It’s Halloween night, and the Paramount Theatre in Seattle is packed to the rafters with roughly 2,800 people. The show’s original headliner, Mudhoney, has been replaced by the opening act: a band named Nirvana. It’s only been a month since their album, Nevermind, was released, but it’s exploded across radio and MTV thanks to the runaway success of the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Ready or not, Nirvana is on an unstoppable trajectory to worldwide fame.
These days, Nirvana are pretty much universally recognized as A Very Big Deal. They’re one of the most influential bands of the last 50 years. Perhaps the most influential. Still, 1991 was a long time ago, and feelings fade. I have my own memory of watching “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time on MTV, and I still feel excited when I watch that video, but I also know that—more than 30 years in my rearview mirror—it’ll never feel quite the same again.
Watching this show is the closest I’ve come to recapturing that sense of jaw-dropping awe. Though the performance is perpetually invaded by the on-screen presence of a six-man camera crew, their work puts you right on stage, and you get a very clear view of why this band was causing such a ruckus. I struggle to think of a more visceral, physical rock performance. Sweet fancy Moses. Dave Grohl is mostly a blur of thrashing hair. Krist Novoselic hops around the stage, barefoot, muttering nonsense jokes into the mic between songs. And Kurt is, well, Kurt: singing & playing like his soul is trying to escape his body. It’s amazing to witness the wonderful noise that a modest drum kit, a bass, one guitar, and two pedals duct taped to the floor can make. What a gift.
If I had a time machine…