Fifteen years ago today, with a suicide note and a shotgun by his side, Kurt Cobain’s dead body was found in his Seattle home. A coroner’s report suggested that Cobain had taken his life a few days earlier–probably on April 5. At the age of 27 Cobain had musically achieved beyond his wildest dreams (do you think a chain-smoking janitor really thought he’d ever be called the “voice of a generation”?). The Nirvana frontman would have gone on to accomplish more, but how much more, we’ll never know.
For youngsters just getting into music, they’ll hear the phrase “the band that saved music” over and over again. A handful of indie music purists may disagree, arguing that Nirvana was the right band at the right time–with many alternative, punk, college-rock, and indie acts before them leading the groundswell. I think of it like this–in the early 90’s there was a SWAT team surrounding the house of mainstream music and Nirvana was the band that kicked down the door, with all the other SWAT members (both older and younger, good and bad) to follow.
All in all though, it’s like arguing about who invented pizza. Who cares? Nirvana’s success cast a spotlight on many unheralded indie acts (and inspired a slew of others), and in the end, was that such a bad thing?
Celebrating the life and times of Kurt Cobain and crew (what up Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and all of Nirvana’s other drummers–and, oh yeah, Jason Everman and Pat Smear!), here are the Top 10 Nirvana Moments of All-Time:
10. Nirvana Perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” For The First Time (April 17, 1991)
If Nirvana was the “band that changed music,” than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the song that helped them do it. The first time they play it live is at a gig at the OK Hotel in Seattle. Kurt Cobain opens up the festivities by saying, “Hello, we’re major label corporate rock sell-outs.” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” goes on to become one of the most popular rock anthems of all-time.
9. Krist’s Brother Brings Kurt Over (1982-1983)
In the early ’80s, Robert, the brother of Krist–then Chris–Novoselic brings his friend Kurt Cobain over the house. Cobain asks about the noise coming from upstairs and Robert tells him it’s his brother Chris, who likes to listen to punk rock music. As Michael Azerrad writes in his book Come As You Are, “Kurt thought that was very cool and filed the information away.” Without a 6’7″ funnyman/body guard/best friend by his side for an extra morale boost, there’s a good chance Cobain and Nirvana never leave Aberdeen.
8. Top of the Pops (November 28, 1991)
The world of pop music was in for a surprise when Nirvana was asked to perform on England’s Top of the Pops television program. Behind the pre-recorded, instrumental track of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Kurt Cobain does his worst Johnny Cash impression as Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl join along in the fun, mockingly (and hilariously) attempting to play their instruments. Half of the studio audience is into it, the other half appears to be really confused.
7. The Motor Sports International Garage Show (September 22, 1990)
Fans of Nirvana talk about this show in the same way baseball buffs talk about Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World.” I wasn’t at either event–especially since the latter took place in 1951–but have heard and read lots about them throughout the years (the stories get more Paul Bunyan-like every time you hear ’em). In September of 1990, Nirvana had never played to a crowd this large before–15,000–and a drummer named Dave Grohl is in attendance, who just three days later auditions with the band and becomes their permanent drummer.
6. “In Bloom“ (October 1992)
By the time Nirvana was ready to release their fourth and final music video from Nevermind, many mainstream music fans had them pinned down as an angst-ridden, doom-and-gloom band with no sense of humor–“In Bloom” proves otherwise. Nirvana give their unique take on pop superstardom by parodying a black-and-white performance of an Ed Sullivan-like variety show. Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl ham it splendidly, and also throw some cross-dressing into the clip, just to get a rise out of the homophobic meathead crowd that had jumped onto the Nirvana bandwagon.
5. He’s Gonna Make It (August 30, 1992)
Amidst rumors that Nirvana was breaking up, not to mention Kurt Cobain’s questionable mental and physical state at the time, the band makes a scheduled appearance at the annual Reading Festival. Many fans, doubting that Cobain will even show, is rolled out on stage in a wheel chair. Krist Novoselic addresses the sea of the people, “With the support of his friends and family, he’s gonna make it.” Cobain stands up, sings a Bette Midler tune, and collapses on the stage. He then rises to his feet and leads Nirvana in a performance that Novoselic calls his highlight of the year. If Cobain dressed in a hospital gown wasn’t funny enough, the band later performs Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” (Boston had said “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a rip-off of their hit song). Cobain also delivers a classic line of stage banter during the set: This is our last show–until the next one.
4. Nirvana Unplugged (November 18, 1993)
For anyone who thought Nirvana songs couldn’t fly without a wall of feedback and pummeling drums, they were in for a shocker when the band went acoustic (with drum brushes too) on MTV’s Unplugged. Though Nirvana parts ways with their punk-rock sound for a night, they still remained true to their D.I.Y. roots by performing on office chairs, covering Leadbelly and Meat Puppets songs, dropping F-bombs, and going through their entire set just once.
3. 1992 VMA’s (September 9, 1992)
During the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, Nirvana not only ruffles the feathers of MTV executives when they begin playing the opening chords of “Rape Me,” instead of “Lithium,” but also manage to piss off Axl Rose–the biggest rock star of the time–by getting into an arguing match with him backstage and mocking him during their live performance. Rose may have been ticked off, because earlier in the year, Nirvana decline his invitation to open up for Guns N’ Roses, and kindly say no when asked to play his birthday party.
2. Nevermind Goes #1 (January 11, 1992)
Outselling U2, Hammer, and Garth Brooks, Nirvana’s Nevermind knocks, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart, inspiring many fans of indie-minded music to proclaim, “Finally, we won!”. A few years earlier, imagine if someone told you that The King of Pop would be dethroned by a garage band form the Pacific Northwest. You’d be like: Wait, what!?
1. Insert Your Favorite Moment Here (19??-20??)
Since Nirvana’s music became so personal with so many different people–inspiring a legion of bands throughout the ’90s and ’00s–everyone has their own Top-Nirvana moment. Kurt Cobain’s power-chord guitar playing and cryptic-yet-relatable songwriting was the first artist who made me want to play an instrument. I also cherish all the Nirvana moments from high school on. In college, there was a group of meatheads (what else would you call a bunch of guys who ripped hall-phones out of the wall and made a habit of kicking out the bathroom windows?) who got into Nirvana’s Unplugged album. They would listen to it non-stop, with their doors wide open. My roommate and I, both dedicated fans of Nirvana, decided to blast their rough-around-the-edges debut album, Bleach, every time they listened to Unplugged. We quickly got the reaction we were looking for when one of the bandwagon Nirvana fans yelled, “Turn that shit off.”
Kurt would have been proud.