Saturday, April 5, 2014

CRAIG EDWARD KELSO, Nirvana, Kurt, and 20 Years Later


By the Summer of 1991, a lot of my night's wanderings included scouring record stores.

Recordings, corporate and otherwise, were my gateway into a world either forbidden or foreign. On vinyl, in cassettes, forcing their way out of digital pressings came ideas not accessible to me in any other way.

And because record stores housed the vanguard of American culture, they also carried zines, home-spun magazines enabled by the desktop publishing revolution. Whatever discretionary monies I had at the time were spent accessing these libraries.

Zines covered bands few had heard of. Bands who were not being covered by mainstream outlets were treated as royalty. Maximum RockandRoll, San Francisco’s venerable punk magazine, reviewed music scenes, bands, recordings, and zines.

The culture fed itself.

I flipped through a zine, sitting down to better read its contents. It was cut and paste fare, a smattering of that format: columns, interviews, reviews. Some collective put it out, I believe. Animal rights. Veganism. Antiwar screeds. Police brutality. Women’s rights.

From behind, a tall, shaved head, store worker approached.

If you’re into that, you’ll like this, he introduced himself casually, handing me early copies of another zine I’ve no firm recollection.

It seemed to fit whatever I was also reading, and so I thanked him.

This was how conversations started. Innocent. Probing.

We felt one another out, emotionally, intellectually. He wanted to know if I was following the burgeoning Seattle scene. I hadn’t any idea. The last I heard of Seattle was Hendrix and maybe bands like Heart, but nothing more.

He rattled off band names. Mudhoney. Green River.


He explained they were reinvigorating punk, fusing Sabbath-sounding riffs with an American punk spin. I was intrigued, but I wasn’t about to spend money. I let it go.

When I returned to the store a few days later, we spoke deeper, as if we were old friends.

He shoved a bill in my hand, and asked if I was going.

Something called Dinosaur Jr. was headlining in Tijuana. The guitarist/singer was supposed to be amazing, he said. I read it over, thinking maybe I’d go, maybe not.

On my next visit, he asked me to listen to a mixed tape of three bands: Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, and Fugazi. 

None of them rang any bells. Cassette tapes were so cheap, people routinely gave them away.

Take it, he insisted, and tell me what you think.

The music was a complete and utter revelation. It dislodged all previous thoughts I’d had about sound. The songs moved in untraditional ways, and they grooved like I’d never heard. I listened maybe 30 times, both sides, and when I saw him next I was convinced.

I am not ashamed to confess it was something of a religious experience.

Enlisting a good friend, I made my way to Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. I’d spent plenty of time in the crusty city, but seeing a show there was never on the agenda.

Iguanas was a tripled-tiered venue, only a couple miles from the United States’ most crossed border ... but a zillion miles from its regulators and building codes.

It was about as punk as you can get.

I stood out a bit. I was preppy. No drugs. No alcohol (maybe a little, socially). I was there for the music, nothing else.

The first band was a local group. They were alright, but I remember milling about at the merch tables, bored. I didn’t know which of the two bands to choose. The Dinosaur shirts were cool and all, but the Nirvana shirts were boss: black, and on the back had something about being a fudge-packing, crack smoking, Satan worshiper. Dante’s circle of Hell was on front.

Sold. I threw the shirt over my shoulder, and made my way back to the top tier.

Again, Nirvana was not the headliner, the main band everyone was there to see. 

Dinosaur Jr. was the big act. I’d heard Bleach, the only album Nirvana had at the time, all the way through and loved every second of it. Later, I learned it was released on a little known label, Sub Pop, for under a thousand bucks total.

Out Nirvana came, a three piece. I wasn’t expecting that. They were dirty. Disheveled, looking like they were lost, they sort of fell into their instruments. The set didn’t begin so much as creep on us. Hardly anyone was paying attention at first. By the second or third song, everyone was turning to the person next to them, remarking how we might have something here.

Nirvana shook that fucking dusty Mexican club to its foundations.

Off the second and third tiers concert goers leaped, diving into the crowd below. The crowd rushed and soared to the stage, climbed atop, raised fists triumphantly, and then flew back into the sea of the pogoing audience.

Kurt hardly spoke except to scream and shout lyrics. He waved around the stage, lunging and frantically trying to get his guitar to do unnatural things. He was fighting the sound, that much was obvious. Dave hit the drum kit so goddamn hard it really didn’t have to be mic’d. His hair flipped at each symbol crash, punctuating the songs. Kris was a beacon, barefoot, and he’d periodically toss his bass far up into the dark, catching it low when Newton finally brought it down to earth.

I remember it getting incredibly hot. All the kids on the patio outside were now inside, and the little club could hardly hold the collective body heat.

At the end of Nirvana’s set, the crowd shouted and harangued for more. That was new. I’d never seen an opening band brought back out for an encore.

Kurt was unprepared, the last one to make it back up on stage. His signature cardigan was soaked. His hair completely drenched. He saluted his hand over his eyes, blocking the stage lighting. He motioned he needed a lighter, asking the crowd by flicking his thumb. Up came about ten lighters. Kurt lit his rolled cigarette, and the crowd cheered.

He finally gave in.

They’d play one more, he said. But he also reminded us Dinosaur Jr. was an amazing band, and they’d be up next.

No one cared.

He introduced the last song, This is a single off our new album. It’s called, Smells Like Teen Spirit. It won’t be out for a while.

The place was almost destroyed by that one song. Obviously, no one had heard it before that night, but the power of the song was apparent to the entire crowd. The building again shook and trembled.

We tried to bring Nirvana out one more time. No dice. They were guests, and this was Dinosaur Jr.’s show.

The rest is history, and you’re very familiar. Kurt and the boys went onto unbelievable super-stardom, wealth, fame.

Nirvana was my Elvis. 

They were my Beatles, my little brush with a  pop culture phenomenon before it became fully that thing, whatever it is. 

I liked Nevermind alright, and the Unplugged session is a continual favorite. But Nirvana became stale after a while, and I think Kurt knew his songwriting had reached certain limits.

I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but I lost interest in Nirvana shortly before Kurt killed himself (20 years today). I still remember hearing of Kurt's death. I remember what I was doing, and who told me. I remember sitting down, stunned.

Life was made more beautiful by Kurt and Nirvana, and I miss that musical cherry-popping moment almost every day. So much was made available to me by way of the Nirvana gateway drug. 

I only wish Kurt had lived long enough for me to thank him.

And I mean it.

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