Not Just the Ticket — #24, Nirvana headlining Rock for Choice, October 25, 1991

Nirvana, Hollywood Palace

Then-current album: Nevermind

Opening acts: Sister Double Happiness, L7, Hole

Back of ticket ad: …I think the irony of a Domino’s Pizza ad on the back of a Rock for Choice ticket had to have spoken for itself at the time.

And what to say. What to say.

Maybe I can start with this — I think it was good, appropriate, that the only time I saw Nirvana was for a benefit show, and for an issue that I felt strongly about (and still do). The question of fame and the charity impulse is one that I’ve wrestled with on an observational level for some time — I posted in detail about an example on here some time back — and given the various help-Haiti singles out there now, the question seems newly relevant in terms of music. I can’t but think that if this was ‘just’ a show my memories of it would be different, or at least colored differently.

The thrill of drawing some sort of line in the sand had its own appeal, of course. It’s part of the sense of attending a show like this, ‘showing your support.’ I had sported my “KEEP ABORTION LEGAL” button on my blue satchel that inevitably used for class (and would for many years to come, button always present on it), part of my unspoken-but-clear method of keeping my sentiments hopefully obvious and plainly spoken. At the same time, would I have come to the show to start with if Nirvana weren’t headlining?

The answer I think would have been a clear yes thanks to the band who organized the show and general campaign to start with, L7. As mentioned in my post on their show with the Butthole Surfers earlier that year, the paths of L7 and myself — as well as Nirvana and Hole, for that matter — had already crossed in a very indirect sense. L7 were massive favorites for a number of friends as well as me so when the show was announced, that was interest enough; the fact that Nirvana were headlining, well, that made it a no-brainer.

I had already heard them, about a year beforehand — I had missed any attention around their first album, it must have been in at KLA but either my being home that summer or my general interests being elsewhere meant it was mostly a blank spot. It wasn’t that Seattle (or Sub Pop) weren’t starting to fire off something in my brain as a ‘oh yeah, them’ factor — Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone and probably Mudhoney were all kicking around in my head by the end of 1989. But Nirvana, not a jot, until the “Sliver” single came out — I remember a review on the station copy talking about how great the band and song were, and I enjoyed it, though I think the whole sad-sack vibe of the song was…not comical, but made it feel more like a novelty single than I might have guessed. It was a sweetly sad story from childhood that captured the all-or-nothing feeling of such a situation very well, sounded good, that was about that.

In fact I’m not even sure I immediately connected that song or band with the song that everyone started telling me about breathlessly in early September 1991. I remember getting a few phone calls: “Have you HEARD this yet?” Honestly, I hadn’t. Nevermind wasn’t something I was anticipating, seeing Nirvana on tour wasn’t something I was planning. But I did finally get around to a listen, then eventually got the album, and yeah, there was something there.

Which sounds dismissive; it isn’t. I sure did love the album, played it a lot, knew every song, remembered going “Wait, what?” when “Endless Nameless” kicked in after the album had supposedly ended — seriously, I got up from where I was listening and went over to the stereo, I was that baffled. I don’t think I was sensing my world changing or the world changing or anything like that, not with that surprise track or with the album as a whole — but, damn, it sounded good, sounded great. Loud and catchy, and I liked the way that the lead guy just went ahead and, to quote my friend Kris C., “just dyed his hair girly colors.” I think I made some joke about how they were a glam band in the end.

So the Palace once more — pretty sure it was Steve M., Kris C. and Jason B. I went with, or some combination of folks like that. A week previously it had been Pigface with their industrial/rock/whatever and then us confronting the KROQ dance crowd; now it was…well, I guess as much the first clear signal of Alternative Nation as anything else, though Lollapalooza had already kicked that off earlier in the year. Not that I remember anything much about the crowd other than the fact it was as excited as all hell.

I think we came in there when Hole were already on stage or had just taken it — I had heard something about them a bit, Pretty on the Inside had come out but I didn’t know if I had heard anything off it yet, probably had read a Melody Maker story by Everett True or two at least. I remember approaching the stage from the side of the bar where the ever convenient water fountain was found; Kris at least was with me and I think both of were terribly amused to hear the one song — name totally escaping me — which was essentially “Dark Entries” by Bauhaus. To the point where I think we just started singing the words to that instead. But Courtney Love was pretty damned fierce and loud on stage, couldn’t knock that at all. The rest of the band — drawing a complete and total blank. But they were there.

The emcees of the evening were an unusual combination — Alex Winter, taking a break from Bill-and-Ted-dom, and Kim Gordon. Well meaning enough though I can’t say I remember any deathless words; still, doubtless they underscored the whole point of the evening as benefit. I think there were the occasional cries of ‘get the band on’ or the like — or just random cheering or noise — and that probably helped underscore my own continual qualms about benefit shows in practice. They would return throughout the evening in between sets, but it was all a blur.

L7 were L7 and they rocked. That was the whole point, of course — word was already out that a new album would be due early next year, though I don’t know if it had been confirmed that Butch Vig was the producer at that stage (hell of a score, though, given Nevermind, and the label was more than happy to play that up in the end). One thing they did do, which I remember making more than a little fun of Kris about, was their rewritten cover of “Used to Love Her” — turned into “Used to Love Him,” of course. Kris, you see, was one of the world’s biggest Guns’n’Roses fans, though I think her patience with them was starting to collapse (thanks to “Don’t Cry,” I believe). I think she only jabbed me in the ribs once or twice.

I do remember I had to have gone into the lobby for a bit after L7′s set because whenever I came back Sister Double Happiness were on stage…boring everybody. This still takes the cake as one of the biggest ‘who are you and why are you here?’ missteps I’ve ever seen at a concert lineup — which is a little unfair, given that Gary Floyd’s role as the frontman for the mighty Texas punk band the Dicks had long since given him a definite immortality. (Heck, the Butthole Surfers named one of their best songs after him.) But Sister Double Happiness had never been anything but well-meaning blues stodge to my ears and that’s exactly what we got, and I remember the crowd pretty much just standing there and politely applauding between songs, and that was about it.

I think our bunch were all rolling our eyes, checking out watches and pretty much figuring out where to stand for the headliners, which explains how I was able to sneak up to the front in my usual nook position wedged between the speakers and the end of the stage front. Kris would have been with, and I definitely remember one of the staffers at the Westwood Village Penny Lane record store there as well — great place, one of the couple of stores I haunted regularly during my UCLA years.

And then — and I don’t remember anything momentous about their announcement by the MCs or the like — Nirvana.

Ten years after the fact, I included a brief description of the show in my first NaNoWriMo effort:

He didn’t remember much about the show. He had tried to get up close to the stage, risking the tight crushing and oppressive heat and sweat of the pit, the inevitable bruises, just to see his apparent new heroes. Cobain just looked down the whole time, singing into the mike but otherwise not doing much; still everything was good enough…

Which is about right. Krist Novoselic did all the talking that evening, and as fits the reputation of a guy who has since gone on to make a name for himself as a local and national political activist, he took the mike at various points to discuss why the band were here playing this particular show, the importance of the issue and so forth — not between every song, I think, but often enough. Sometimes it was just a few words, sometimes more — at one point he passed the mike to someone up in the front, but I think whoever it was just shouted the band’s name semi-drunkenly. Dave Grohl just hid out behind his drums and played the hell out of them as he so likes to do.

Kurt Cobain just stood there. He played, he sang, but otherwise, like I said, he looked down or away pretty much the whole time. I don’t recall him saying a word to the audience at all.

He definitely didn’t want to be there. Simple as that.

Retrospection puts too much emphasis on things sometimes. Nevermind wasn’t a chart-topper yet, Kurt Cobain wasn’t fully shaped in the public eye as a media-shaped caricature, much less a departed one. His passing was still two and a half years away. Who knows exactly what was going on in his head at that moment but I don’t think it was anywhere near the state he eventually found himself in.

But he had clearly already hit a limit. Friends who had seen the band on earlier tours confirm that he was, or could be, far more animated then, enjoying club dates, chatting with the audience. It was already too big for him even at that stage that I saw him at, he was too tired, too uneasy, who knows. It was a good enough show and I have no regrets at all, and yet I do. It would have been nice to have a ‘happy’ show in my head for contrast, or just to know that he was performing without feeling any sort of pressure, however self-induced.

I never saw them again — there were opportunities on return visits to the area then and again, one last time with the In Utero tour playing at the Forum. My friend Eric R. who went said something that I’ve always enjoyed — “Most everyone who was there were these young girls out with one of their parents, and it was the kids who were the fans.” I enjoy it because I think Cobain might have liked that audience, entertaining a bunch of kids with a loud rock, if it were a different setting, something smaller, more carefree. Why shouldn’t music work that way, when it does, so very often?

I used to be angry with him for his suicide, then I pitied him, and now?

What to say.

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