MY NIRVANA CONCERT
Album: Nirvana Bleach
Not long ago, Taylor Swift put out an album entitled 1989. Why 1989? Because that’s the year she was born and this seemed symbolic to her as she used the album to transition herself from Nashville country star into a New York pop star. Don’t ask me how I know all that. Another reason was that she’d been listening to lots of music from that era, and was under the illusion that, probably because it was now 27 years old and therefore super vintage, the music from her birth year was actually good. To quote Ms. Swift: “The inspiration behind this record, I was listening to a lot of late 80’s pop…I really loved the chances they were taking, how bold it was.”
I feel differently. To me, 1989–1990, a timespan that coincided with my senior year of high school, represents one of the absolute low points in popular music. I know this because radio stations around my home city of San Diego were bleating the likes of Poison, Milli Vanilli, New Kids on the Block, Warrant, Bon Jovi, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Paula Abdul and the whining sound of Axl Rose’s vocals…none of which inspires use of the adjective “bold.” To be sure, there were some bright spots here and there — the occasional Love and Rockets tune, or The Cure and Depeche Mode if you were into that sort of thing (I wasn’t) — but for the most part the mainstream options were pretty dull.
So, instead of listening to the radio I spent my hard earned Carl’s Jr. wages — frying fries and spreading special sauce— on punk records, and by 1990 I had built up a pretty sizable collection of music, not one song of which was ever going to be played on any popular radio station anywhere in America. Not when the bands had names like Napalm Death or Charred Remains or Millions of Dead Cops, and not when the songs had titles like “Too Drunk to Fuck” or “City Baby Attacked by Rats” or “State Violence State Control”. Secure in the smug knowledge that punk music was the best music, and that all things normal and trendy surely sucked, I sat alone in my bedroom and blasted records while poring over the enclosed lyric sheets (generally indispensable since the singing might well be impossible to understand) or well worn copies of Flipside and Maximum Rock and Roll, two longstanding, semi-underground magazines offering a Los Angeles and Bay Area perspective on all things punk.
It’s almost cliche now to say that punk rock saved your life, but it surely provided the grit necessary for (mostly) white kids from (almost always) broken homes to pull through unhappy times, and offered a ready made plan B for those whose family situation precluded ever being truly normal. The music offered angry solace to anyone sick of corporate pop or hair band ballads and the status quo associated with both — a status quo that extended well beyond cheesy music to things like Exxon’s oil tankers dumping their contents into the ocean or American backed death squads killing children in El Salvador. More importantly, the power of the music was backed by the camaraderie of your punk pals — a small support group of fellow outcasts — who had also concluded that everything was generally fucked up and that the fact that their parents fought too much/molested their kids too often/took too much valium/snorted too much meth/got drunk and smashed up the house too often/simply worked too much to make ends meet et cetera made it impossible to ever truly “fit in”…so why bother?
A dozen or so years after the rise of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, punk was here to stay, but in 1989 it was going through a period every bit as dark as pop music. As I saturated myself with all things punk and read what I could find about its brief but explosive history, I soon realized that things had peaked out long before I stumbled onto the scene. Hard to find movies like “Another State of Mind” and “The Decline of Western Civilization” painted a picture of a thriving and growing movement circa 1980-’83 that was going to change the world, but by 1989 that first wave had long since broken, and things were fragmenting on every level. For the most part, iconic bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys had broken up, while others had dumbed themselves down to play speed metal, or gone soft and boring in an attempt to make themselves more palatable to the MTV crowd and maybe catch some time on the mainstream airwaves. To be sure, some of the best albums EVER made, punk or otherwise, came out at this time — Government Issue’s Crash, RKL’s Rock and Roll Nightmare, and, of course, Operation Ivy’s Energy to name just three — but few people in the declining punk scene knew about these great bands, and even fewer came out to hear them play or bought their records, at least in San Diego.
The musical nosedive had been accompanied by a decline in the overall intelligence of many of its listeners. Debauchery and violence were intrinsic to punk culture, but had been at least somewhat balanced by idealism, political awareness and a striving for positive change. But by the late 80’s, especially in the punk epicenter of Southern California, the darker forces were on the ascendancy, and counterparts of the meathead construction workers who spit on us when we walked down the sidewalk (or the steroid jocks who called us faggots in the hallways at school) could be found at punk shows — albeit with Doc Martens on their feet instead of Nikes. Nazi skinheads were rampant at this time, and showed up en masse at shows to stomp on heads and be assholes, as did remnants of the era’s punk gangs who showed up for the same reasons. Hot on their heels came the cops, who arrived in a flurry of billy clubs and porn mustaches to shut it all down and arrest people for loitering. By 1989, things in San Diego had gotten so bad that nobody dare put on a big name show for fear of riot or cops, and two things happened:
First, local and touring bands alike played shows in basements, garages and other hole in the wall locales, including abandoned houses, backyards and especially the Ché Cafe, a vegetarian cafe at the UCSD campus that had morphed into an underground club of sorts where you could catch five bands for three dollars. Thugs found their way to these shows as well, and caused their share of problems, but there were fewer of them, and the worst of the lot — the violent racist skinheads from East County — almost never showed up, and neither did the cops. Bands at these shows usually represented a newer, transitioning era of punk music: firmly rooted in the glory days of hardcore, but taking that energy in diverse new directions that might be influenced by ska, L.S.D, straight edge, hip hop, 1970’s funk, Hare Krishna, industrial electronica and more.
The remaining big names, including classic hardcore bands like Bad Brains and a resurgent Bad Religion, didn’t have this option, as they might draw crowds of a couple thousand people, so these shows moved across the border into a cavernous club called Iguana’s, in Tijuana, Mexico. As you might imagine, these shows were utterly crazy. They featured all of the mindless violence of San Diego’s punk scene plus cheap beer, multiple balconies to leap from, and the simple fact that it happened in Tijuana, where even the worst fake i.d. was good enough, and the cops wouldn’t be a problem unless they were, in which case, well: Mexican jail awaits.
This was the situation in February, 1990, when Nirvana came to town. Two years later, Nirvana coming to town, any town, would have been a really big deal, but at this time almost nobody had heard of them. The only reason I knew about the show, or had even heard of the band, was due to the fact that every Wednesday night from 8:00 to 9:00 I listened religiously to the “KCR Hardcore Show” on one of the local college radio stations…an hour of punk music that represented the sum total of my radio listening at the time. The deejay played a variety of tunes, including lots of new stuff from cities like Seattle, Berkeley and Washington D.C. that were actually going through a punk Renaissance, and one night she played songs from the new album by Nirvana: Bleach.
It was pretty good. A bit slow for my taste, but catchy — kinda heavy metalish guitars but not in a dumb “watch me play my awesome guitar solo” cock rock way, and certainly not silly speed metal. More like Black Sabbath doing bongloads with Black Flag on a dreary gray and rainy day, which summed up much of the burgeoning Seattle sound at the time. Not that I knew much about any of that. I’d never smoked pot, been to Seattle, or listened to Black Sabbath — all three would happen soon enough — but I’d seen the Sub Pop 7” records on the wall rack at Off the Record, and read enough about the burgeoning Grunge scene to know that something interesting was going on in that part of the world.
So it was in February of 1990 when my buddy Chad and I took a series of buses and trolleys down to the international border to see Nirvana at Iguana’s. Never mind that we knew almost nothing about the band…it was a (more or less) punk show, with two solid local bands opening things up, and therefore worthy of checking out. We hopped off the last trolley in San Ysidro and crossed through a revolving metal gate and into Mexico. The rain was pouring down and it was chilly, at least by Southern California standards. The usual throng of begging children and street vendors was nowhere to be seen, and the Tijuana river — normally a gigantic cement canal cradling a trickle of water and reeking of sewage — was in full flood, and by the time we’d crossed that bridge and walked the mile or so to the club we were both soaked through.
When we got to Iguana’s, we paid our ten bucks and walked inside. It was almost deserted. Just a few weeks earlier, the Circle Jerks had passed through town and packed the place with a couple thousand sweat and adrenaline soaked bodies that drove the temperature and clouds of cigarette smoke to absurd levels, but on this night there were only about a hundred people, and both the heat and the energy were low. Usually we ended up on the floor in or on the edge of the pit — please don’t call it a mosh pit — close to the stage and in the center of the swirling chaos, but this time we took things in from one of the balconies.
The local bands, Fishwife and Pitchfork, played first. Both were great as always but they seemed out of place on such a big stage in such a large and almost empty building. Seattle band “Tad”, who was touring with Nirvana, played third, and I’d never really seen anything like them: a drunken power trio fronted by an obese guitarist with a beard who sang songs with titles like “Satan’s Chainsaw” and “Pork Chop” from their recent album, God’s Balls.
Then came Nirvana. The band that would shove a stake in the heart of bad 80’s pop music. The band that would kick off the 1990’s and become, according to some, the voice of a generation. The band that would push Michael Jackson off of his top spot on the Billboard Top 100 chart. The band that would — quite unexpectedly — hit the big time, and introduce punk music to the masses. The band that would change everything.
I should probably say something here about how blown away I was by Kurt Cobain and his band. How the music and the tortured, vaguely poetic lyrics just spoke to me. Millions of others would soon have that experience, but not me. It turns out that I didn’t even see Nirvana play that night…the long, rainy walk across the border had drenched me pretty good, and after a couple of hours in that empty cave of a building I’d caught a chill and couldn’t stop shivering. So, right before Nirvana took the stage, Chad and I decided to split. We headed back outside and into the shelter of the nearest Tijuana taco shop, oblivious to the fact that we’d given up some serious bragging rights.
All we can say now is that we almost saw Nirvana before they were cool.