Nirvana’s Big Break, With A Smashing Pumpkins Assist

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, band's close friend — and former MTV staffer — Amy Finnerty recalls their rise to fame.

When Amy Finnerty first met Nirvana, she had just come to MTV to work in the Music and Programming department. Of course, she didn’t let them know that fact. She was just blown away to finally meet the guys who had made her favorite album (at least at that point): Bleach.

Over the next four years, Finnerty would not only become close friends with the band, but intrinsically linked to them too. Since she was just a few years younger than the guys (not to mention a huge fan), she was one of the first people within the company to champion them — and was almost singlehandedly responsible for getting their “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the channel. And because of all that — and the 20th anniversary of the epochal Nevermind album — MTV News sat down with Finnerty to get the inside story on the days before Nirvana became a household name and the wild (and amazing) times that followed after.

And it all started with that first meeting, backstage in New York.

“The first night I met Nirvana, I was backstage at, I think it was a Waterboys show, and the band was in New York, touring on the Bleach album, and they were being courted by a bunch of record labels, Geffen being one of them,” she said. “So I’m standing around backstage, and I see Kurt Cobain leaning up against the wall, and, uh, ‘Oh my God, that’s Kurt from Nirvana.’ And, at that point, they weren’t Nirvana — I mean, they were to me, but not everybody on the planet knew who they were — but, I was terrified. I was scared to go up and introduce myself, but I did. And he said, ‘How do you even know who I am?’ And I said ‘You’re in Nirvana! I’m going to see your band at the Pyramid in a few days! You’re a great, great band!’

“And he was pretty surprised, so we got to chatting and he said to me, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘Oh, well, I work at MTV, whatever,’ and so he screams down the hall, ‘Krist, this girl works at MTV.’ And it was on from that second,” she laughed. “They started teasing me, making fun of me, Krist was throwing beer around, we were shaking up our beer bottles and squirting each other with beer and stuff, so, it immediately became this joke, because I really wasn’t trying to tell them what I did [at MTV]. For the longest time, they referred to me as ‘V.P. of Post-It Notes,’ because they didn’t know that I worked in Music Programming, because they would’ve teased me about it.”

Riki Rachtman recalls Nirvana’s cross-dressing appearance on “Headbangers Ball.”

Of course, in the months that followed, the hype around the band (and their then-forthcoming album Nevermind) began to swirl, and once Finnerty heard what they guys had been working on with producer Butch Vig, she knew big things were on the horizon.

“The first time I listened to the record, it was like, when you’re on vacation and you see something really beautiful that you’ve never seen before and you open your eyes up super-wide, because you want to get the memory ingrained into your brain, and that’s the way I felt,” she said. “I was trying to remember every single note.”

Still, convincing the folks at MTV to take a chance on the band proved a lot tougher than she’d imagined. After all, she was young, and the band was virtually unknown outside of a few hip enclaves around the country. But that all changed the second she saw the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video — which, in a bit of alt-rock kismet, arrived in her office at the exact moment another soon-to-be-huge band did too.

“The Smashing Pumpkins were staying at my house, and I said, ‘You guys, come by MTV, give me the keys to the apartment, and then I’ll bring you around the halls and introduce you to some people.’ … And so the Pumpkins came in 10 minutes after I had gotten my hands on that music video, and so we went into my office to watch it, and everyone thought it was incredible,” Finnerty said. “So I took the video and I walked around the halls at MTV and simultaneously introduced a bunch of people to the Smashing Pumpkins, and then we’d watch the video … and then we’d go to a producer’s office and I’d say, ‘These are the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Gish record that just came out is so incredible, and they’re going to send us a video. Oh, and by the way, we’ve got this Nirvana video; you have to check it out.’ ”

Nirvana’s rise to fame, in their own words.

After Finnerty showed a few folks within the building “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” she brought it to MTV’s music meeting, where the fates of new videos were decided. After some healthy back-and-forth, it was determined that “Spirit” would be given a world premiere during MTV’s “120 Minutes” (with rotation on the channel to begin the following week). It was a sink-or-swim moment for the band and as you’re probably aware, things worked out pretty well.

“That was unprecedented; MTV, as far as I know, had never world-premiered a video for a band that they had no history with,” Finnerty explained. “And then … some of the crew and a lot of the people that were on the road with the band came over to my house that Sunday night, and we all sat up waiting for this world premiere, and, like, I took pictures of it. It was a big moment!”

It was just the first of many for the band and their friend. But for all the highlights, perhaps none illustrates Nirvana’s scruffy charm quite like a story Finnerty told us about a party she threw for the band at her New York City apartment. Twenty years later, it’s one she’s still amazed by — sort of like the band she helped become huge (“in some small way,” she cautioned) just by believing.

“So Nirvana played in New York, and I had decided to have a party at my apartment afterwards … and the band came, and I think [the Pixies'] Kim Deal was there, and then there were just a host of other people that I had no idea who they were. And I leaned over to Kurt and I was like, ‘Are these your friends? Do you know any of these people?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know any of these people … do you want me to get them to leave?’ ” she recalled. “So he said, ‘I’m going to walk out, I’m going to go downstairs and hide under the stairs, and everyone’s going to leave. Watch.’ And so he walked out, and, you know, you could see everyone trying to act casual, but they all saw him leave, and then it was like a mass exodus; within 10 minutes my apartment was cleared.

“And then he came back up and got me and told me that we were going to go listen to the best jukebox in town, and I thought I was going to have this unbelievable night of listening to some hidden punk rock on some cool jukebox in New York, right?” she continued. “But instead he took me to the 119 Bar, which, at the time, had a jukebox that only played disco music. And so we danced to Donna Summer, and then we went home. It was a pretty amazing night.”

Stick with MTV News all week as we reveal the Nevermind You Never Knew, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s definitive album with classic footage, new interviews and much more.