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The Night Nirvana Changed Everything

When I saw them play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time 30 years ago at a tiny Seattle club, I could feel history happening

Nirvana performed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time ever on April 17th, 1991, in Seattle. (Above: Kurt Cobain at a show in California a few days earlier.)

Kevin Estrada/MediaPunch/IPx/AP

In the spring of 1991, Alice in Chains were the biggest Seattle band. Soundgarden had released their major-label debut, Louder than Love, a year and a half earlier; Nirvana and Mudhoney had both released sludgy, well-received albums on Sub Pop Records; Mookie Blaylock had yet to play a show under their new name, Pearl Jam. Dozens of other Seattle bands were releasing albums and playing shows, and it felt like any of them might be the next big band. But none of them had anything like Alice in Chains’ dark, talkbox-infused MTV hit “Man in the Box.”

So I was thrilled when, toward the end of my sophomore year in college, I came across a full-page advertisement in Seattle’s free monthly music magazine, The Rocket, calling for extras to fill the audience at an Alice in Chains concert in an upcoming movie about the Seattle music scene. Those interested were told to be at the Seattle Center parking lot at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17th, 1991. My friend and I drove 45 minutes from Tacoma, where we lived, and when we arrived at Seattle Center — the site of the Space Needle and the 1962 World’s Fair — the parking lot overflowed with hundreds of long-haired, flannel-clad men in their twenties. The small number of chartered buses waiting to caravan to the undisclosed venue made one thing clear: We would not see Alice in Chains that night.

It was still early, so we flipped through The Rocket to see what else was going on. Band names we didn’t recognize appeared in tiny print under venue names that were famous to us, like RKCNDY and the Off Ramp. One band stood out: Nirvana, who were playing that night with Fitz of Depression and Bikini Kill opening at a small, art-house venue called the OK Hotel. I knew Nirvana’s music from KUPS, my college radio station, and my roommate constantly played their cover of “Love Buzz,” whose Eastern-sounding bass line instantly popped into my head when I saw the listing. The doors weren’t open yet when we arrived at the OK Hotel around 6:30 p.m., but we each paid $8 to get a sloppy stamp on our wrists that would guarantee our admission later. 

It was a nice spring night, so we wandered the streets of the nearby historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, unaware of our good fortune (and regretfully unaware that we were missing one of Bikini Kill’s first-ever Seattle gigs). By the time we returned to the club two hours later, a crowd of people had gathered outside the obviously sold-out show. While the Seattle Center crowd was all testosterone and facial hair, the OK Hotel people were skinny, non-threatening nerd-punks with self-dyed hair. We were preppy college guys who didn’t fit in with either crowd, but the differences made it clear that there wasn’t just one Seattle scene. 

We passed by the OK Hotel’s dimly-lit cafe, with its permanent smell of strong coffee, and toward the vibrating doors of the tiny show room. The heavy doors opened to the heat of 300 bodies that swayed and bobbed like one collective mass. The room smelled of warm humans in damp clothing while Fitz of Depression closed their set with a sped-up, guitar-charged cover of Devo’s “Freedom of Choice.”

We nudged our way to the front of the room when people left to go outside between bands. In the meantime, an exceptionally tall, lanky man in a black T-shirt and a messy brown shag of hair set up his bass amp. I was shaken by the matter-of-fact way in which he played the booming, powerful notes as he set up. Another man with long, straight hair finalized his drum and cymbal placement, while a third man in a flannel shirt with what seemed like a humble and unassuming disposition set up his guitar rig with his eyes pointed downward. A jangly, clean guitar sound emerged. Then a violent, distorted sound sliced through the room and occupied a big space in my chest. His guitar amp was pointed directly at my face, and I was disappointed when he switched back to the clean sound and played a repeating four-chord progression. Then he began to sing: “Polly wants a cracker/I think I should get off her first.” 

My first thought was, “Wow, that’s nice, Nirvana let their roadie play a song right before they go on.” The crowd stood still, watching and listening intently. The bassist began to play along, and the drummer sang harmonies.

When the song ended, the singer made an announcement in a conversational tone: “Hello, we’re major-label corporate rock sell-outs.” He played the opening chords of “Big Cheese,” the drummer and bassist joined in with an explosive hit, and I realized I was watching Nirvana right as the room erupted into a mosh pit.

Even before the first chorus, I knew I was witnessing something special. I tried to keep my focus on the band while holding my arms up as a shield against the many human bumper cars around me. The sheer power of the three people on stage was incomprehensible, even for someone who’d seen hundreds of shows, as I had by then. Just drums, bass, one guitar, and one voice — how was it so huge? And why was it affecting me so deeply?

Dave Grohl’s drums trembled, and his cymbals swayed like toys, but he never overpowered his own tremendous swing. Kurt Cobain’s guitar sound was violent and arresting, like his amp was on fire. When it squealed with feedback, I winced and lost my balance, and when he played power chords, they hit me like wind from a jet engine. His guttural scream carried more scratching humanity and intensity than any singer I’d ever heard.

About 45 minutes into their set, Nirvana debuted a new song. Kurt’s guitar intros had become somewhat predictable by this point, but when Dave slammed in with what felt like John Bonham playing a hip-hop beat, the song took a different shape. Then it pulled back to a quiet bass-and-drums verse, over which Kurt played just two sustained guitar notes, allowing space for the most melodic vocal part he’d sung all night. The song reminded me of one of my favorite bands, Pixies — a band Kurt would later cite as a reference — but with a melody that challenged the simplicity of the song’s four chords. Then the chorus exploded, and though I didn’t know the words — I don’t think Kurt did either — the phrase “entertain us” stuck with me and worked fine for every line in my sing-along head.

The four chords that made up “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were hardly innovative; they’d been used in countless rock songs. The song didn’t even have a bridge. But the combination of the simple, catchy parts played by this three-piece powerhouse for the first time that night was somehow significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Even the drum part was a hook, and Kurt’s high notes in the chorus etched into my brain more each time he sang them. By the end of the night, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was stuck in my head permanently. 

I learned later that the Alice in Chains show that my friend and I missed out on was filmed, coincidentally, at a warehouse almost across the street from the Nirvana show. The movie was Cameron Crowe’s Singles, and the scene spares no detail in portraying Hollywood’s view of Seattle in the early Nineties. An entrance stamp smudges a wrist with dark ink; fans signify focus while they bob their heads to the music and balance Solo cups; steam shoots indiscriminately from the ground to evoke an edgy, industrial feel. 

By the time Singles was released in September 1992, the term “Seattle scene” meant something completely different. Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, Soundgarden’s commercial breakthrough, Badmotorfinger, and Nirvana’s massive Nevermind were all turning one year old. Seattle had evolved from an underground musical wellspring to the international epicenter of a new musical movement that lumped together the goateed jocks with the nerd-punks in one J.C. Penney clothing ad. Nirvana — a mildly popular indie band when Singles was filmed, not even warranting a mention in the movie — was arguably the biggest band in the world. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had gone from a rough, mid-set debut at the OK Hotel to a Top 10 pop hit that had been performed on Saturday Night Live and parodied by “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Back in April 1991, my physical and mental condition deteriorated as we walked to the car after the OK Hotel show. We were near the waterfront, and I deeply inhaled the fresh Puget Sound air, imagining that each whoosh from the freeway overhead was a calming wave. But my stomach was a dark pit. My face felt heavy and even the idea of a smile felt difficult. My arms felt numb, and my body didn’t want to walk. Instead it wanted to lie down right there in the street.

On the short walk back to the car, I realized why I felt so terrible. I’d listened to a lot of music in my 19 years. I’d had my mind melted by pyrotechnics and lasers at bombastic arena shows and I’d been knocked to the ground holding my glasses in place at punk shows. I thought I’d felt every possible musical emotion. But Nirvana had just erased all of it. 

Driving home, I felt the palpable anxiety that there was no way to hear the as-yet-unrecorded song still ringing in my ears. That was an exciting aspect of live music in the pre-internet age —  having to replicate a song in my own head; trying to learn it on guitar with no reference; verbally explaining the song to my friends; truly longing to hear it again. The more I thought about “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the more it felt as if the three everyday people I hadn’t even intended to see that night had just rendered my entire previous musical life useless. Nothing I’d heard or seen was as meaningful as what I’d seen that night. Nothing ever would be again.

From Rolling Stone US