With the death of Kurt Cobain 20 years ago — April 5, 1994 — Nirvana was finished. Since then, drummer Dave Grohl has gone on to further global success with his band Foo Fighters, and bassist Krist Novoselic has become an outspoken political activist for electoral reform. But the influence of the trio in rock music and beyond has only grown and changed in the intervening decades.
With Nirvana being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 10 with a ceremony in New York City, we reached out to locals who were around for the ascent, as well as cultural figures and younger musicians. They shared their memories and views of the effect the band had on people at the time, its legacy in the music community and the way Nirvana helped shape the identity of Seattle.
Here is what some of them had to say.
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I remember the first time we heard “Nevermind” at the Rocket. Designer Dennis White comes waltzing in. He had this cassette. He said, ‘I’ve got Soundgarden’s new record.’ ” “Nevermind” and “Badmotorfinger” were both supposed to be released at the same time. We said, “Let’s listen to ‘Badmotorfinger.’ ” We said, “That’s a great record.” Then somebody flipped the tape over. “That’s really … good. That’s Nirvana? Play that again.” We played the tape about 30 or 40 times, all day.
It was one of those breathtaking moments, an epiphany, the skies parted. Kurt was able to reach inside himself and grab those universal ideas and express them in such an emotive way it just gotcha! Pop just doesn’t get better than that.
— Art Chantry, graphic designer of the Rocket magazine, and who made many of the early grunge-rock posters, which were featured in a one-man show at the Seattle Art Museum
All I knew, sitting next to my then-boyfriend Jack Endino, listening to this band that he had just recorded — a group of Aberdeen guys said to be “friends of the Melvins” — was that Nirvana was yet another cool Seattle band and this Kurt Cobain guy was one tortured mofo.
We never thought any of this would happen. I was putting out a local magazine called Backlash and covering all sorts of awesome local bands — Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, Tad, and of course the Melvins. Jack was making 12 bucks an hour recording some of these bands at a little studio in Ballard.
It was magical, all the amazing rock being recorded in the late ’80s, though nobody outside of Seattle knew about it and damn few people inside Seattle had ever heard of it, either. Back then the idea of major record label execs slithering into our city signing up every band they could find was about as likely as Elvis showing up at my doorstep with a bushel of Percocet.
Those were special days, before the word “grunge” was widely used to describe the brain-rattling heavy riff rock slowly seeping into the Central Tavern, the Vogue and Squid Row on weeknights. I knew Nirvana was a great band, of course. In a town reputed to be heavy on riffs and light on songs, Cobain’s melodies were strong, his guitar lines artful and his agony real.
But how was I to know this band was to become the “voice of a generation”? As usual, I didn’t.
— Dawn Anderson, editor of Backlash magazine
I probably saw that band eight to 10 times. I don’t think anyone would ever have guessed that this was going to be this huge international pop phenomenon. They were playing for 100-150 people on a good night. When [Fantagraphics] had that Sub Pop panel discussion, [Sub Pop Records co-founder] Bruce Pavitt was on the panel and one of the audience members asked him what band made it that surprised you. He didn’t hesitate. He said Nirvana.
My fondest memories are when they were playing at the Vogue, the OK Hotel, CoCA. I think they were better in a small club. The first time I ever saw them at a big arena was at the Coliseum. … I saw Kurt afterward. He said something like ‘I don’t know what to do with myself.’ The intimacy of the lyrics, of the music, didn’t literally translate that well to big arenas. It was hard to command the stage.
I remember seeing Nirvana play one time at the Crocodile, and Mudhoney was playing. That’s one of the only times I remember seeing Kurt be really happy. There was a big smile on his face. He did some stage diving and he was crowd surfing — and that was after he gained all that notoriety.
— Larry Reid, curator for the Fantagraphics bookstore and gallery in Georgetown. He was the executive director of the Center on Contemporary Art when he presented Nirvana there in 1989.
Nirvana had just played a sellout show at the Coliseum. Now, I was part of a lucky crowd of a few hundred who crammed themselves into the Crocodile for a private show, to see a band we’d been sure would never play such an intimate venue again. There was little of the moshing and slam dancing that usually accompanied Nirvana’s shows. We were all a bit awe-struck.
There were songs from the band’s first demo, songs that later appeared on “In Utero,” and barely anything from the multimillion-selling “Nevermind.” It was a terrific show. Nirvana wasn’t the “biggest group in the world” that night; they were a local band once again, thrilling a packed house like they used to do before the rest of the world caught on.
— Gillian Gaar, author of “Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana”
NirvanaVEVO / YouTube
I have the perfect moment when I knew they’d crossed over from being an obscure punk band. I was walking down Third Avenue, in front of the former City Light place where you used to be able to pay your bills, and I saw a car with three big pumped-up jock businessmen, with their jackets off, but they had ties on and white shirts. They had “Nevermind” cranked, and they were all banging their heads. And I was like, “This is over.”
I remember seeing Nirvana on TV, that video, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And I was shocked, because I remember that was the first time I saw people that looked like me on TV. The anarchy cheerleaders, the thrift-store clothes, the tennis shoes, people with colored hair. To have it in heavy rotation on MTV, it was a really fast ride when that happened.
— Alice Wheeler, photographer and friend of Kurt Cobain’s
NirvanaVEVO / YouTube
I grew up in Seattle and went to the UW but I moved to New York in ’89 and stayed there until moving back at the end of ’98. I was into Nirvana, in a major way, but it was all from afar, on TV.
One thing that had a profound effect on me in particular was their music videos. I was in graduate school for photography when Anton Corbijn’s music video for “Heart-Shaped Box” hit the airwaves and I became completely obsessed with it. That video was actually a major inspiration for me to start transitioning as an artist from photography to film.
Those poppies, the weird-ass associative imagery, the crazy-gorgeous colors, but mostly Kurt’s amazing face, filling the screen, his striking blue eyes going in and out of focus as he moved through the shallow depth of field, sometimes his whole head just a blur with Kris’ small bass-playing figure in perfect focus over his shoulder. All that accompanied by that great song. I could watch that video a thousand times.
— Lynn Shelton, filmmaker
Nirvana lent a pop sensibility — and obviously “Nevermind” added a pop sheen — to this underground music, to punk, and in some cases to metal.
“Grunge” is an umbrella term for a movement. Obviously, of the big four bands we now recognize as grunge — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden — there are some similarities, drop-D tuning being one and some of the lyrical content, but, you know, they really don’t sound very much alike at all. But when you say “grunge” people know pretty much what you’re talking about, whether it’s an exact sound or not. I mean, it’s a powerful term, the fact that we’re still talking about it this many years later, and it’s an accepted genre.
Obviously that we’re still talking about them and their being inducted in the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame on the first go-round is important.
— Mark Yarm, author of “Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge”
People who are on the outside of the hip-hop genre are curious why I’m even named Black Cobain. I grew up in the urban culture. My uncle actually introduced me to rock ’n’ roll back when that was kind of nonexistent for a 8-10 year-old growing up in the ghetto. Nirvana was the one that captivated me. I was like “Damn, this is tight.” This had to be in like ’97 or ’98. At the time I was listening to Biggie and Tupac. It was weird for me to be into something like Nirvana at my age.
When I decided I was gonna go full time with rap, I wanted to be honest and tell the truth, and I feel like Kurt Cobain really did that in his music. If you didn’t understand him as a person, you understood what he was talking about. My uncle had the album “Bleach,” their first album. But it was definitely “Nevermind” that captivated me. His legacy, still 10, 20 years down the line people are still celebrating him, because he left great music, and it was honest. I still take a listen to “Nevermind” and “In Utero.”
— Black Cobain, hip-hop artist from Alexandria, Va.
NirvanaVEVO / YouTube
Spin was doing this compilation, and I was kind of scared to do it at first. Usually a song that has become really popular, is deceptively really difficult. I remember when I was a kid learning to play guitar, and I was trying to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When the verses come in, and there are the two guitar notes, I was like “This is the easiest thing ever.” But now that I’ve become a songwriter, doing that is like the most difficult thing in the world to stumble upon.
I feel like no one in our town, no matter what your age is, you just can’t really escape it. It’s like when you’re traveling and you say you’re from Seattle, most people are like “Oh my God, Starbucks.” I feel like that’s kind of how it is with music, most people are like, “Oh my God, Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Soundgarden.” It’s rare that a genre of music comes and actually defines the whole identity of a city in such a profound way. I’ve lived here my whole life and it still continues to be an identity of our town, which is kind of insane. That’s really a pretty monumental thing to happen, as far as music is concerned.
— Michael Benjamin Lerner, as Telekinesis, covered Nirvana’s “On a Plain” for a “Nevermind” tribute record.