Nirvana Exhibit Leads Fans Through Band’s Humble Start, Meteoric Rise

'Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses' opens Saturday in Seattle.

SEATTLE — It’s fitting that on Monday morning, the inside of the “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” exhibit at the Experience Music Project in this Northwestern music mecca looked much like the band’s music sounded: messy, splintered into 1,000 pieces, all over the place, yet somehow meticulously together and beautifully chaotic.

Museum workers inside this gleaming temple to the enduring influence of the city and region’s musical heritage were in a mad scramble to get the first-of-its-kind exhibition of [artist id="1002"]Nirvana[/artist] artifacts into shape for Saturday’s opening. Glass display cases with spots destined to feature one-of-a-kind treasures stood empty, while others were already fitted with touchstone effects. Among them were the iconic green sweater worn by late singer Kurt Cobain in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, the hastily drawn-up recording contract with Sub Pop Records promising the group $600 for their first album and a then-princely $12,000 for their second and a variety of smashed guitars from pivotal points in the band’s career.

But curator Jacob McMurray cautioned that “Taking Punk to the Masses” is much more than a deification of already grunge-sainted late singer Cobain. “One of the things that was really important to me is that it isn’t a novel that I’m writing,” he said. “It isn’t about me or EMP, so I wanted to make sure through the oral-history quotes and the video that it’s all being told as much as possible through the primary sources.”

Check out photos of Kurt Cobain’s art, broken guitars and more on exhibit.

Like so many projects at the EMP, the 225-piece Nirvana show leans heavily on videotaped interviews with the musicians, producers, artists and scene-makers who contributed to and influenced the music that would, in turn, influence Nirvana. Giant iPod-like touch-pad video kiosks feature dozens of vintage posters, fanzines and artwork chronicling punk scenes from Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York that helped set the groundwork for Nirvana, as well as more than 100 oral histories of little-known local, regional and national bands like Ze Whiz Kidz, the Tupperwares, the Lewd and U Men who stirred dozens of local future notables to take up instruments.

The exhibition — which will run two years and then may tour the country — opens with a trio of images of Nirvana in their prime and spotlights one of drummer Dave Grohl’s Tama drum kits from 1993-’94, with a note about how he hit the skins so hard that he went through several kits during his tenure in the band. And though it was not yet hung, the opening space will also feature Cobain’s treasured Mosrite Gospel guitar, which he was playing at the OK Hotel show in Seattle on April 17, 1991, when he debuted “Teen Spirit” live.

Bassist Krist Novoselic lives on a farm south of Seattle and is the head of his local grange hall, and the rough-hewn wooden cases for some of the displays are from a 100-year-old elm tree that fell on the grange property. McMurray bought the wood from Novoselic for use housing the items, many of which came from the private collections of Novoselic, Grohl and former drummer Chad Channing. “From grunge to grange,” McMurray laughed.

There are also a series of iPod listening stations loaded with a selection of influential bands such as R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, Fugazi and Sonic Youth, with introductions for newbies on the landmark acts. Among the early curios is the “Fecal Matter” demo recorded by Kurt before he formed Nirvana, as well as the “Organized Confusion” demo he cut in 1982, along with the four-track machine he recorded the songs on and the bass he played on the tape.

One of McMurray’s favorite pieces is a letter from Buzz Osborne (leader of the Melvins, one of Cobain’s early musical icons) to Novoselic in April 1986 about a demo Kurt and the Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover recorded at Cobain’s aunt’s house that Osborne dubbed “killer.” He signs off by writing, “I think he could have some kind of future in music if he keeps at it.”

In addition to one of the first bass guitars Novoselic played in the band — which is listed on some early fliers variously as Skid Row, Ted Ed Fred, Bliss and Pen Cap Chew — there is also a handwritten set list from 1987 that features songs McMurray had never heard of such as “Dope Hippie” and other rarities like “Vendetagainst,” a cover of a song by the Cream-like obscure band Thunder and Roses as well as soon-to-be-familiar anthems “Love Buzz” and “Downer.”

All along, visitors will hear an eerie 60-minute soundtrack created by Washington-based engineer/producer Steve Fisk. But rather than focus solely on Nirvana’s music, the piece is an undulating tapestry of ambient sound meant to embody the spirit of the region, evoking images of misty forests, rain-heavy clouds and a spooky calm-before-the-storm vibe. The sound collage gives the space an eerie feel, but McMurray said even with the specter of Cobain’s suicide, he was careful not to make the mood of the show too morose or somber.

You can find a sense of Cobain’s droll, smart humor throughout on objects like the poster he illustrated for the band’s first official show as Nirvana, on March 19, 1988, at the Community World Theatre. The striking image of a Virgin Mary-like figure with black hair and blacked-out eyes wearing a white robe and bleeding from her left hand features the legend, “Hey Kids! Don’t buy a gram this week-end, come see a Revelation in Progress. It will be a gosh darn … HEALING EXPLOSION.”

You’ll also find the first Nirvana demo tape recorded by famed grunge producer Jack Endino in January 1988 for $152.44, featuring nine-and-a-half songs including later Bleach tracks such as “Floyd the Barber” and “Paper Cuts.” Why nine and a half? Because the tape ran out in the middle of the session for “Pen Cap Chew,” and the guys were so broke they couldn’t afford to buy another reel.

“These are a couple of road boxes from a Nirvana tour that people can get a little magic from and one of the In Utero angels will be standing up here,” McMurray said, pointing to a pair of black road cases that are among the rare objects in the collection that fans will be able to lay their hands on. But it isn’t just a visual and audio treat; there is also a booth in the back where visitors can record their own memories or tributes to the band, which will then be integrated into a moving wall of voices projected outside the booth.

One of McMurray’s favorite pieces is the first guitar Cobain ever broke at a show, an instrument splintered at the end of a Halloween gig at Evergreen Community College in October 1988. “They played in the living room, and there’s basically 50 people there,” McMurray said. “The Sub Pop single had just come out the month before, but somebody is so psyched about this band that no one knows that they kept the guitar and sold it to us a decade later.”

The same case will contain a sliver of the same guitar loaned by another fan and a letter from a fan who wrote excitedly to his sister at 3:30 a.m. that night to tell her, “Dana, if you thought that they played great on Friday night [at Union Station with the Butthole Surfers] you should have seen them tonight … Kurt smashed his guitar as a grand finale!” Included is an illustration from the fan of the room where the band played. “To me that is really important, to have that connection between the band and the fans. … The band is only as good as that connection to the fans,” McMurray said, noting that Novoselic also recorded an audio guide for the entire show.

The chronological depiction of the band’s slow and then meteoric rise takes pit stops at some of the other humorous moments in their story, including a classic note from the art director at the band’s major-label home, DGC, wondering if Cobain wanted him to airbrush out the penis on the child who was photographed for the cover of Nevermind. “If anyone has a problem with his di– we can remove it,” scrawled DGC art director Robert Fisher, which sits next to a photo-booth image of the band just before they got kicked out of their own record-release party for starting a food fight.

The trip ends with a copy of a ticket from their final show in Munich, Germany, on March 1, 1994, and the set list from the “MTV Unplugged” shoot in November 1993, which aired just four months before Cobain’s suicide in April 1994.

“I think people are really excited that we’re doing this serious exhibition that really is focusing on the band … because I feel like most things have been about Kurt and the myth,” McMurray said. “Which is a whole different story.”

Check out our series of blog posts on objects from the Nirvana exhibit.

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