Cobain in Clubland
Jill Pearson

Cobain in Clubland

In Nirvana's brief existence, the band passed through Houston three times -- once at the Axiom as virtual unknowns, once at the Vatican when they were well on their way, and finally, at the AstroArena after they had conquered the world. For the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, and since you've probably read several of the approximately ten skillion "What if Kurt had lived?" or "What is Kurt's legacy?" or "Did Courtney do it?" stories, we thought we'd come up with a fresh angle for you: recollections of the band's Houston shows.

Bleach tour, Axiom, July 1, 1989. The Bayou Pigs were also on the bill.

This was the band's fourth gig away from the West Coast, and it came between a birthday party gig at Alfred's in San Antonio -- where they performed with the Swaziland White Band and Happy Dogs -- and two shows in the Dallas area, one of which was a private after-hours party. Nirvana's lineup was then Cobain on vocals and guitar, Chris (later Krist) Novoselic on bass, Jason Everman on second guitar and Chad Channing on drums. (Dave Grohl would join in 1990.)

Tracking people down who were at this gig proved next to impossible. Estimates of the crowd range from 40 to 100, so there's the numbers factor, and also the fact that it was 15 years ago, and many of those who were there have left town or dropped out of the scene. But we did find one person who was there: Bayou Pigs drummer Lyman Hardy, who now lives in Austin and performs in the band [pong].

So how was your brush with fame, Mr. Hardy? "We played with Nirvana? Wow, that's awesome!"

As glad as I was to be the bearer of good news, this was not the reaction I had hoped for.

"I wish I had some info, some kind of recollection for you," Hardy continues. "I think I had a tape of Bleach, or a couple of songs by them on a compilation…I always thought they sounded kinda sluggish with that first drummer. I didn't feel like he had the groove, and that might be why they didn't make an impression…I kind of have a recollection of thinking, 'Hey, I've got these guys on a tape; this would be good to check out. And maybe I was not impressed."

Evidently not.

Nevermind tour, Vatican, October 20, 1991. Sister Double Happiness was also on the bill.

Having dropped the landmark Nevermind less than a month before, the band was rocketing to fame. Though the Houston gig went over peaceably, Nirvana's Texas swing was fraught with mayhem. The night before, at Trees in Dallas, Cobain smashed a monitor board with his guitar and later dove into the audience and ended up fighting a bouncer, whose friend owned the destroyed monitor board. The day after the Houston gig, the band was supposed to play an electric in-store at Waterloo in Austin, but the Waterloo staff spaced and forgot to get amps. Someone in the audience furnished Cobain with an acoustic guitar, which he destroyed at the end of the show. Very uncool, but that guitar's probably worth a fortune now.

But there was no such turmoil at the Vatican, and there is no shortage of people who remember being there. "It was kinda like the White Stripes at Rudyard's" -- in September 2001 -- "they'd already kinda made it," says Sound Exchange honcho Kurt Brennan.

"We were all the way at the top at the back, 'cause it was so hot in there, and that was the thinnest part of the crowd," says Cactus Music and Video general manager Quinn Bishop. "I was there with my future wife, and the heat kinda overcame us. And that was just the weirdest perspective, being at the back and kinda looking down on it all. It was…almost like a bizarro-world hippie kind of thing. You know how you see those pictures of hippies at Woodstock and they're just blissfully flipping out? It was the same way, but a punk rock blissfully flipping out…That was such a weird time, 'cause that record meant so much to so many people. I felt no affinity for most of the music of the '80s -- there was all that hair metal, and I was raised on the '60s stuff and Elvis Costello and the Clash. To be there at that show, I knew that record meant a lot to a lot of people. There was just a spectacle of people just going nuts. That would also happen later, you know, with Pearl Jam and some of the bands that got huge, after Nirvana kicked down the door, but then I was just like, 'Wow!' "

"I remember thinking at the time how it didn't amaze me that a record like that was doing so well; what amazed me was that it was doing so well because of MTV," chimes in Torches of Fury front man and Press contributor Lance Walker via e-mail. "This was still early on, though -- even when they came on stage at the Vatican, the fanfare was light." Walker recalls that the band was a little worse for the wear because of the Dallas brawl, and when Cobain came on stage he seemed more concerned with screwing the cap back on his water bottle than he was with the crowd. They opened with a cover, and somewhere in the middle of the set, they played "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

"That was by no means the best song on Nevermind, and it wasn't even a big deal when they played that," Walker recalls. "It was just their single, just a song, not a torch for something that would arguably end up changing music as we had known it -- at least in the mainstream eye."

Walker says Nirvana tore it up that night. "It was a precious time to see them then -- Nirvana didn't owe anyone anything yet, they were just a band that was doing well. The kind of band we weren't used to seeing do well, mind you, but still Kurt Cobain wasn't yet the tragic figure we'd end up knowing him to be, and their music hadn't quite made the impression it would begin to make for years to come. In the months that followed, the mainstream would come to them. When the show was over that night and we all poured out into the street in the cold October air, none of us knew we had all seen something so significant -- we just knew we'd seen something great."

Brennan, a couple of decades older than Walker, remembers it differently. "I was kinda perplexed," he recalls. "I remember thinking it was odd that out of all the stuff that was out there, this was the stuff that was really hitting home with all these people. I guess after them the next one was Green Day, and again, you were kinda like, 'I wonder why them?' "

In Utero tour, December 6, 1993, AstroArena. Shonen Knife and the Breeders were also on the bill.

Nirvana was on top of the world at this show, even as Kurt Cobain was spiraling toward his death five months later. The mainstream had found Cobain, and he was not happy about it. "Are y'all enjoying your new Pearl Jam record?" he cryptically asked the crowd.

"My strongest memory of that show was nonmusical," says Blue Corn Music director of sales and marketing Greg Ellis. "I remember this girl was being passed around over people's heads, and some guy grabbed her tit. Chris [Novoselic] stopped the show and told that guy to cut it out. About six weeks later I was at a Pantera show at the same place, and the same thing happened. Phil Anselmo was like, 'Hey, dude, pass her on up here so I can get some of that action!' "

In four years, Cobain had gone from just another guy in just another band to a guy who drew in the sort of people who used to beat him up in high school. A huge portion of the AstroArena crowd -- chief among them the tit-grabber -- were simply not his people. He had to fake it for those people, and he called faking it "the worst crime I could think of." And right after he wrote that, he shot up a load of heroin, picked up a shotgun and blew his brains out.


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