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The John Robb Tapes - Nirvana

In 1989, Nirvana were unknowns - slogging around the American circuit; John Robb was there to witness it

Nirvana reshaped rock music when they seemed to explode out of nowhere in 1991 with the anthemic Smells Like Teen Spirit. Of course, though, there is no such thing as overnight success; and the band had spent the previous three years in the scuzzier end of the undergound, before looking like being locked into mid table cultdom as part of the grunge thing before that astonishing and eventually destructive success.

I had already conducted the first interview with the band in 1988 for the late and great British music paper, Sounds, over the phone when I rang Kurt Cobain at his mother’s house in Aberdeen in Washington state. I still have the phone number in an old address book amongst a list of numbers of people to interview at the time. The interview was hardly in depth - it was just a new band whose, about to be released, debut single captivated me with its interesting choice - a cover of Dutch band, Shocking Blue’s 1969 song, Love Buzzand that voice - that haunting, grittier and older than its years, melodic rasp that, at the time, reminded me of John Lennon with its intensity and pop nous.

The interview was a routine chat with a hopeful singer from a band that I was obsessing about: Typical of the endless new bands that I would write about for the ever generous music paper who indulged in my enthusiasm. I had no clue they would be enormous.

The quiet voice on the end of the phone explained the claustrophobia of his home town and the thrill of seeing certain bands play 53 miles up the road in Seattle.

Eight months later I was flown out by Sounds to New York City with photographer Ian Tilton to interview the band again for a front cover feature. In the end, fellow Subpop band - the mighty behemoth of Tad - made the cover and Nirvana was relegated to a smaller cutaway on the front page (a measure of how much they were still regarded at the time).

Typically for Sounds, we didn’t get a hotel in New York. It was a much more DIY operation than the NME so we had to stay with the band for four days in a tiny Lower East Side Manhattan flat

Euphoric and melancholic

We were to be staying in the tiny Avenue B in Alphabet City flat of Janet Billig who went on to work closely with Kurt and his future wife Courtney Love. Janet lived on Avenue B, which was very different then to the cute bar and hipsterville vibe of these times. Then, it had a frontline feel and we would spend the deep, late nights hanging out with the local crack dealer on the front steps who had a gun shoved down his sock but was quite cheerful and kept asking about the Queen - and if I knew her - before going down to the window of the next limo and doing his business.

The flat was the on the road crash pad for Tad and Nirvana. It was sweltering hot and we slept on the floor with no bedding - using our rucksacks as pillows. Being big fellas, Tad took up most of the space and snored like wounded bears whilst, the four- piece at the time, Nirvana, was squashed up at the other end of the room. Kurt was curled up in ball in the corner most of the time and seemed worn out by something which we guessed was tour fatigue at the time.

It was a long and wild trip that ended up with photographer Ian Tilton getting run over by a bus in one of those neo-tropical rain storms that New York seems to have from time to time. The bus missed me by an inch and I can remember Tilton flying through the air, clutching his camera bag like it was the most important thing in the world, before being carted off to hospital with a broken leg. The doctor patched him up and called us a cab because there were no spare beds and we had to lay him out on the floor of the tiny flat and, with Nirvana, ferry in sarnies from the Puerto Rican corner shop.

On the second night, we went to see Nirvana play at the 100 capacity Maxwells in Hobokon. A young band playing one of the most intense rock gigs I’d ever seen. And I’d seen a lot of intense gigs. Cobain’s  slight frame and lank hair belied a stunning power as he shredded his throat singing these amazing, melodic anthems that were all at once euphoric and melancholic over the dense, dark riffing.

Genius doesn’t always mean popularity

There was a handful of people watching this most amazing band - a typical night on the rock ‘n’ roll circuit where genius doesn’t always mean popularity. They may have gatecrashed the mainstream a couple of years later but at this point, Nirvana was just another bunch of mad eyed hopefuls crammed into the back of a van looking for escape from their dull lives.

The listless audience was far from captivated with just me, a small bunch of crazies at the front, Ian Tilton and Anton Brookes, the band’s press agent, and a woman from a French record label who was raving about the band, who were interested in this amazing cacophony.

You could feel the frustration leaking from the band’s pores when suddenly, the set ended, and they started to push the ante up a few notches, past where any other band dared to tread.

Nosovelic shoe-d his bass guitar through the venue’s roof; Cobain dived backwards through the drums which collapsed and the young drummer, then Chad Channing, looked on nervously whilst the other guitar player (at the time), Jason Everman, jumped into the frenzy.

The amps got pushed over and the guitars were mashed into the floor. It was either a thrilling moment of pop art auto destruction that would have thrilled the inventor of the form, the German activist and artist, Gustav Metzger, (who I hung out with 20 years later on another crazy night), or the instinctive act of a band that is genuinely walking along the edge.

The Maxwell’s show was on July 13th 1989; Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach had just been released  and the band was touring it. The cataclysmic gig ending would captivate even the most hard-hearted cynic because this was no big band pretending to trash its gear, but a small town group with no money crackling full of frustration and instinctive raw power brimming close to a self destructive orgy of musical violence that had finally exploded. This was one of the things that made Nirvana so damn attractive and it’s one of the reasons that I was there in New York City all those years ago.

Instinct was telling Nirvana to change

The preceding year, I had already picked up the band’s debut Love Buzz single in a record shop, a couple of weeks before release, and made the November 1988 released Subpop singles club, seven inch, single of the week for Sounds. At that time nobody was interested in the band and it was felt that Subpop had gone perhaps one band too far in its cool collection of groups that included Mudhoney and Tad - bands that were playing a raw and powerful music labelled grunge.

Nirvana were three dates into the jaunt;  they had driven across the USA for the gig - enough to wear anyone out. They were staying in NYC for a week leaving on the 15th to drive up the road to a gig at Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, (a venue I had played the year before in my band The Membranes - so I filled them in on some local knowledge) before returning for one more Big Apple gig at the even tinier Pyramid club on the Lower East Side.

Tad was an uproarious laugh and a damn fine band and should be checked out by anyone reading this piece who wants to explore this music further than Nirvana. They were the headline band but it was their young support that everyone was fascinated by. Nirvana was a band in a state of flux. Instinct was telling them to change and you could tell that something was happening here. The band was weary of the road and each other and the two extra members, guitarist Jason Everman and drummer Chad Channing, got kicked out within weeks of this trip.

At Maxwell’s, I did the interview, firstly with the Sub Pop label head honchos Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt who were both convinced that Nirvana was going to be the biggest band in the world. It could have sounded like the usual label hokum but these were cool guys and they knew what they were talking about and were convincing in their enthusiasm. We sat at the table of the coffee bar section of Maxwell’s as they explained, earnestly, how this band that was drawing a handful of people to this show was going to take the world. I figured they meant as big as Sonic Youth because that was about as big as alternative bands got in those days, and by alternative I mean howling guitar, slavering dog alternative, and not the nicer stuff like REM.

Bassist Krist (as he was calling himself at the time) sat down for a chat and seemed to care more about the state of the world than the usual rock ‘n’ roll small talk. He talked at length about his background in the Balkans, where his family had come from. and the situation there, as well as about him and Kurt growing up in the redneck town of Aberdeen in Washington State,  and the mad shit they would get up to defying their straight laced fellow citizen loggers.

Kurt himself was quieter and less forthcoming. Intense and artistic with a croaking voice that sounded ancient and out of context coming from such a young man; he had piercing eyes and a quiet determination.

Myself? I was thrilled by the band’s innate power and brilliant songwriting skills that Nirvana’s press officer, Anton Brookes, would endlessly talk about in a way that I had never heard anyone else ever do about a noisy band.

The Sounds feature came out later that October; it captured how thrilled I was with the band’s potential and the fact I was still rushing from the excitement of the gig. The recording below gives a sense of a young band with an awesome potential that no-one at the time could possibly have ever grasped.

Whilst I was in love with the band, I never guessed the sheer scale of their soon-to- come success and neither could they: They were like any other young band, full of dreams and small-scale ambition. It was only when you heard the songs that you realised that there was something really special happening.

Listen to the full interview here.

John Robb films In Conversations for Lush’s Gorilla channel, fronts his acclaimed post punk band The Membranes and is also a music writer who wrote many groundbreaking features the late Sounds music paper

Photograph by Ian Tilton

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