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Cover Story ? Nirvana's early years

Trace the roots of grunge’s greatest success story.

This past July, Seattle’s Sub Pop Records celebrated its 20th anniversary with three days of shows drawn from its extensive roster, sparking a bizarre online rumor: that Nirvana, whose first album, Bleach, remains the label’s biggest seller at over one and a half million copies, was going to reform, with Courtney Love taking the place of her late husband, Kurt Cobain.

Needless to say, it didn’t happen, though another Nirvana drummer, Chad Channing, was on hand during SP20 to watch Green River’s reunion performance. But it shows how even the most outlandish gossip about the grunge band can still pique the public’s interest, 14 years after Cobain’s death.

Nirvana came to the attention of the general public in 1991 when the band released its landmark Nevermind album. But, by that point, Nirvana had already been a band for five years and had been recording for four, having released its first record in 1988. The records from the band’s early years are highly collectable, not least because some were only in available in small runs of a few thousand.

Formative years

Though lumped in as part of the “Seattle Sound,” Nirvana’s roots were actually in Aberdeen, Wash., a logging town two hours drive south of Seattle.

Kurt Donald Cobain was born in Aberdeen on Feb. 20, 1967, though he spent his first years living in the adjoining, smaller town of Hoquiam, moving with his family to Aberdeen in 1969. He showed a clear artistic bent as a child, something encouraged by his family, among whom were a few musicians. One uncle, Chuck, played in a local band, The Beachcombers. His aunt Mari was a country musician, and a great-uncle, Delbert, had moved to California, changed his name to Del Arden, and established a career as a singer.

Cobain first took up the drums, which he played in the school band. But as he became more interested in rock, his interest switched to guitar. His uncle Chuck gave him his first guitar for his 14th birthday, a cheap, second-hand model; one of the first songs he learned was the garage-rock classic “Louie Louie.”

Chuck then arranged for Cobain to take lessons with another local musician, Warren Mason, at Aberdeen’s music store, Rosevears (today, a star with Cobain’s name is in the sidewalk in front of the shop). Warren set Cobain up with a $125 Ibanez and taught him “Stairway to Heaven” and “Back in Black.” Thus armed, Cobain spent hours diligently practicing in his room.

Cobain had been listening primarily to the Top 40 rock local radio stations he played, along with albums his father received through the Columbia House Record and Tape club. Queen, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith were favorites, along with new wave acts like the B-52’s and the Cars.

The first concert he attended was a Sammy Hagar show in Seattle on March 29, 1983. But his musical tastes underwent a dramatic shift a few months later, when he saw a local band called The Melvins play a show in the parking lot of a Thriftway grocery store in Montesano (a small town 11 miles east of Aberdeen).

For Cobain, the Melvins’ blast of unadulterated punk was a revelation: “This is what I was looking for,” he wrote in his journal. He quickly befriended the group, and soon, the band’s guitarist, Buzz Osborne, was introducing him to other punk acts like Black Flag and Flipper. Cobain also began attending Melvins’ practices, held at the Aberdeen home of their drummer, Dale Crover.

It was at Melvins’ practices that Cobain became friendly with another aspiring local musician, a lanky, first-generation Croatian named Krist Novoselic (who was then spelling his first name as “Chris”). Novoselic was born May 16, 1965,