Exhibit celebrates Nirvana right before anniversary of ‘Nevermind’

By Gillian G. Gaar

ON SEPT. 24, 1991, NIRVANA RELEASED ITS GROUNDBREAKING ALBUM, “NEVERMIND,” which momentarily turned the music upside down, as alternative rock exploded into the mainstream.

Nirvana’s final lineup, in place by the ‘Nevermind’ album, was its most famous (from left): bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and frontman Kurt Cobain. Courtesy of Universal Music Group/Photo by Chris Cuffaro

You can certainly expect a 20th-anniversary edition of the album to come out this fall, but Nirvana’s music and legacy is being celebrated in other ways this year, as well: a recent statue unveiling in the hometown of Nirvana’s creative force, Kurt Cobain; the opening of the largest-ever Nirvana exhibit at Seattle’s Experience Music Project (along with a tie-in book); a new album and tour from Foo Fighters, headed up by Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl; and the long-awaited release of the concert documentary “1991: The Year Punk Broke” this fall.

Fans who make the trek to Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Wash., often wind up at the Young Street Bridge, a few blocks from Cobain’s childhood home. The hours he spent hanging out under the bridge provided the inspiration for the song “Something In The Way.”

Over the past five years, Tori Kovach, who lives next door to the bridge, has spearheaded efforts to clean up the area, clearing away the brambles, and placing a sign reading “In Memoriam: From the Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah” (the name of Nirvana’s 1996 live album) underneath the bridge.

His work attracted the attention of another local resident, Denny Jackson. The two men “struck up a relationship, pooled our resources, and the rest is history!” says Kovach. The park now has benches, a table, a gravel path leading under the bridge, and a sign welcoming you to “Kurt Cobain Riverfront Park.”

The crowning achievement, unveiled on April 5, 2011, (the 17th anniversary of Cobain’s death), was the unveiling of a statue honoring Cobain. Kovach contacted two former Aberdeen residents, Kim and Lora Malakoff, after seeing examples of the couple’s sculpture work at a local winery.

A statute honoring Kurt Cobain was unveiled April 5, 2011, in Aberdeen, Wash. Photo by Gillian G. Gaar.

“In September [2010] he approached me about doing this,” says Lora Malakoff. “And I said, ‘What’s your vision?’ And he goes, ‘Well, nobody’s asked me that before.’ And we kind of worked together and we came up with something that we felt represented Kurt the best and would be a good memorial for him. I asked Tori what he had envisioned, because I was thinking along the lines of a bust of Kurt or something like that. And he said, ‘Well, what we’d like to see is something that depicts his poetry and his design work,’ because he did the guitar design for Fender.”

That “guitar design” was the Jag-Stang, a melding of Jaguar and Mustang guitars, that Cobain had commissioned Fender to make before his death.

The concrete and steel guitar that the Malokoffs created is embellished with an upward-spiraling ribbon spiraling that bears the lyrics to the song “On A Plain.”

One more special message to go/
And then I’m done and I can go home.

“I thought, ‘That is so beautiful, the words are just so beautiful,’” Malakoff explains. “I thought, ‘That’s what it needs to be.’”

The statue got the thumbs up from those in attendance, who included Cobain’s grandfather, Leland Cobain, and Nirvana’s first drummer, Aaron Burckhard. In addition to the locals, there were attendees from as far away as Europe, a source of constant amazement to Kovach.

Kurt Cobain wore this sweater Aug. 18, 1991, during shooting of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Courtesy Experience Music Project Musuem

“I have met people from Italy, Germany, Australia,” he says. “Just yesterday, there were people from New Hampshire, 2,400 miles from here. They came here specifically to be here for this unveiling, a father and his daughter. I mean, it’s hard for me to understand how Kurt’s music has crossed such generational lines and economic strata to appeal to so many people. I just find it fascinating.”

A week after the statue honoring Cobain was unveiled, Foo Fighters released its latest studio album, “Wasting Light.” The album saw the band getting back to its roots, recording the album entirely on analog tape in Grohl’s garage (early copies of the CD even came with a piece of the original master tape), with “Nevermind” producer Butch Vig in the producer’s chair. Novoselic also made a guest appearance on the sorrowful “I Should Have Known,” playing bass and accordion. The album debuted at No. 1 in the U.S. (the first Foos album to top the charts) and topped the charts in 11 other countries, as well.

In June, the first authorized Foos documentary, “Back and Forth” was released on DVD. The film covers the band’s ups and downs since its founding in 1995; Grohl also talks about the difficult transition period for him in the aftermath of Cobain’s death, a time when he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue in music at all.

The reunion with Novoselic also led to an unexpected moment that brought everything full circle for the musicians. During the filming of the documentary last year, Novoselic joined Foos on stage when they played L.A.-area bar Paladinos, on the song “Marigold,” a Grohl song that had been recorded during Nirvana’s sessions for its 1993 album “In Utero.” When Grohl, Novoselic and Pat Smear, who’d joined Nirvana on second guitar for live shows in 1993 and 1994, were rehearsing for the Paladinos show, Novoselic at one point suggested playing some “moldy oldies — let’s play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’” It was the first time the three musicians had played the song together since Feb. 25, 1994, when Nirvana last played the song at a show in Milan, Italy.

“It felt pretty weird,” Grohl later admitted. “I never thought that would happen. But it happened. It was just right, the perfect way for it to happen.”

Kurt Cobain smashed his Univox Hi-Flyer guitar at the Evergreen State College, Dorm K208, in Olympia, Wash., on Oct. 30, 1988. This is the first guitar he demolished on stage. Courtesy Experience Music Project Musuem

Nirvana’s story both before and after the release of that landmark song is explored in great detail in EMP’s exhibit, “Nirvana: Taking Punk To The Masses.”

It had long been the museum’s intention to do a Nirvana show, said EMP Senior Curator Jacob McMurray.

“We had talked about it — ‘Gosh, we really should do a Nirvana exhibit at some point’ — years ago,” he says. “Partially because visitors ask what we have Hendrix-wise, and they ask for the Nirvana stuff. And we’ve always had the Hendrix part filled, but there was always only a few things Nirvana-wise on display. But we’d been amassing a really fabulous collection of Nirvana objects.”

Although EMP does have a substantial archive of Nirvana items, many of the 200 objects on display in the show come from private collections, giving the show a genuinely personal feel. One such item is a letter Buzz Osborne, a member of The Melvins, sent to Novoselic in 1986, shortly after Cobain had recorded a demo tape with another of The Melvins, Dale Crover.

“I was pretty impressed,” Osborne writes. “Some of his songs are real killer! I think he could have some kind of future in music if he keeps at it.”

“And it’s like wow, how crazy is that?” says McMurray. “So that was definitely one of my favorite pieces.”

The exhibit also has the 4-track deck used to record that demo (which was called “Illiteracy Will Prevail,” with the band credited as Fecal Matter); the bass used on the recording; and the small pink suitcase Cobain used to carry his guitar parts in, with two early band names for Nirvana written on it (Skid Row and Pen Cap Chew). There are also examples of Cobain’s artwork, from his teenage years.

Dozens of photographs, taken by family and friends, “where they’re just being goofballs, they’re having tons of fun,” McMurray said, add another dimension to the story. Before Nirvana’s members became superstars, it was just another band trying to get a break, touring in a beat-up van on a punishing tour schedule, as the tour manifests for various U.S. and European tours reveal. Set lists, clothing the band wore (such as the sweater Cobain wears in the “Teen Spirit” video), stage props, and instruments help fill out the story.

“Visually, without reading any text or anything, you see the evolution of the band from before they even were a band,” says McMurray. “1983 and ’85 are the earliest photos and materials we have, going all the way up to the end of Nirvana.”

The exhibit also makes the point that Nirvana’s ascent didn’t occur in a vacuum.

“It is the story of Nirvana, but it’s couched within what was happening throughout the Northwest, and also throughout the U.S., from the rise of punk rock on,” McMurray explains. “The exhibit encompasses the idea that there needs to be this sort of infrastructure in place for a band like Nirvana to even exist; that without all of these advances that had been happening in the underground, by a dozen different bands, nothing with Nirvana would have ever happened. Because there wouldn’t be a venue for that.”

So throughout the gallery, kiosks and other displays tell the story of the rise of alternative rock through the 1980s. Kiosks have interview footage of Jello Biafra, Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh; an album display equipped with headphones lets you listen to the music of The Germs, Scratch Acid and The Replacements. Another album display features records from Novoselic’s own collection (The Shocking Blue, The Vaselines, Flipper), with his own commentary on why these records are important to him.

The accompanying book, “Taking Punk To The Masses: From Nowhere To Nevermind,” edited by McMurray, serves as a sort of catalogue, featuring pictures of some items from the Nirvana exhibit along with other items from EMP’s collection, along with quotes from EMP’s archives.

“Some we’ve shown before; some things we have never shown before,” explains McMurray. “As I was exploring our collection, I realized that there are so many wonderful objects that I could really link together, with just a little bit of connective tissue, and tell that evolution, the broad evolution of punk rock, then focus on the Northwest and talk about the evolution of the Northwest scene through the indie years.”

The book is a great souvenir, regardless if you see the exhibit; it also comes with a DVD featuring more interviews.

“We had all that footage, and it’s one thing to see it in quotes, but I think it’s another thing to see the people talking about these stories,” McMurray says. “So it was kind of, why not? It was also an opportunity to get in some great stories that didn’t make it into the book as text.”

The exhibit will run for two years, with the possibility that new items will brought in during the run. EMP also plans to hold special events during the run; over opening weekend, there were panel discussions and screenings of the Nirvana concert films (check www.empsfm.org for details). This fall, EMP will host a screening of David Markey’s documentary “1991: The Year Punk Broke,” with tentative plans for Markey and others to be in attendance. The film, originally released in 1992, chronicles Sonic Youth’s 1991 summer European festival tour, and also features footage of Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland and Gumball.

After a short theatrical run, the film was released on VHS, but it’s been out of print for many years. It will finally be released on DVD this fall, in an edition with a number of extras, including commentary by Markey and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a short film, “(This Is Known As) The Blues Scale,” with additional performance footage, a 2003 panel discussion about the film with Markey and other musicians in the film, and more.

And of course, this September will see the reissue of “Nevermind,” though no details have been announced regarding any bonus material. It is likely that will be the only official event commemorating the anniversary.

Though Soundgarden and Alice In Chains have reformed, and Pearl Jam will celebrate its own 20th anniversary this year (that band’s debut album, “Ten,” was released on Aug. 27, 1991), there will never be new music from Nirvana. But the power of its music has given the band an enduring legacy, one that continues to excite and fascinate the public.

 


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