I can still remember the sound of the cassette tape going into the player in the middle of the console of my 1985 Toyota Corolla. I was in the parking lot of the Tower Records store on Mercer Street. It was the late summer of 1991, and I’d gotten a purloined advance copy of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” and for the first time, the sounds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came blasting toward me.
It floored me.
This week marks 30 years since the release of that landmark album on Sept. 24, 1991. Since then, “Nevermind” has enjoyed sales of over 30 million albums; hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in January 1992, and spent over 540 weeks on that chart; and in 2020, Rolling Stone listed “Nevermind” as the sixth greatest album of all time.
That last accolade — where Nirvana was ranked only behind albums from Marvin Gaye, the Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles — also illustrates how the album’s reputation has fared the last three decades. A similar Rolling Stone list from 2003 put “Nevermind” at 17. At least in the eyes of the rock critics polled, “Nevermind” somehow gets better with age. Nirvana was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in its first year of eligibility in 2014.
Those accolades and sales figures in the end aren’t what many in Seattle remember when they think about “Nevermind,” though. Instead, the album represents a moment in time when everything about Seattle culture changed. The very words “Seattle music” meant something different afterward, both in the Northwest and in the world.
Nirvana’s unlikely and unprecedented success changed Seattle’s very idea of itself. Their weirdness and their edge became our weirdness and our identity. We already had tech, but Seattle in 1991 was still primarily thought of as a port town that was a gateway to other places physically and culturally. Nirvana helped make Seattle the center of something, even as an outlier. Microsoft made Seattle wealthy. Nirvana, with much help from other bands, and from labels like Sub Pop, made Seattle cool.
I edited the local music magazine The Rocket, which profiled and championed Seattle bands, so admittedly I am a biased narrator. (Kurt Cobain advertised in The Rocket’s musician classifieds a few times looking for a drummer, and the Nirvana logo was set on our magazine’s typesetting machine.) And there were many other bands who played a huge role in this shift, not just Nirvana. But every member of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or Alice in Chains I’ve ever interviewed has given credit to the earthquake Nirvana started in 1991, which also shifted their careers. “It was like the home team won,” Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil told me once.
Ann Wilson of Heart was in the first platinum-selling band from the Seattle area, and had her own groundbreaking career in the ’70s and ’80s, but when “Nevermind” hit, it was like nothing she’d ever seen. “Suddenly I realized I was a spectator,” Wilson told me this month. “I was watching the Seattle music scene’s violent eruption.”
“Nevermind” takes over Seattle
If you understand Northwest geography, or Nirvana’s history, you will likely know that the dateline “Seattle” didn’t accurately apply to Nirvana in September of 1991. The band was from Aberdeen, and at the point “Nevermind” came out, only drummer Dave Grohl lived in Seattle (and he had just recently moved here to a friend’s spare bedroom). Bassist Krist Novoselic was in Tacoma, and Cobain was in Olympia, where he wrote most of “Nevermind.”
But the dateline of Seattle, accurate or not, was applied to Nirvana in nearly every article or review, and they all would eventually move here. That connection was further cemented when Cobain died by suicide at his Seattle home in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood on April 5, 1994. It was one of the darkest days in Seattle music, along with the 2002 overdose death of Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, the 1993 murder of Mia Zapata and the 2017 suicide of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.
The release of “Nevermind” in 1991, in contrast, was one of the most joyous Seattle music days. The band was already popular here, selling out clubs to hundreds of fans the year before. Their debut album “Bleach” on Sub Pop was one of the top-selling releases on that label. Nirvana had toured the U.S. in a van a few times, and paid dues to build a following, though by pop music standards, that following in 1991 was still relatively small.
“Nevermind” was their major-label debut for DGC Records, part of Geffen. DGC pressed 46,251 copies for the initial run, and some at the label thought that figure was a folly for an unproven band.
It wasn’t an immediate runaway success, but as “Teen Spirit” took off on radio and MTV, it sold and sold. Seattle was ahead of the curve with constant airplay on radio, and some stores temporarily sold out. By the time Nirvana headlined a Halloween concert at the Paramount, “Nevermind” had sales of half a million, and it had taken over Seattle.
“Everyone listened to it 10 times a day, and didn’t get tired of it,” Susie Tennant, the local DGC rep, once told me. “You’d drive down the street and hear it out of every car. When you’d walk into any store, you hear it.”
In that era of spandex and hair bands, Tennant said, it was simply beyond imagination that a group like Nirvana could be popular.
“It wasn’t possible,” Tennant told me. “And, then all of sudden, it was.”
Soundtrack to all of Seattle
Cobain had wanted success, despite what he said to the press, but he had never imagined the level of fame that would come. He was 24 when “Nevermind” came out, but he’d been writing songs in Aberdeen and Olympia for a decade.
Before success, Cobain thought Seattle was too expensive a place to live. He couldn’t even afford his Olympia apartment, and was evicted for not paying rent while he was recording “Nevermind.”
But with success, he moved to Seattle in 1992. He and wife Courtney Love lived in a series of hotels, and later rented a house in Lake City. In January 1994, they bought a stately mansion on Lake Washington Boulevard East next to Viretta Park for $1.49 million. Love sold it in 1997 for $2.9 million. It sold again last year for $7 million.
There is no official Kurt Cobain or Nirvana memorial in Seattle, but Viretta Park, like other sites in Seattle associated with Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Pearl Jam and others, is a tourist stop. Enter “Kurt Cobain Memorial Seattle” into a search engine, and you’ll see that Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Zillow and even Google Maps already designate the park as a memorial to Kurt Cobain. (Why the city doesn’t actually rename it in his honor, I don’t understand.)
Almost any day, but particularly on Cobain’s birthday or death anniversary, fans stop by the graffiti-covered benches. Often, I’ve heard Nirvana songs from acoustic guitars or boomboxes or phones. It is the soundtrack to that park.
But to me, “Nevermind” is the soundtrack to all of Seattle, sometimes in metaphor, and sometimes in real life. It’s on Seattle radio almost as often as it was in 1991. I have never been to any sporting event and not heard at least part of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the PA. The Kraken haven’t even hit the ice yet, but if I am certain of anything in my life, it is that “Teen Spirit” will be played at every Kraken game, too.
Those sounds and the memories come to me from all over Seattle. For me, and for everyone here who loved Nirvana, it emanates from sites of concerts, mostly now closed venues, like the OK Hotel, the Vogue, Squid Row, the old Crocodile Café, the Off Ramp, the Motor Sports, the Central (still open) and the Re-Bar, where at the release party for “Nevermind,” Cobain raised his eyebrow at the wild idea that the album might sell 100,000 copies. That prediction of mine ended up being way off, and laughable, but Cobain’s crazy sarcastic eyebrow response sticks with me.
But mostly I hear the music, and remember that first time “Nevermind” came into my life, particularly if I shop at the QFC on Mercer. It was built after Tower Records was demolished in 2005. Somewhere near the deli counter would be where I sat in the Tower parking lot three decades ago and first heard the album that would change Seattle.
I inserted the cassette that day, and “Nevermind” came alive.
To me, and to many others, Seattle has never been the same.