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Nirvana Performing Smells Like Teen Spirit in a Music Store a Week Before Its Release

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2020

On September 16, 1991, about a week before the band’s breakthrough album Nevermind was released, Nirvana played a 45-minute in-store set at Beehive Records in Seattle. When I watch videos like this (here’s the Notorious BIG rapping on a street corner at 17 and a 17-year-old LL Cool J playing to a mostly empty gym1), I look at the crowd just as much or more than the performers. Do the people in that music shop audience know they’re witnessing an early performance of one of the last great consequential rock songs or do they only realize it later?

Hell, I suppose you could ask the same question of the performers: did Cobain or Biggie or LL Cool J know at the time that they were going to blow up in a matter of weeks and months? In Cobain’s case, he may have. From a biography called Heavier Than Heaven:

Two days later, Nirvana held an “in-store” at Beehive Records. DGC expected about 50 patrons, but when over 200 kids were lined up by two in the afternoon — for an event scheduled to start at seven — it began to dawn on them that perhaps the band’s popularity was greater than first thought. Kurt had decided that rather than simply sign albums and shake people’s hands — the usual business of an in-store — Nirvana would play. When he saw the line at the store that afternoon, it marked the first time he was heard to utter the words “holy shit” in response to his popularity. The band retreated to the Blue Moon Tavern and began drinking, but when they looked out the window and saw dozens of fans looking in, they felt like they were in the movie A Hard Day’s Night. When the show began, Beehive was so crowded that kids were standing on racks of albums and sawhorses had to be lined up in front of the store’s glass windows to protect them. Nirvana played a 45-minute set — performing on the store floor — until the crowd began smashing into the band like the pep rally in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

Kurt was bewildered by just how big a deal it had all become. Looking into the crowd, he saw half of the Seattle music scene and dozens of his friends. It was particularly unnerving for him to see two of his ex-girlfriends — Tobi and Tracy — there, bopping away to the songs. Even these intimates were now part of an audience he felt pressure to serve. The store was selling the first copies of Nevermind the public had a chance at, and they quickly sold out. “People were ripping posters off the wall,” remembered store manager Jamie Brown, “just so they’d have a piece of paper for Kurt to autograph.” Kurt kept shaking his head in amazement.

Kurt retreated to the parking lot for a smoke and some downtime. But there, the day became even more freakish when he saw two of his old Montesano schoolmates, Scott Cokely and Rick Miller, holding copies of “Sliver.” Though Kurt signed signed hundreds of autographs that day, none made him feel more surreal than putting his signature on a single about his grandparents for two guys from the town his grandparents lived in. They talked about their mutual friends from the harbor, but the conversation made Kurt wistful — Cokely and Miller were a reminder of a past Kurt thought he had left behind. “Do you get back to the harbor much?” Cokely asked. “Not very often,” Kurt replied. Both Cokely and Miller were confused when they looked at their singles and noticed Kurt had signed them “Kurdt.”

Kurt later cited this exchange as one of the first moments he realized he was famous. Yet rather than comfort him, this realization set off something just short of a panic. Though he had always wanted to be famous — and back when he was in school in Monte, he had promised his classmates one day he would be — the actual culmination of his dreams deeply unnerved him. Krist would recall this particular show — a free show in a record store a week before the album’s official release date — as a turning point in Kurt. “Things started to happen after that,” Krist said. “We weren’t the same old band. Kurt, he just kind of withdrew. There was a lot of personal stuff that was going on. It got complicated. It was more than we bargained for.”

  1. And also Chance the Rapper and the Beastie Boys before they were famous.