothes to conceal his body.
BRUCE PURKEY: The music stuck with me much greater the second time. The first time, it seemed looser, more chaotic, noisier. I'm not sure if that's just my ear hearing it better on a second go-round, or if they actually were a more cohesive band. I'm guessing it was a combination of the two. Like other "noisy" bands-Sonic Youth, U-Men (another vastly underrated early Northwest band) it often takes a few spins of the record to start seeing the shapes amid the seeming chaos.
By August, the band had morphed again, into Bliss. Yet having played to a mere twenty-five people in April, the audience this time around had swelled only to perhaps forty.
PAUL MORRIS: We rolled into Tacoma (famous for its poor bridge design) suffering from head colds that I believe we picked up from Youth of Today in San Francisco at the Maximum Rocknroll house.
TIM FREEBORN: We were pleased to sell out the Community World Theater. The first row, anyway ... Big Black were playing their final show in Seattle, so I assume that several Tacomans who might have attended our show drove up to Seattle.
MIKE CANZI: I'm not being sarcastic here, but I think there was someone in the audience wearing a red-and-black lumber jacket.
For Bliss, this show was no more or less successful a musical happening than the performances in April, May, or June.
TIM FREEBORN: Their songs were pretty sludgy and unmemorable, to my tired, ravaged ears.
MIKE CANZI: I have no memories whatsoever of Bliss's music. We heard a lot of bands that summer, but only three stood out in a positive way: Nomeansno, False Prophets, and Porn Orchard.
PAUL MORRIS: Like Tim, at this time I was suffering from the burnout of seeing too many bands in such a short time ... Musically and visually I was not impressed and I did not care for them.
GLENN POIRIER: Bliss didn't stand out at all to me ... they were a young band finding their way ... I liked the Magnet Men that played that night more.
CHRIS BLACK: I do remember a lot of plaid, and long songs-two maybe three minutes in length some of them ... mumbly stage banter, lots of looking down at the floor, and long, slow-tempo songs ... I recall thinking that either speedy hardcore hadn't yet arrived in this neck of the woods, or that they were already past it.
TIM FREEBORN: Aside from the promoter-the affable and, at that time, broken-footed Jim May-I can name no one that we met that night ... I do remember chatting with Jim May at a greasy spoon after the show about a local scenester with an exotic STD, which produced pyramidal growths on his forearm.
These weren't stunningly professional shows. They were more like exotic sleepovers with no commercial prospects.
DAVE CHAVEZ: I just remember people chanting, "We brought our sleeping bags and we're not going home!"
TIM FREEBORN: I remember chatting with the Magnet Men, who turned their earnings over to us ... The fact that it was a bag of coins did not lessen my appreciation of either the gesture or the cash.
BRUCE PURKEY: I have a photo of George and me from the same show with Slim Moon playing in the background. So much future fame behind us, but for all of us it was just another night with fifty or sixty of our friends in this cavernous, freezing old movie theater, sitting in the shitty seats once occupied by old pervs, now occupied by young punks, but we loved it. It was ours and we made it something special, if only for a little while. Of course, at the time, we complained about the cold, complained about the small crowds, no money, whatever ...
Although Bliss was too shy to engage with the audience and too preoccupied trying to perform their intricate early compositions to rock out, they still displayed a degree of ambitiousness ...
TIM FREEBORN: Bliss kind of sent out ... mixed signals; maybe a joke? After all, the guitarist was wearing satin pants and platform shoes (and what kind of looked like a Lynyrd Skynyrd-style hairpiece).
PAUL MORRIS: When I saw these guys get up there with platform shoes and silky flare pants, my skepticism went way up ... Beyond the clothing there was nothing memorable about the stagecraft.
The clothing was as far as the stagecraft went, but it still represented a band figuring out how to stand out.
Then it all ground to a halt. Burckhard was dismissed and the band disappeared for nearly five months.
AARON BURCKHARD: I was drunk and I got Kurt's car impounded-that's why he fired me!
RYAN AIGNER: I remember when they lost Aaron. He was a liability because he was a little older and he had an interest in girls and drinking that at times superseded the interests of the band, and that became the biggest drawback ... he was one of these guys who didn't feel the need to go get the Black Flag tattoo. What Kurt and Krist were looking for was one hundred percent dedication-they expected you to morph into one hundred percent of what they were doing. I'm not sure what it would have taken to convince them of that total commitment.
The band's uncertain status was all-pervasive, and with only six shows all year it wasn't clear if it was anything more than a hobby. Similarly, their diverse early sound made it unclear if these were Melvins clones, a New Wave act, or a hard-rock/punk-fusion outfit. The most telling sign was that they couldn't even settle on a name. Cobain knew that a name was crucial in creating connections to a musical legacy.
JACK ENDINO, Skin Yard: Kurt used "Kurdt" a few times as a subtle tip of the hat to the only other famous musician to ever emerge from Aberdeen, Washington, prior to Nirvana: local legend, guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof, cofounder of the Northwest-based band Metal Church (with several major-label records in the '80s) ... Metal Church was huge here, and if not for Nirvana, Vanderhoof would probably still be the only successful musician to have ever emerged from Aberdeen. You can bet every kid who grew up in tiny Aberdeen in the '80s knew who he was.
Summing up 1987: little had changed. Cobain started a band, as he had in two previous years, but the public results amounted to two house parties, a college show, and three run-throughs in Tacoma-leaving perhaps one hundred witnesses. They could feel encouraged that they'd made it onto radio ... Yet not one person interviewed mentioned having heard it. Nirvana didn't exist. A nameless hobby band from a tiny Northwest town got on the road ... But there were no guarantees the road led anywhere.
Copyright © 2015 by Nick Soulsby