I arrived at Derby College in September ’91 carrying my clothes in black bin bags and precious records in beer crates and cardboard boxes, into a cold terrace house, heated by dim gas fires on treeless streets. If you wanted to make a call you had to go queue up at the phone at the boxes on the corner.
I set up my stereo, hung up a few posters and then went out, where I stayed, going out pretty much every night of the week to the rooms of the new friends in student halls and shared houses, the college bar, backstreet pubs with good jukeboxes and real ale, but most of all, cheap beer and dancing at every student indie club night I could find.
And everywhere I went Nirvana followed. They were the soundtrack to my first term of university, and yet I didn’t know them, somehow, I’d missed Nirvana and was now feigning knowledge and playing catch up.
I mean I knew some grunge bands, I’d been to see Mudhoney, who were incredibly loud, with their massive row of amps, and Hole, when Courtney fucked her guitar whilst we all looked on in awe. My ears were left ringing for days after.
I was obsessed with the Pixies like only a lovelorn, frustrated teenager can be. Pissed and stoned, I’d lose my shit to Doolittle at every opportunity, harnessing that primal Gouge Machine energy.
As soon as the grant cheque cleared, I went into town to get a copy of Nevermind, hoping to buy a ticket for the upcoming tour.
The gig was at Nottingham’s Rock City, and it was long sold out. I was gutted as every one of my new mates seemed to be going, and I knew this was going to be an un-fucking-missable gig, I would be miserable for ever if I didn’t go.
I had to be there, no question.
I’d met a Scottish lad on the same course as me, who had a mate down visiting from Glasgow. Geordie the Glaswegian was in the same boat as me, he was an excitable lad, debating about who were the best ’60s band all night, really into the mythology of rock and roll; and so it was decided over several beers, that we couldn’t miss this Nirvana gig as it had legendary status written all over it, and we weren’t about to let the small matter of no tickets get in the way of our being a part of it.
I cut class, on the first of many occasions, for a worthy cause I rationalised. I was after all doing Media Studies, and Nirvana where a media sensation!
We caught the bus and I arrived in Nottingham with my new mate, Geordie, the random Glaswegian, early afternoon. We walked across the city centre to Rock City, sitting on the steps outside the venue by about 2pm with the vague plan to hang out and see what happened.
Not long after smoking our first ciggy, a small tour bus, not much bigger than a minivan really, pulled up outside the venue and out spilled three blokes. Geordie poked me in the ribs, and whispered conspiratorially.
“That’s them, that’s the band!”
“What Nirvana, really? I thought the bus would be bigger?” I replied.
“Yeah it is, I’m sure, I was reading about them in Melody Maker, the blonde guy is Kurt, the tall one is Kris, and the other guy is the new drummer, Dave or something I think.”
Kurt looked up at us, getting a light for his smoke, looking around scratching his head and stretching. Then he looked up the stairs at me, smiled and came bounding upwards towards me.
“Hey man, how’s it going?” he asked.
“Er, yeah fine, I guess,” I replied.
“Look man we just got off the bus, and the first thing I see is you and well … I really like your sweater… jumper, I mean jumper, you call them jumpers, right? Wild, jumpers – like what did you all do, did you used to jump around in them, all these Brits jumping around in their jumpers, jumping jumpers?”
He nearly falls over laughing.
I’m thinking, “Hey this is fucking cool, the leader singer is cracking jokes with me.”
“Oh right OK, thanks, like,” I reply, not really sure what to say back.
“Yeah, I mean, I really, really, really fucking like it man, it’s just perfect, that grey V neck, I just love them, I got a bunch, but I burn them, put holes in them and shit, so I need an a new one, can I have it, pleeeeeeeease?”
He finishes with a big goofy grin and looks me straight in the eyes and in that instant, I fall for him. He’s wooing me and I love it!
‘Hey, er cool, I guess so. But see I just bought it, like yesterday, in the charity shop, Oxfam, do you know Oxfam? It’s a charity shop, sells second hand clothes and books and shit,” I finally kind of stammer in reply.
“Yeah we have Value Village, I guess it’s the same, big warehouse full of old clothes.”
“Well I got it yesterday, and its M&S lamb’s wool in good nick for like two quid, in grey, and I love the grey, I fucking love this jumper man, but…”
“Yeah…” Kurt asks.
“Well we don’t have tickets for tonight.” I reply.
“Yeah no problem, absolutely, guest list for the two of you, plus I’ll bring you a tour shirt. We just got a new print, it’s like a smiley that’s been shot, and on the back it says we’re Corporate Rock Whores… cos that’s what we are!”
He burst out laughing again, then Krist comes over and says they have to go, Kurt says, “Don’t go, stay right here, I’ll be back, not sure about 20-30mins, just sort some band shit out, then I’ll be back, ok, don’t move!” like he had to tell me not to wander off.
Geordie was freaking out, he couldn’t believe our luck.
“What the fuck man that was glorious!”
“Yeah, fuck, that was… just brilliant! But shit, I really like this jumper man. Still, ha what the fuck just happened! I can’t believe he just walks up and says he wants my jumper!”
We babbled on, smoking, and starting to buzz with excitement at the prospect of getting into the gig for free.
Bang on time, Kurt came out with the rest of the band in tow, they all came over and said ‘Hi’, Krist so very tall, shrouded by his long dark hair, Dave seemingly in the back ground, but grinning that big toothy grin, Kurt brandishing a black long sleeved black kitty sniffin’ T-shirt.
I took off the jumper and handed it over, Kurt put it on, fitting him perfectly, well a little loose, he was pretty skinny.
“Right brilliant, I love it, thanks sooooo much, really we hardly get any time to do anything like shop for stuff, so getting out in a strange city with no idea where the stores are means it’s really hard to get things done, like buy a fucking sweater… jumper!” Everyone burst out laughing.
“So do you guys like know this fine city of Nottinghamshire?” Kurt asks.
“Er yeah sure, I mean not well but I can get us to the city centre and the shops if that’s what you want to do” I reply
“Yeah it is,” interjected Krist, “We want SHOPS!“
He’s about seven foot tall and screaming SHOPS! loudly, as he bounces around monkey like.
“Yeah so this is what we want to do, you tell us if you think we can do it and if you know where to go, OK?” Kurt said. “We want to make instant Christmas cards for all our friends and label people. It’s what? November, so we need to get them made like today, and we need Santa hats, tinsel, funny ties, bad Christmas sweaters, the lot, then we need to make Christmas cards, today, did I say today?”
“You did, about five times.” confirmed Krist.
I give him a blank look that I hoped said what the fuck are you talking about, instant Christmas cards!
“Er well I know where the High Street is and there’s always guys selling wrapping paper and all that shit, they’ll have tinsel, and then from there we’ll ask for Marks & Spencers, that’s the best for all that Christmas ties and shit Xmas jumpers and stuff. But Christmas cards, like straight away, hmm not sure, you know, I’ve never heard of that.”
“REALLY! Wow, wild, hey Krist, they never got instant Christmas cards here!” Kurt shouted to his bandmate.
“Really, fuck no way, that’s like in every mall at home, seriously every mall has a guy with a camera and cheesy backgrounds of like mountains and rivers, or Seattle space needle, some touristy shit like that… so you get some fucking awful photo’s put on cards to embarrass you to your family, and friends,” Krist replied.
“Well we want to do that, but with all over the top Xmas shit, goofing around, it’ll be cool,” Kurt added, illustrating the ‘goofing around’ part with a weird sideways grin.
“Well if you have enough money you can probably make it happen,” I replied.
“Yeah we’ll be in London or somewhere in a few days doing promo shit, so yeah a few days would be cool, or they could send them to the Sub Pop office in Seattle, they’ll hate that!” More laughing.
“Hey Alex, come over here, pleeeease, sir Mr Manager sir,” Kurt called out.
“Yeah, what the fuck yer want, yer Yankee cunts” he answered in thick Glaswegian.
“We need some cash… pounds, is it pounds? Yeah, pounds sterling, we need some ‘cos these fine young men are taking us to the store, we’re going to do those Christmas cards we told you about, so we’ve been advised money is needed and probably, but not definitely, lots of it!” replied Kurt.
“OK, OK, no worries, lads,” he replied.
Alex, the Glaswegian tour manager pulled out a wallet so thick with fifties that it could barely fold, he took out a fat wad and peeled off a very large sum of money.
Gulping silently, it was at this point I realised we weren’t talking Mudhoney or even Pixies levels of fame, these guys where in that rarefied air of not giving a flying fuck how much money they spent on an afternoons adventure, in fact the more the merrier!
So Geordie, remember him, the all-knowing Scot was now able to fill in and make us seem like REAL fans, he basked in the light of Kurt, and made good use of his Melody Maker research.
“Do you smash up your guitars? Like every night?” he asked.
“Well no not every gig, but yeah like some, fuck, it started as this anger thing, I was just so fucking angry that this guitar kept cutting out, the switch was bust or something and I was fiddling with it, and not happy all show, so by the end I’m just smashing it up, thinking fuck this shit, just fuck it you know. It gets pretty primal, like something takes over you and just release it, amplify it, by this smashing up a guitar.”
“Yeah right you’re just a fucking punk,” interjects Krist
“Yeah a rich one,” Dave follows up.
“Yeah yeah I know I, a rich fucking asshole who can afford to smash up guitars like a spoilt brat every night… so yeah I guess I smash up guitars most nights cos I can, nothing more, nothing less, just I can, so I do. Blame Iggy!”
“Yeah fuck, it must feel so amazing to reach that level of noise and feedback, then just smash into it,” I added.
“Yeah crash into it more like, you stay out of my fucking drums, your cunt!” Dave added.
“Ooops, I pissed Dave off by falling into the drums, cos it fucks with him more than me, so I should cut it out,” Kurt adds, grinning.
“Do you need to eat?” I ask.
“Nah, I’m not hungry, well I never eat much on the road, my stomach gets fucked up and shit, like it’s tied in a big knot or something,” Kurt replies.
Dave comes over and grabs Kurt round the neck, wrestling with him like his big brother.
“Where you guys from? Do you live here?” Kurt asks.
I explained I was from Liverpool, sort of.
Kurt says, “Yeah we’re from Washington, well Seattle, sort of.”
I give him a confused look.
“I thought Washington was the capital?” I ask.
“Yeah no, that’s DC, Washington DC, this is Washington State, on the other coast, it’s in the Pacific Northwest.”
“Oh right,” I reply.
“But even that isn’t right, we’re, well me and Krist, are from Aberdeen, this tiny shitty little logging town, in the middle of fucking nowhere, it’s fucking miles from Seattle, but that’s where everyone thinks I’m from, cos no one ever heard of Aberdeen!”
“Well I’m from Ormskirk, about 10 miles from Liverpool, so nothing’s going on, it feels like the middle of nowhere, but I can catch the train and get into Liverpool and Manchester when I can.”
“Wow, your near Liverpool AND Manchester, fuck that’s a cool pace to be from, man. Joy Division, The Bunnymen, The Fall, The Smiths, The Beatles, fuck man, so many great bands from those places.”
“Yeah it’s great I get to lots of gigs, well I used to, but I just moved to Derby to go to college, which is a small city about 20 miles away from here, with hardly any good gigs, so I had to get the bus over here as I couldn’t miss it, everyone is playing Nevermind, it’s coming out of every door you pass at uni!”
“Wow, fuck you hear that Krist, our friend from Liverpool says we’re big in all the dorm rooms, don’t you know, bigger than fucking Jesus Christ.” he puts on his best John Lennon voice.
More laughing, as Krist bursts over, “Yeah wild, fuck that’s great, we hear it’s shipping like 300,000 over the initial pre-order, or something.”
“…Teen Spirit is everywhere, every student night, people are going mental for it,” adds Geordie.
We arrive at the High Street’s little Christmas market, the band swarming around, touching everything and getting the full attention of the stall keeper,
“Kurt, Kurt, show our friend here some money, let him know where not about to rob his place,” Krist shouts over.
“Yeah right good idea, goood idea my man!” Kurt replies.
He pulls out the wad, the stall keepers eyes bulge and he settles down, catching on that they must be a band as the first group of girls slide up and say hello.
Kurt says hello, asks if they are coming the gig, they are, and he seems genuinely impressed.
“Wow you got tickets, that’s great I heard it was sold out, so that’s great. OK we gotta go, we’re on a mission, a mission from god! No not god, Santa, a mission from Santa.” Laughing again, the girls leave happy.
“Excuse me fine sir,” Kurt says in his Python-esque British accent, “Can you tell us the way to Spencers, Mr Spencers or something?”
“What’s that duck?” the market guy asks
“M & S,” I confirm.
“Oh yeah right, OK,” he says.
“Don’t worry, we’ll buy lots of your tinsel, maybe some paper to create the back drop, what do you think Krist, Dave?” Kurt adds.
“Yeah cheesy, I mean nice, you know what I mean, very Christmassy, Christmas paper, so we can stand in front of it and goof around with hats and tinsel.”
“Oh yeah I get it, you want M&S for the ties and Christmas jumpers and stuff. OK yeah down their turn left, can’t miss it.”
“Great, great thank you kind sir,” Kurt replied and bowed as if before royalty as he handed over a fifty and said, “Keep the change”.
We breezed into Marks like we owned the place, Krist trying on everything, Dave picking up something and putting it on his head, Kurt looking for something that struck his fancy. Finally, we found the Christmas ties and socks, jumpers and braces, it was perfect Kurt declared.
Shop assistants looked on as the younger ones muttered, trying to figure out who they were, the older ones tutting. No one came over though, it was like they created a force field around them, this rock star magic force field of invincibility.
Eventually it was pricked, by a store manager, asking if she could help the gentleman with their selections, again the wad of fifties was produced to let them know that they might not look it, but they were ready to spend a shit load of money.
Baskets full of stoopid shit, we made for the exit, before we left the subject of money came up, Krist saying that it was bullshit, that they had to beg for money, that the per diems on tour where pitiful, and that they rarely had enough money, Kurt said he was homeless not that long ago, sleeping in his car.
Krist confirmed this, adding it was nothing to find him sleeping at the rehearsal room, they lived for the band and couldn’t afford both rents some months.
“Yeah I lived in a car, so when anyone tries to tell you to turn down the money, to not be a fucking sell out, I can guarantee you they never slept in a fucking car to get where they are. I did, so I’ll take their money and run. I’m a corporate whore, but hey guess what, I wanted a hit record and enough money to never have to sleep in my fucking car EVER again, so sue me.
“Fuck them, these journalists, you know it’s hard to keep your band going, it costs a lotta fucking money man, everyone need to be paid, it’s my songs making the money, but everyone needs paying, so what’s left for me, you know … so yeah anyway rant over, where do we go for photo’s man? Like, where the fuck are we going to go?”
“I know we’ll go back and ask the market guy,” I reply, and he’s off, Kurt flitting out of the store as Krist hands over the cash for all the ties and bad Christmas sweaters.
We catch him up back at the market stall, and we’re directed back towards Rock City.
“Turn tight before you head up the hill, and a photo studio is there.”
We find it without too much problem, and by now the lads are used to explaining what they want, getting THE WAD out to oil the wheels.
The incredulous owner quickly gets on board, seeing that money is no issue, and so promises that he’ll have them printed and couriered to London in one/two days.
We go into the studio and the band start to play fight, going into a bubble of stoopid goofing, as the sweaters, tinsel and hats are dispensed and different looks tried on, they are vibing off each other and I start to feel like an intruder.
It’s getting on, the pub I arranged to meet my mates in opened a while ago, so we thank them for a great day, and hope they have a great gig.
“Yeah no worries, thanks for helping us with all this stoopid shit, it was great, and thanks for your jumper, I hope you find another one just as good.”
“Yeah me too, and don’t forget the guest list.”
“I got it,” and he pulled out the paper with our names on it. “I’ll tell Alex when we get back, we still need to sound check so he’ll be fucked off we’re late, but I’ll make sure he does it, promise.”
“OK nice one have a great gig, and good luck with the album, it’s going to be huge.”
“Thanks,” they all reply.
And that’s it, we’re outside breathing the air of mere mortals again.
Still buzzing, off what a doss the afternoon had been, we enter the pub and order a pint, spotting our mates are in the back room playing pool. Hurrying in we are all smiles and wide eyes, telling all the details, to various cries of “Fuck off”.
“What, fuck off, no way. Really?”
“Yep really Nirvana, Kurt the whole band,” I reply.
Sinking about five pints, in quick time, fuelled by adrenalin; high as fuck, before we even stepped outside to smoke a doob. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks – I’d met the band but I had no way of knowing if I was getting in tonight, as I didn’t get a ticket, just the promise of my name on the guest list.
I started to worry, so gathered Geordie, along with a bottle to drink on the way up the hill to Rock City.
It was a big gig crowd, that pre-gig tension in the air, everyone swarming out into the road, touts shouting buy or sell, the anticipation of knowing , collectively knowing that this was going to be a fucking great gig, one of those 2,000 capacity nights, big enough to feel mental, good mosh pit guaranteed, but not so big you couldn’t see them, good big chest thumping sound from a solid stacked PA, a band on the up, going all the way, we crackled with excitement,
Nirvana were not quite the big deal they would become, this was in the weeks before all that Jonathan Ross drum smashing and TOTP’s miming, a few weeks later Smells Like Teen Spirit would hit top 10 around the world, they were a band on the up, how big that up was going to be could be felt in the crowd, like I’d felt at the footy for a big game, with everyone high, drunk and ready to mosh.
I made my way to the foot of the stairs where a bouncer was blocking passage to the entrance. “Tickets over there,” he said, pointing to back of the queue, before I had a chance to ask my question.
“Er, where do you go if you’re on the guest list?” I finally got out.
“You ain’t on no fucking guest list, now fuck off” he replied.
“I am, honest?” I told him.
“Which one then eh? The venue, the promoter, merch, press, the band? Who eh?”
“Er, the band, I guess,” I replied
“Yeah fuck off, you ain’t on the fucking bands guest list, now fuck off before I make you.”
I glared at him and gulped, “Honest mate we met the band today, went shopping with them, the singer Kurt took me jumper! He said we’d be on the guest list as payment, I’m on the fucking list mate, honest, let me up, just let me up and see if he’s put me on or not.”
“Alright alight, but if you’re fuckin lying to me with your ‘met the fucking band sob story’, this is a sold out gig and I’m getting shit from everyone, so when you get up there and she says you ain’t on the fuckin list, I’m going to come up their grab you by the neck, and throw you back down those fucking steps, making sure you hit every last fucking one of them on the way down, do I make myself clear!? Now one last time, are you on the fucking guest list mate!?”
“I’m on the fucking guest list,” I said whilst my mind did back flips praying, please Kurt, please have put me on the guest list.
I walked up with weakened legs, stumbling on a couple of flights, taking a few strides to get my balance back, before arriving at the small box office window.
The shutter opened and I was curtly asked.
“What guest list you on?”
“Er not sure really, the bands, I guess, or maybe the manager.”
“Oh yeah, er … Nirvana”
“Who in the band?”
“Oh right yeah, er Kurt I guess,” I reply.
“Oh right,” she replies, a little impressed or disbelieving, hard to tell.
She started looking through the pages of her clipboard, after asking my name. Nothing, on the first list, or the next, or the next five, till finally the last one, Nirvana’s, empty except for at the top of the page ‘Steve and Geordie’ scrawled in Biro at the top, the only names on the page.
“Looks like you’re in luck, lads. Alright how many of you then?”
“Er just me and him” I said pointing at Geordie. Shit I thought, I could have made a fortune getting people in, ruing the missed opportunity.
“OK whatever” she signalled to the bouncer,
We could go in!
We strolled on in, giving the bouncer my best ‘told you!’ the high kicking back in with the relief of being inside the venue at last.
For free no less.
And in a new tour T-shirt!
I headed for the bar, met my mates, who were amazed I got in, sure Kurt would have forgotten.
A couple more pints and we headed for the front.
The gig went by in a blur of flailing limbs, and massive riffs.
Kurt smashed up his guitar, and fell into the drums again.