CHAPTER 25: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
KATHLEEN HANNA (Bikini Kill singer) In August of 1990, I found myself laying on my stomach, in the woods, with a pair of binoculars, a bottle of Canadian Club, and my friend Kurt Cobain. The reason why I had the binoculars was because I was the lookout while he ran across the street to a teen pregnancy center that had just opened in our town. And it really wasn’t a teen pregnancy center. It was a right-wing con where they got teenage girls to go in there and then told them they were gonna go to hell if they had abortions. Since Kurt and I were angry young feminists in the '90s, we decided that we were gonna do a little public service that night. We drank our Canadian Club, and he watched out while I went across the street and wrote Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone,'cause I was kinda like the pragmatic one. And he was more creative, so he went over, and in six- foot- tall red letters he wrote God Is Gay. He was kinda cool like that.
So, after that, we polished off the Canadian Club. And we lived in Olympia, Washington; we walked down the hill, we went to the bar, we got some more Canadian Club. Then we went to my apartment, we got some 40-ouncers, we got a little more drunk. And apparently I insulted just about everybody in my whole entire town, and I threw up on someone’s legs. It was one of those nights that like later on, whenever anybody mentions it you don’t want to think about it. So, ended up at Kurt’s apartment, and I smashed up a bunch of shit. And I took out a Sharpie marker and I wrote a bunch of shit all over his bedroom wall. . . . Then I passed out, with the marker in my hand. And I woke up, and I had one of those hangovers where you think that if you walk in the next room there could be a dead body in there. So I wasn’t that happy when six months later, Kurt called me up and said, “Hey, do you remember that night?” I was like, “Ehhhh . . .”
Then Kurt is like, “Well, there’s this thing that you wrote on my wall and it was actually kinda cool and I want to use it as a lyric in one of my songs.” And I was like, as long as I can get out of the conversation and not think about [that night] anymore, you can use whatever you want. So I hung up and thought, How the fuck is he gonna use “Kurt smells like teen spirit” as a lyric?
BUTCH VIG (producer; drummer for Garbage) The first thing Nirvana played, on the first day of rehearsals for Nevermind, was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I was just completely floored. It sounded huge and crushing loud. I just was pacing around 'cause it sounded so fuckin’ cool. I was like, “Play it again, play it again.” I made them play it like three or four times, and I went, “Wow, this is really, really good.” I knew at that point that just the power of them playing together was like a hundred times what it was when they had come to the Smart session, and a lot of that was because of Dave [Grohl].
In the big room next to where we were, Lenny Kravitz was rehearsing for a tour. On the third or fourth day of rehearsals, Gary Gersh, their A&R guy, was supposed to come by at a certain time. A couple hours went by, and the band didn’t want to just play, so Krist [Novoselic] went out and got a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and drank. Then he went into the office and got on the intercom: “Paging Lenny Kravitz!” I think he started going off: “Where’s Gary Gersh, that fuckin’-ass record company . . .”—you know, that kind of thing. And I had to run down there and persuade him, “Okay, maybe we should go back in. Let’s go and talk about your bass sound.”
We went up to Sound City up in the Valley in Los Angeles to record. We only spent like 16 days in the studio. The band was staying at the Oakwood Apartments, which they completely trashed. It looked like an atom bomb went off. Junk food and beer and records laying around and cassettes and guitars and guitar strings and sticks, and Kurt had drawn a bunch of pictures and written lyrics on the walls.
That band Europe that had a big hit with that song “The Final Countdown” was staying next to them. So there’s these blond Scando guys with their girlfriends out by the pool, and Kurt would take his guitar out there, and the Nirvana guys would sit out by the pool and make up songs about them. They were definitely punks. They were fuckin’ around as much as they could.
There was this BBQ place called Dr. Hogly Wogly’s near the studio, and one night I had the runner at the studio just get a huge meat slaughter, basically. The girls from L7 were there, and I was trying to finish an editor something, and when I came back out they’d had a food fight. I think L7 had spurred it on. They’d just completely taken the sausages and BBQ sauce and stuff and thrown it all over each other. There was a huge, ugly mess all over the walls of the studio lounge.
JENNIFER FINCH (L7 bassist) I was going out with Dave then, so we were around all the time. We started going out when L7 did a tour in England with Nirvana. I was friends with his first band, Scream, because when I was a promoter I did a Scream show in Los Angeles. Dave and I kind of shared the role of being the youngest in both of the bands. Also, we had a very similar past with hardcore that none of the other members had shared. He was very lighthearted and very kind and considerate.
He had this problem with a stalker. I have a good memory of this because I had to keep these letters that this guy wrote me. In one of the letters, he put a newspaper photograph of Dave and I and X’d him out and threatened to kill him and do all this kind of weird stuff. Our management hired a private detective to keep tabs on that person. I think that that person eventually went away. He worked for the postal service.
BUZZ OSBORNE (Melvins singer/guitarist) Everything that Nirvana did that people consider good was clouded by some horrible thing. Everything. The happiest I ever saw them was the time that we stayed with them in L.A., when they were recording Nevermind. They had rented some condo, and I think Krist had just gotten a DUI.
BUTCH VIG One night we went to see L7 play, and I didn’t know this, but Kurt and Krist took mushrooms, and Krist was driving. He had also drank like half a bottle of whiskey by the time we got there. After the show, they disappeared. The next morning I went in at noon, and at 1 or 2, no band. I kept calling, “Where’s the band?” Finally, I got a call from [Nirvana manager John] Silva at 4 or 5, and he said, “Krist was driving the van on one of the canyon roads, drunk and tripping.” And when he got pulled over, there was still like a quarter of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and Krist was like, “I don’t want him to fuckin’ catch me with it,” so he chugged the rest literally in the 30 seconds it takes the cop to walk up to the van. So he was completely out of his mind. Of course, they arrested him and took him to the slammer.
KRIST NOVOSELIC (Nirvana bassist) You open the cell door and boom—the heat hits you from all the people in there. . . . There’s like 50 guys in there with these cigarettes and nobody has a fuckin’ match! It was totally quiet, except when somebody would walk in and [this] little guy would say, “Yougotanymatches?” Finally this guy walked in with matches and they all just lit up like crazy, smoke is filling the room.
BUTCH VIG Kurt, still trippin’ his brains out, got out and walked from wherever they were, back like seven miles, and this is like at 2 in the morning. They had to go bail Krist out, and needless to say, they were pretty fried when they came in.
BUZZ OSBORNE They were in good spirits, laughing, having fun. We went down to the studio with them one or two of the days that they were recording. Really relaxed. And it was just good. We were playing a show in San Diego, and Dave went with us down there, rode along. We had a blast. That was it, that one little window, where I was able to put all my bad feelings aside, and none of that negative stuff came up.
BUTCH VIG The afternoon we tried to track “Lithium,” we had done a few passes, and for whatever reason Dave kept speeding up and it didn’t feel good. Like halfway through the fourth take Kurt says, “Stop! Stop!” He started playing “Endless, Nameless,” and I just kept the tape rolling. Kurt was singing so hard I thought he was gonna kill somebody. The veins in his neck were bulging out, he just was pouring sweat, strangling his vocal chords, and at the end of song, he started smashing his guitar. I was in the control room and didn’t even know what to say. I went out and asked, “Are you okay?” He just got up and walked in the other room, and Krist sort of looked at me like, Whoa! I’ve never seen so much rage in someone in the studio that came out that instantaneously. It was scary to watch him play that song. I’m not kidding.
BARRETT JONES (Nirvana drum tech; Laundry Room Studio owner/operator) When they were recording Nevermind in L.A., I flew out and stayed with them for a week. I remember they were trying to figure out that song “Stay Away.” The original lyric was “pay to play,” and they didn’t like that. And I suggested “stay away.” Not that they would remember that. After listening to playbacks of most of the stuff, I told Kurt, “Man, this is amazing. You’re going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone within a year.” Oh, I totally believed it, and I was totally right.
BUTCH VIG We went to Devonshire Studios and I started mixing some songs. I had spent three or four days mixing and wasn’t particularly happy because the band was there all the time. Anytime I tried to make stuff sound better to me, Kurt would go, “No, no, turn all the treble off the guitars. Make it sound more like Black Sabbath,” or whatever.
DAVE GROHL (Nirvana drummer; Foo Fighters singer/guitarist) “More low end! I want it to sound like the Melvins!” “It has to be heavier, heavier, heavier!” Butch was doing his best to do what Kurt wanted, and it just wasn’t turning out.
BUTCH VIG The mixes were sounding kind of muffly, and Gary Gersh and Silva came by and listened and they were like, “Let’s just get a good mix guy in, and we’ll try and keep the band away from the studio a little bit and let him do his thing.” I was like, “Cool.” So they sent over a list of all these mix guys. I showed the list to Kurt and at the bottom was Andy Wallace, and it listed Slayer first on his credits. He said, “Call that guy.” If he’d looked further on Andy’s credits, it had Madonna. If Madonna’s name had been first, Andy wouldn’t have gotten the call.
BEN SHEPHERD (Soundgarden bassist) First time I heard anything off of Nevermind, I thought, Wow, these guys are going for number one. We heard some songs that somebody snuck out of the studio down to our studio. Chris is in the other room mixing “Slaves & Bulldozers.” Matt and Kim are in this room listening to Nevermind. I think it was the song “Come as You Are.” And I stood in the hallway and I could hear my friends listening to my friends and watched my other friend work on a song that me and my friends had put together. So it was really intense. I stood there watching these two different worlds going on. Then I walked towards Chris, towards the music we were working on, instead of listening to someone else.
GRANT ALDEN (The Rocket newspaper managing editor) We had advance cassettes of both Nevermind and the Soundgarden record, Badmotorfinger, in The Rocket office. It was a good Soundgarden record, but there was something special about that Nirvana record. People would come in and go, “Can I make a copy?,” and it was probably three-to-one, four-to-one they wanted to borrow or copy the Nirvana tape over the Soundgarden tape.
SUSIE TENNANT (DGC Records Northwest promotion representative) Being in Seattle, there were advance copies of Nevermind around. People made copies for other people, and that whole summer and fall, you couldn’t go anywhere in Seattle without hearing it. You’d pull up at a stoplight and hear it from the car next to you. You’d be walking on the street and hear it blaring out of stores.
JONATHAN PONEMAN (Sub Pop Records cofounder) Bruce [Pavitt of Sub Pop] and I had gone to the Off Ramp and we ran into Susie Tennant, and she said, “Have you heard the new Nirvana record yet?” So we went into her car and she had a cassette tape and I remember listening to it— I was sitting in the backseat and Bruce and Susie were in the front seat—and it started off with a song that I remember hearing them play live. It was like crescendo after crescendo after crescendo. I mean it was orgasmic—probably more female orgasmic than male orgasmic—and, of course, it was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Bruce and I just looked at each other and said, “This is going to be huge.”
JEFF GILBERT (journalist; KZOK DJ; concert organizer) I actually hold the distinction of being the first person in Seattle to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio. Three of us got the record. I was working over at KZOK, an AM station. Cathy Faulkner over at KISW got it, and there was somebody else. They said, “Not until noon. We’re gonna be listening.” Well, I just went up to the clock and advanced it five minutes ahead of time, because as the guy on the low end of the dial on AM, I thought, This is how I say “Fuck you” to the rest of 'em. So I played it first.
Something changed in the week or two following: That song never left the radio. It just kept getting more and more requests. Suddenly, it just felt different around town. It’s like, you’re on the very top of the roller coaster and you’re about to go into that big, spinning dive. That anticipation, it was in the air.
CRAIG MONTGOMERY (Nirvana soundman) We drove down to L.A. from Seattle to film the “Teen Spirit” video and do some shows. And I remember being in the van, and Kurt was in the back and he played me “Teen Spirit” on the boom box. And he asked me, “Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?”
SAMUEL BAYER (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” video director) I had come out to Los Angeles in the summer of 1991 hoping to get my big break directing videos. I knew Robin Sloane, who commissioned videos at Geffen Records. Took her out to lunch, begged her for some work, and she was nice enough to send me an advance of some songs from the Nirvana album. I’ve said this before, but I think that they picked me because I had the worst reel. It was a bunch of artsy, pretend videos. I think one of them was set to Muddy Waters music and one of them was for a stockbroker that had hired me to do a video for his band in New York. (Laughs.) Maybe it was a punk thing to do, to pick the guy with the really bad reel.
CRAIG MONTGOMERY The “Teen Spirit” director wanted to do all this story, narrative stuff, and Kurt just wanted to have the band playing and kids going nuts. Krist wanted booze and sent me out to liquor stores to get it. Did that cause things to disintegrate? The thing was never integrated enough to disintegrate.
SAMUEL BAYER It was completely out of control. I was a very hungry, angry young man that wanted to make the greatest video of all time, and they were a band that had never made a video before—or at least, a corporate video—and we clashed like oil and water from the get-go. It was an all-day shoot from 10 in the morning to 11 at night. I pulled in every favor I possibly could: The janitor was the janitor from my apartment complex in Venice; the cheerleaders were strippers recruited from some strip club in L.A.
DAVE GROHL Originally we wanted L7 to be the cheerleaders, that was our idea. So instead I think they got porn stars. Which kinda wasn’t really the vibe we were going for.
KRIST NOVOSELIC I go, “Well, why don’t we have the cheerleaders, they’ll be cheerleaders, but they’ll have anarchy A’s on their shirts.” So that’s a whole nod to the punk-rock sensibility.
SAMUEL BAYER The kids were recruited from a Nirvana show on the Sunset Strip, and they were egging on the band, so it was kind of me versus them—and I was losing. Kurt absolutely hated me by the end. He didn’t want to lip-synch the song. And I always believed that maybe his anger with me added a whole level of intensity to his performance. I always had a vision for something destructive at the end of the video, but truth be told, I was so beat up by the end of the day I just couldn’t take any more. I was sitting on the dolly and somebody came up to me and said, “Kurt wants to invite the kids down to destroy the set.” And I’m like, “Great. Destroy the set. What do I care?” And the kids came down, and it was this beautiful display of anarchy and destruction; I just flipped the camera on and shot 400 feet of film, and that was the end of the video.
Kurt wasn’t happy with the edit. He sat with me in the editing bay to finalize it. He took out a bunch of conceptual shots that in retrospect absolutely should have been removed, and he switched some performance stuff around, purposefully putting in a shot where you can tell he’s not playing the proper chords. It was very uncomfortable—we weren’t real friendly with each other—and I was just happy when the whole thing was over. That was the last time I saw him: disheveled, looking like he just woke up on the sidewalk, walking out into the sunlight.
AMY FINNERTY (MTV director of music programming and talent relations) The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video came in at the same time the new Guns N’ Roses video came in, and at this point I hadn’t worked at MTV for very long. I went to Abbey Konowitch, the head of the programming department at that point, and said, “Look, I love this place. I’m having a great time. That being said, this place doesn’t really represent my generation. We really aren’t playing videos from bands that I’m passionate about. We have something that’s come in that I’m extremely passionate about. I’m just saying to you that if we don’t play this, I don’t feel like there’s a place for me here.” I put my job on the line, basically. I believed in it that much.
The video world-premiered on 120 Minutes. Within a week or two, we got it in heavy rotation, and within less than a month, the face of MTV had started to make a major transition.
SAMUEL BAYER In the fall of 1991, that video was getting a lot of airplay on MTV, and I would spend hours at my girlfriend’s house just laying in bed waiting for it to come on, 'cause it was really exciting, really like nothing else out there. At the time, I think my competition was a million-dollar Guns N’ Roses video and Michael Jackson doing something with Eddie Murphy or MC Hammer. The “Teen Spirit” video was nasty, brown-colored—it looked dirty, it really stood out. Within a year of that, there were a lot of different-looking videos: Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden. It seemed like all the videos now had this angry, dark vibe to them.
In August of 1990, I found myself laying on my stomach Comments during performance at Joe’s Pub, New York, December 15, 2010.
You open the cell door and boom Michael Azerrad, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Main Street Books/Doubleday, 1993, p. 178.
“More low end!” Nathaniel Penn, “The Moment We Found Nirvana,” GQ, June 2011.
Originally we wanted L7 to be the cheerleaders Videos That Rocked the World, episode one, aired on Fuse, November 26, 2007.
I go, “Well, why don’t we have the cheerleaders” Ibid.