Nirvana In Aus: The Untold Story Pt 1
To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s landmark ?Nevermind?, MATT SHEA chats to a bunch of Australasian musicians and industry representatives to find out a little more about the band’s infamous January-February 1992 tour of the region.
At first glance, Nirvana’s January-February 1992 tour to Australia and New Zealand seems but a footnote in the band’s short but rich history. As the group travelled about the region, playing an exhaustive series of upgraded pub and club gigs, history was being made back in the United States. Nevermind, their muscular second album, had hit number one on the Billboard 200 on January 11, knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the charts, and as Nirvana stepped off the plane in Australia less than two weeks later, demand for the band in their homeland was ferocious.
Their American record label, DGC, were understandably frustrated at the timing, but Magnet Promotions? Steve ?Pav? Pavlovic had locked Nirvana in for local shores long before Nevermind was even mastered. Many bands would have thought of the tour as a mere blip on the radar – something to be dispensed with before they returned to the US as conquerors of the free world – but Nirvana embraced their time in Australia. It was the calm before the storm. And as Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl watched from afar, they knew their lives, once home, would never be the same again.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, and M+N used it as an opportunity to talk to a bunch of Australian and New Zealand bands and industry representatives about their experiences on Nirvana’s Australasian tour. It’s not often you get this close to pop-cultural history, and taken together these anecdotes make for a fascinating tale, littered with both funny and poignant moments.
Publicist, Magnet Promotions
I’m originally from Port Hedland up north, and I went to Sydney when I was young because I loved music. I got involved with the music scene when I met Stephen Pavlovic. We became friends, and he ended up getting the booking job at the Landsdowne Hotel. That’s when he said to me, ?You seem to like all the same bands that I do. Do you want to come and work?? So I did that. I just helped him with the publicity for the bands that were playing and we loved the same music. And because we liked the same bands we’d be bouncing suggestions off each other all the time.
Pav loved Mudhoney and he said to me, ?Wouldn’t it be good to tour them?? So that’s really how it started. I think from that point on Pav did Mudhoney and Fugazi and My Bloody Valentine, and then he ended up having a copy of Bleach* and we both loved it. Mat Lukin – Mudhoney’s bass player – he lived with Kurt Cobain, and he said to Pav, ?Why don’t you bring Nirvana over?? We did listen to *Bleach a lot and loved that, but that was obviously before they were massive.
By the time Nevermind was released in September of ?91 everything was already in the pipeline for the tour. Nobody had any idea of course that it would be so huge. It was just before Fugazi, when we moved from the Landsdowne to the full booking operation, and then we moved to a little warehouse and it wasn’t about booking the Landsdowne anymore – more a straight touring agency, which Pav named Magnet Promotions.
I was always at Magnet, but in those days there wasn’t a lot of money, especially for those sorts of bands. It wasn’t really a moneymaking thing. I’d get told what I’d get at the end of it and by today’s standards it wasn’t much. I was selling t-shirts, doing lights for bands, and working behind the bar at the Annandale, which was a great opportunity also to suss out new bands. It wasn’t the biggest moneymaking thing back then, and even after Nirvana, nothing changed for me.
We were just little dudes and the whole Nirvana thing became massive, but Pav was pretty savvy. It used to be us chasing people: ?Please can I have a Mudhoney story.? And the next thing people are chasing you, so that was a bit of a difference. The band were here and in America it was going nuts. I don’t think DGC, the American record label, were prepared – nobody was. I think everyone was really unaware of how much things needed to change, you know? I think it could have been big right from the beginning if they’d had all the records made, but they didn’t really have enough supply for the stores to buy and keep up with the reaction.
It was in the months leading up to the tour that we realised this was going to be a big deal. Nevermind had been released, so the hotels needed to be changed, the security needed to be different. It was really hard to know what was the right thing to do. But I think it was probably in December when it started going nuts. The promotion team were on holidays for Christmas at BMG, the label here in Australia. It was really going off around the world and before Christmas I don’t think they realised how big it was going to be.
I ended up seeing Nirvana five times on the tour. That first gig at the Phoenician Club [in Sydney], it felt like the whole roof was going to pop off. It was just massive. They started with ?Aneurysm? – which we hadn’t heard down here yet – and it’s got those massive drums and intro, and it honestly felt like the roof was going to come off. It was really great and we were all looking at each other, like, ?Oh my god! Can you believe the SOUND?!? You could just see the heat rising in the Phoenician; it was just amazing. It really was the most amazing gig I’ve ever seen, and that’s still the case after I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds. They just had this brilliant sound and the feeling that the three of them generated. Because Dave Grohl was an amazing drummer, Kurt an amazing guitarist and lyricist, and Krist was just one of the best bass players going around. Together they absolutely killed it.
I spent quite a bit of time with the band. Kurt and I connected in a way that I was the publicist and he could trust me. I became someone who drove him around – him and Courtney, once she came out. Kurt was wonderful to me – he was really kind and lovely. I hate to talk badly about Courtney, so I won’t. That was probably one of the biggest things I remember. That stuff was really hard, but as everyone knows, the drug thing: people aren’t really who they are anyway. But I will say that whenever she was particularly weird to me, Kurt would pull her up quickly. He would say, ?Don’t talk to her like that. She’s really kind.? That was really nice of him.
Dave Grohl was just a wonderful person, and really funny, and I still have scars on my knees form when he pushed me over during a running race. We’d all been drinking so I wasn’t running the best, and he came up behind me and didn’t realise I was going as fast as I possibly could go, and he pushed me. I just skidded over on Crown Street [in Sydney] and scarred all my knees. That was after we took them all to the Taxi Club. We were a bit trashed.
So it was only when it was released and Nevermind went absolutely psycho and they were here, really, that it was, ?Wow!? But the venues were changed in certain states: WA missed out, Adelaide was changed to a bigger venue, but that all happened while they were here. At the same time, you’re dealing with the band who were still the same guys from two months before when nobody gave a shit about them. You’ve got to put that into perspective too. Honestly, they were really in just as much shock as everyone else was at how it was going. They were kind of in hiding a bit down here.
I think they were really worried about going back to the States. It did feel like the last time they would be innocent. I think all the problems that were going on with Kurt were affecting everybody, and everyone was worried about it, and nobody really knew how to handle it. And then everyone was going to have money, which means more people getting involved for the wrong reasons. As much as people want that success, it comes at a price. Okay, you could be Krist and Dave getting royalties every year, but if they could they’d just have the band back and play great music, which is what that was really all about. The sound, the chemistry, everything, it just came together and boom! That’s why the roof should have really blown off that night.
They totally blind-sided the labels. That was a really good thing, because a lot of those people really high up – the business guys – don’t really have any idea. The exciting thing for me was that no longer could we just be force-fed everything, and we are going to have our own opinion, and we do like our own music, and this is the reason why. But they helped shine a light on the musicians of their time. It was wonderful that bands who were cutting edge and were doing it regardless of money suddenly had a light shone on them.
These days I work in libraries in Perth. I had the best time and loved it so much, but again I was working with a lot of money and pressure involved. Just working in publicity and flying people here and there all the time, it really takes it toll. I did love it, though – I feel so honoured to come from somewhere like Port Hedland to be working over in Sydney and doing that kind of thing. And you know what? Half of the people I know here have no idea what I did.
We were in a loose arrangement being looked after by Steve Pavlovic; I knew him from Canberra, so there was this Canberra mafia thing going on in Sydney. He was booking the Landsdowne Hotel and his momentum and vision took him to Mudhoney and Fugazi, the Flying Nun bands … guys like that. I remember having a conversation with him that he was bringing out this band from America called Nirvana. I’d heard of Nirvana down at the local record store, probably Waterfront Records, but they really were one of many at the time.
Sometime after that ?Smells Like Teen Spirit? broke through. In Australia, triple j presented the tour, but behind the scenes there was a wonderful lady named Jen Brennen, who later managed Crow – she was in marketing at triple j. I remember she had to push quite hard to get ?Smells Like Teen Spirit? played on triple j. That’s why Nirvana presented her with a gold record, to say, ?Without you, we wouldn’t have gotten this gold record in Australia.? Amazing. Anyway, from there this avalanche began, which lead up to the tour and Crow playing with Nirvana, along with Nunbait and The Cosmic Psychos.
There was a lot of excitement leading up to the tour, and that culminated in us playing to a heaving throng down at the Coogee Bay Hotel for their last Australian show: classic. All I can remember is that we suffered from pretty lousy onstage sound, even though the reports that came back later were very positive. I walked off the stage and up the steps into the dressing rooms, which were essentially the motel rooms on top of the pub. Leaning at one of the doors was Dave Grohl. He said hi and asked how our set was, and the normal bitching between musicians about sound and that sort of thing ensued. He said, ?That’s how it was for us last night. We had exactly the same thing.? Then we were joined by Krist, so we just had a 10 minute chat, and I was conscious that there was this rattling around in the bathroom off to our right – I remember thinking that it must have been their singer.
To us, the rest of the night was defined by a sort of dark energy – I’m not really sure how else to define it. Suddenly it was show time for Nirvana and we went into this caged mezzanine area and watched the show. They were an incredibly tight and powerful unit. One of my clearest recollections was that Kurt’s voice was mountainous. It was everything that you heard on record and more. He had a quality to his voice that was quite primal.
They just seemed to be a band like us, but something had just clicked in the universe and they found themselves in the zeitgeist and in the mainstream. Everything that they didn’t want, happened to them. I guess my perception was that they really enjoyed just being a really, really long way away from that. It was interesting: they found this Dr Rock – that’s how Pav described him – who helped medicate Kurt. The doctor involved is now a psychiatrist, but he prescribed this medication that totally did the trick with Kurt, and from all reports he was the best he’d been for a while – at his happiest and best.
But it was clear that they were the real thing. For us, the world became very small – suddenly we were connected through Pav into America. For example, in 1992, after Nirvana, we were in Chicago recording our first record [My Kind of Pain] with Steve Albini. The dots were pulled together in a way. And Nirvana revealed the underground: they showed that if you were interested in great, original music that there was a whole enormous, beautiful world out there for you to dive into.
The Welcome Mat
We played with Nirvana at the inaugural Big Day Out that January and I do remember there being a lot of excitement surrounding the band. It was obvious to everyone around the scene at the time that Nevermind* was a landmark album. Previous to that, though, it seemed that *Bleach* didn’t really capture everyone’s attention like other US indie albums such as Pixies? *Surfer Rosa* or *Doolittle*, Dinosaur Jr.?s first few, or even The Lemonheads? *Lick. In those days people relied on the indie stores like Waterfront, Phantom and Red Eye to keep track of what was happening in underground music around the world, and the Sub Pop stuff always featured heavily.
They were really powerful and exciting live, but it was kind of what you expected having heard the records. The recordings that came out of Seattle at the time by Jack Endino and Butch Vig seemed to have an enormous power that no one else had, apart from Dinosaur. But then seeing bands like Nirvana, Dinosaur and Mudhoney live, it became apparent that a lot of that power was created at the source by the bands.
It’s possible that these bands were influenced by some Australian groups. When I first heard bands like Melvins and Nirvana I was struck by their similarity to a local band called [feedtime](/icons/4329917), who used to always play downstairs at the Palace Hotel in Darlinghurst, where I was living in the mid 80s. Feedtime were early proponents of dropped-tuning dirge punk. The start of their gigs always felt like someone had just started up a semi trailer next to you. But it was when Nirvana married that sound to Beatle-ish melodies that things became far more interesting.
Unfortunately, Nevermind did make us change things up in The Welcome Mat! I lament the fact that so many bands, including ourselves, went in that direction, although we had always had a keen interest in Pixies, Buffalo Tom, Dinosaur, Lemonheads and The Replacements. Initially, though, our band had started out playing Beatles covers and we were more into British stuff like The Wedding Present, Edsel Auctioneer and The Stone Roses.
Nirvana’s influence in Australia was pretty immediate, but then bands like You Am I and [Tumbleweed](/icons/3824101) had already been playing in that style for a while. I think it all probably really kicked off after Mudhoney’s first Australian tour in 1990.
[PART 2](/articles/4335423): More recollections from Nirvana’s only Australian tour featuring Wally from The Meanies and New Zealand’s The 3Ds.