Willem Venema walked through the corridors of the Doelen with a roar. Angry, furious, he was about the trouble he had just experienced up close on An evening in Vienna. That was the name of the festival that he had largely composed himself for Mojo, the company of which he was co-owner. His anger was triggered by the mess that had been wrought on the evening of September 1, 1991 by Nirvana, an up-and-coming band from Seattle, USA. after a short performance full of sound problems had made an attempt to smash the complete installation to barrels. Singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain in particular was the target of Venema’s wrath. That he had smashed his own guitar on the drum kit was up to that point. But that Cobain had then started on the rented backline, including the Marshall amplifier that had almost crashed on top of him, Willem Venema was three steps too far. The band was thrown out of the building by the organization. A day later, Nirvana’s management announced that the record company would pay for the damage. Cowardly, Venema thought. At least Rod Stewart would do it himself if he beat up a hotel room.
I had observed the debacle from a distance. The room where Nirvana played was packed and after a few minutes in the doorway I gave up, knowing another chance would soon come. For several weeks I had been captivated by a cassette with a preview of Nevermind. Nirvana’s second album promised to be a highlight of the music year. De single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was yet to be released, but you could already hear on the rustling cassette tape that it was a pop classic in the making. Nobody could have foreseen the hit parade success of that rather heavy guitar song with a cynical lyrics about the entertainment value of pop music. Let alone the hype that would arise around Nirvana and the music that was christened ‘grunge’: gritty rock from the American Northwest, played by intense men (sometimes a woman) with long flowing hair and washed lumberjack shirts.
Nevermind appeared on September 24, 1991 and was received with acclaim. “Rebellious, exciting, honest and (occasionally) heartbreakingly moving”, wrote Sietse Meijer in OVER, „[…] simply a great record.” ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ started its rise to number 3 in the Dutch charts, aided by a clip in which cheerleaders performed a wild pogo dance to the song that is said to be inspired by an American deodorant brand. “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit”, the singer said Kathleen Hannah van Bikini Kill chalked on Cobain’s wall with a felt-tipped pen. Nonsense, the singer later explained, he did not use deodorant. Nevermind stamped within four months to number 1 on the American Billboard list, where the Michael Jacksons Dangerous from the top position. More than 30 million copies would be sold worldwide.
That the concert in Paradiso would become legendary was certain in advance
Expectations were high for Nirvana’s night concert on November 25, 1991 in Paradiso. Originally it was supposed to be in the Melkweg, but it soon became clear that the demand for tickets was much greater than the six hundred people who had fit in it. Online ticket sales did not yet exist and the concert was sold out well in advance through the traditional channels (post offices, record stores, the Nieuwe Muziekhandel in Amsterdam). After midnight on the Lijnbaansgracht outside Paradiso, a group of people without tickets were left behind, hoping they could somehow get something from the concert. It was certain in advance that it would become legendary.
It was loud, it was raw and excitement rippled through the room. The audience was roughly divided into those who already knew Nirvana from their debut album Bleach (1989) and those who were attracted to the fuss surrounding the new pop sensation. Both groups were served with a set list that still consisted of a third of the older material. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was launched early that night as a brand new crowd favorite. With Cobain’s trademark use of a distortion and chorus pedal on the guitar, it’s an excellent example of how Nirvana got the most out of the trio line-up. Dave Grohl’s counter-measured drums and Krist Novoselic’s driving bass brought the tension that ignited ‘Teen Spirit’ in the blistering interplay of loud and soft, slow and fast, melancholy and furious. On the radio it was of a roughness never heard before. Especially in the Top 40 where Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ and Gordons ‘If only I could be with you for a short while’ that month. In the hall it resulted in a swirling mass of jumping, pushing, dancing people.
Read the NRC review of the concert: Rocking and screaming with Nirvana
Novoselic played barefoot. Grohl took off his T-shirt after a few songs and drummed bare-chested. With their exciting playing they enabled Cobain to rise above themselves. Kurt Cobain loved The Beatles and ABBA, was the critique used in punk circles to dismiss Nirvana with the clincher as ‘commercial’. Deep in his heart, Cobain was a punk rocker pur sang, whom Dave Grohl had unleashed at the hardcoreband Scream and that later guitarist Pat Smear of the punk band Germs to Nirvana’s line-up. In songs like ‘Lithium’ and ‘Come As You Are’ Kurt Cobain took advantage of his mastery of both the melodic and the rough spectrum of rock music. Paradiso witnessed one of the best concerts Nirvana ever gave, precisely because the elements of pop and punk were so well balanced. Stagedivers did not dive from the stage to indiscriminate noise, but to subtly dosed excitement.
Nirvana live in Paradiso, 25-11-1991
The film recordings made by the VPRO in Paradiso clearly show how Nirvana built a compelling edifice of monumental rock music between opening track ‘Drain You’ and ‘Breed’. It is only on ‘Come As You Are’ that Kurt Cobain crosses the atmosphere of togetherness, when he deliberately sings the melody out of tune and childishly exaggerates how the high notes are actually beyond his power. It is the first sign of the doubt that crept over him in (spoiler) the last few years left to him. Was he still faithful to the punk idea? Had Nirvana sold out to commerce? It took at least three months before ‘Come As You Are’ was released as a single. In the back of his mind Cobain already envisioned a near future in which Nirvana’s music would sound less polished or radio-friendly. In Paradiso followed ‘Been A Son’ and ‘Negative Creep’, songs in which Cobain screamed his throat raw and beat his guitar. Later that night, he would also break three more strings, in a shove with a cameraman he didn’t notice until the closing numbers.
There was still a lot of discussion about the concert of the year, because the attendees immediately agreed on that. Photographer Lex van Rossen was less enthusiastic, who was in Paradiso to take live photos for NRC to make. In the Doelen he had established three months earlier that Nirvana was not for him, when after one song he had already been pushed out of the room by the security service without a usable image. He thought Kurt Cobain was an annoying show-off, Lex told me. That is why in Paradiso he focused on portraying bassist Krist Novoselic, to whom he attributed a much greater charisma. Lex van Rossen (1950-2007) didn’t make many mistakes, but this was one. In the time that remained to him, especially after Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994, I often heard him grumble that he was never able to shoot a good portrait of the Nirvana singer.
Nirvana in Paradiso was, in a sense, the end of an era. The band quickly outgrew the club circuit and contemporaries such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden manifested themselves as the new elite of arena rock. For the spirit of Nirvana – street-worthy pop and punk group in one – you could go to bands like Railroad Jerk of The Thermals, which never achieved comparable chart success or audience reach.
What was it like to be at Nirvana’s legendary night show in Paradiso? I remember a blissful mess of a frenzied crowd and a band launching themselves into the stratosphere with rocket fuel. That rocket burned on both sides, it turned out not long after.