Over the course of the next few weeks, Backbeat will be counting down the twenty most fabled moments in Denver music history. Today, a look back at when Nirvana came back to town for a show at the Gothic Theatre with Dinosaur Jr., fresh off of recording Nevermind.
When the members of Nirvana left an L.A. studio in June of 1991 and came to the Gothic fresh off of having just wrapped up recording Nevermind, an album that would usher out the hair metal era and formally introduce the world to alt rock, they may not have had any idea of what they were about to do for pop music. This was the summer before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke, and Nirvana was a lauded but still relatively unknown act when it returned to Denver for a show at the Gothic with Jesus Lizard and Dinosaur Jr..
This was the first show after the Nevermind recording sessions. Kurt Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl had just been in L.A.'s Sound City Studios -- the same studio where Fleetwood Mac mixed Rumours -- for two months recording their landmark album. Recording went slowly, though the band worked eight to ten hours a day laying down tracks.
See Also: • #20: Beatlemania at Red Rocks • #19: Michael Jackson's secretive stay in Denver • #18: Black Flag openers Nig-Heist get arrested for nudity 1984 • #17: Einsturzende Neubauten play '86 junkyard show • #16: Radiohead's gear gets jacked in 1995 • #15: Grateful Dead's first time at Red Rocks in 1978 • #14: Marc Cohn gets shot in downtown Denver, 2005 • #13: Ray Charles causes a ruckus at Red Rocks, 1962 • #12: Denver's "Red Elvis" comes home, 1985 • #11: Bob Dylan crashed in the Mile High City, 1960
The mood was mostly friendly enough, without much of the drama associated with big rock acts. Nirvana was relatively unknown, anyway, having released one album (Bleach) that didn't make much of a dent commercially. During the sessions, Cobain would sometimes refuse to do second takes of vocal tracks, Butch Vig compensated for by secretly recording him warming up.
The punk aesthetic was clearly at work. Songs were also half-written and not altogether arranged, most notably "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which was nearly tossed aside for sounding, in bassist Novoselic's words, too much like the Pixies. After wrapping the album, the band launched a brief West Coast tour that included stops in San Francisco, Tijuana and the Gothic Theatre. Doug Kaufmann owned the venue at the time and remembers the show vividly. It was June 10, 1991, and Nirvana and the Jesus Lizard were opening for Dinosaur, Jr.
"The sound men weren't ready. [Nirvana] came walking out before anyone was ready and just started playing. They played for about 25 minutes, then Kurt threw the guitar behind his head and walked off. It was a very spontaneous thing. They just didn't give a toss about anything. I don't think they were expecting to become one of the biggest bands in the world. I was there watching that the whole time, and thought, "Man, they don't care." I just remember him tuning his guitar at full volume, TWANG! TWANG! TWANG!, and no one was even ready to start. He kept twanging away."
Six months later, Nirvana would, of course, go on to become internationally famous. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released in late 1991 and climbed the pop charts early the following year. The follow-up singles ("Come as You Are", "Lithium" and "In Bloom") helped the band sell more than 30 million copies of Nevermind worldwide.
The Englewood gig happened during the band's prime, as Cobain himself acknowledged in Michael Azerrad's 1993 book Come as You Are: "Every time I look back at the best times in this band, it was right before Nevermind came out. It was awesome. That's when the band is at its best -- they're really trying hard and there's so much excitement in the air you can just taste it."
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