Right from the start, Nirvana had numerous musicians backing their cause.
Excerpted from I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana by Nick Soulsby. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
The First Album: Nirvana in Studio
Cobain and Novoselic wanted to greet the New Year by making progress, so they booked time at Reciprocal Recording in Seattle for January 23 under the name Ted Ed Fred. The timing would become a trend; 1992 would be the only year they didn’t record in January. Some people hit the gym, Nirvana made music. Before the recording, they first had to return to Aberdeen, where they hammered out three practices at the home of Melvins drummer Dale Crover, who was temporarily substituting as drummer.
JOHN PURKEY: At a Community World Theater show that Dave Foster played at, Kurt finally had made me a copy of the first demo tape. I’d heard it from Jim May, who ran the Community World Theater, and Kurt had given him a copy to get a show there and then I heard it and was like, Oh my God, I’ve got to get a copy of it... I had a dream and I told Kurt about it. We were walking back, we walked up to his car, he got the tape, the other side was Montage of Heck, and he gives it to me and we’re walking back and I said, “Kurt, I had the weirdest dream, I was in the Coliseum watching you guys play in front of thousands of people . . .” I don’t remember what his response was -- it wasn’t like, Whoa, really?! It was more like, Whoa, cool. I remember the dream to this day; being in there with thousands of people watching those guys play -- in my mind the music was that good.
CHRIS QUINN, Sister Skelter: The first time I ever met Kurt was at a party in Olympia, late ’87. Dale from the Melvins was there -- I asked how he was doing. He explained, “Oh, I’m doing this thing with this guy,” and he points over and there’s this scrawny-looking rocker guy with a jean jacket -- he had this Scratch Acid thing he had painted on the back of the jacket -- I loved them, so I thought, Whoa, Dale Crover, Scratch Acid... I wanna know what this is! I said hi to him that night, talked about his jacket, Scratch Acid, the whole thing intrigued me.
RYAN AIGNER: I watched “Hairspray Queen” be composed – Kurt had the vision, he had the parts and the pieces, so much so that he physically showed Krist how to play the bass line -- I was physically in the room. It’s a weird bass line, with those slides up and down the neck... When Dale came in, Dale was given the early demos and he got the fundamental idea of things... The fact that Kurt was able to find three drummers in one town willing to play in the band and with the style of music shows that there was a lot of activity and a lot of talent in those days.
Producer Jack Endino accepted the booking because Crover’s presence reassured him it’d be an interesting band. Others reacted the same way.
RYAN LOISELLE: It’s 1988, John Purkey played in a badass band, Subvert, and we became really good friends. So he comes into high school with this Nirvana cassette, back when there were cassettes: “Man, you’ve got to hear this! My friend Kurt!” Their first demo with Dale. I felt if Dale was playing drums, then, hell, all right! We played it and knew this is really good, love this... they’re really good, but the reason they were good was because Dale was playing drums... But the other reason was that they’re original and crazy, the recording was awesome... Whatever that demo was, it was the best album.
Nirvana’s ability to go around making friends was critical -- the underground thrived on people knowing people.
PETER LITWIN, Coffin Break: My standout memory is just what a nice bunch of guys they were. I mostly just knew them back then, from playing some gigs together. Remember, they didn’t live in Seattle at first. I remember Kurt as being a quiet, kind of shy pothead. Krist was supercool and has always been a really friendly guy.
DAMON ROMERO, Lush: We played a house party with them at our bass player’s house, the Caddyshack, before the Community World Theater show in March... I’d heard their demo tape that Slim had a copy of (I was a DJ at K AOS for a brief time. Kurt gave me the Nirvana cassette demo to play on air. He also gave me his four-track of solo stuff that I played a few times), so seeing those songs live for the first time was amazing. It was a packed house, over capacity, people still out in the front yard -- people were going nuts! They hadn’t heard these songs before, but they all loved it -- they were awesome. In general, people in the Northwest are kinda subdued, they don’t go crazy all the time, but when Nirvana played people went ape shit. I was blown away: Holy shit, these guys are on a whole ’nother level!... We all knew that punk rock was stuck in the past, people were trying to bring different influences to it, Nirvana were really able to bring the heavy rock sound and the punk rock simplicity together really perfectly. Those songs were amazing -- that first set they had. I don’t think this is true, but the sort of mythology that was going around at the time was that the first twelve Nirvana songs were the first twelve songs Kurt had ever written. It’s not true; he had demoed, he had done other stuff... but that was the mystique. It kinda made sense: here’s this kid out of Aberdeen, he’s a brilliant songwriter... Nirvana really did play a lot when they were in Olympia -- they’d play parties, they made themselves very accessible, they just had some magic combination that everyone loved them -- K Records loved them, the more slick Seattle people liked them.
Reciprocal Studios had definite advantages for bands just starting out, including price -- Nirvana barely scraped together the $152 required.
JAIME ROBERT JOHNSON, Crunchbird: The first time I went over there to record, it was affordable, comfortable, and very unpretentious. I was someone with hardly any resources to generate income in those times, so that was a very important consideration.
PAUL KIMBALL, Lansdat Blister and Helltrout: Reciprocal, it was the place to track heavy music at the time. Jack Endino pulled folks in with all the great work he was doing for Sub Pop bands, and Chris [Hanzek] wound up doing lots of the stuff that Jack couldn’t do. We didn’t know either of them before we recorded there, but we knew we wanted some of that Reciprocal magic.
Nirvana would come to work with Endino more than with any other producer -- an indication of how his approach and attitude set musicians at ease.
DUANE LANCE BODENHEIMER, The Derelicts: Most of our stuff was engineered by Jack Endino -- super nice guy. Really easy to work with, put up with our crap... No attitude at all -- very knowledgeable in his profession... Straightforward, precise, does everything timely... One time I recall I said I wanted to practice first, I didn’t want him to record it, I wanted to practice first. He said, “All right, cool,” so I did it -- and of course he recorded it and it was a great take. He just laughed -- “This is it, this is the take.” He knows what he’s doing. He makes you feel comfortable.
JAIME ROBERT JOHNSON: I was a pretty squirrelly guy back when I met Jack. I didn’t have the ability to sit still because I was so intense... I wanted to be in a constant state of constant creativity, whether it was working out a song by humming the chords to myself, writing poetry on the nearest piece of paper... what I liked about him was the fact he was an opposite to me in a good way, and the first thing I learned from him was how to listen to other people and how to actually hear what they were trying to communicate... If I mentioned any bands like King Crimson or brought up an artist like Frank Zappa or Ornette Coleman, he didn’t judge and I didn’t have to explain what I was talking about to him... When Jack said it, he said it with the authority of his expertise and (excellent) taste in music. Also, Jack knew how to do things with a guitar that I wanted to learn to do, and if you catch him in an unfettered moment, he is more than glad to share his expertise... The other thing that Jack has is this ability to tell me the unvarnished truth.
JOHN PURKEY: When you’re in the studio with him, basically… he knows when he hears a mistake and he’s not going to let any mistake slip by. He’s not going to be all, “Oh, how do you feel about that?” If he hears something, he’ll just say “OK, let’s do that again.” He’s a really nice, really mellow guy.
The session created a decent-enough effort on limited time.
JACK ENDINO: None of them were recorded or mixed with any time spent due to budget; plus, I had only been working as a recording engineer for three years at that point. The songs with Dale drumming were all mixed in a total of two hours... ten songs on the original demo... do the math. It would have been nice to remix them with some care taken... I never liked the way it sounded . . .
Unfortunately, the band had only limited money, which meant they couldn’t finish the last song they attempted -- “Pen Cap Chew” -- or record two other songs that they had prepared -- “Annorexorcist” and “Erectum.”
JACK ENDINO: The multitrack master tape ran out just at the start of the second chorus, and the band didn’t want to buy another reel, so more correctly the song is “permanently incomplete,” not “unfinished.” You can’t finish it when a third of the song is missing. I did the fade ending for the hell of it, just so they could listen to what was there less jarringly.
That same night, back at the Community World Theater again, the band ran through all the songs they’d taped, still veering between sounds and styles.
DAVID WHITING, Vampire Lezbos: I felt like they were just another new band playing rock ’n’ roll while periodically trying to throw in some musical elements of punk... usually the quick, faster, yelly stuff.
JOHN PURKEY: I specifically remember when those guys played with Dale -- it was just that one show, right after they recorded the demo -- it was one of the most intense Nirvana shows I ever saw. I think the level of intensity with Dale helped form some of those songs -- he’s a really original drummer, he has his own style. I think Kurt wrote some of those songs along the lines he thought Dale could play. So when Chad [Channing] joined, he was more of a 4/4 basic drummer and that could have influenced what Kurt wrote -- he would have written stuff Chad could play. And Sub Pop turned down the first album, so Kurt just wanted to be part of Sub Pop... He may have changed the sound, but I think it was more to do with the drummers he was with. He was a drummer, he played a little bit, so that could have easily been something he kept in mind, depending on who he was playing with.
Cobain’s most underrated talent lay in assimilating sounds that were swirling through the underground and stamping them with his own approach.
1988 had started well. Most significantly, Jack Endino would become the band’s newest champion.
JOHN PURKEY: He was one of a handful of people who gave a shit about early Nirvana; Jack was there. He was instantly a fan -- the early stuff was that good... Literally, I’d be standing next to Jack at most of the shows -- two or three shows where I’d be hanging out with him... right after Nirvana had recorded their first demo with Dale I heard it. I had conversations with Jack about it and how amazing it was and then I’d see him at the shows and we’d hang out and talk.
Endino’s appreciation made a lasting difference to the future of the band. He passed the tape into the hands of Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman at Seattle’s upstart label Sub Pop while the band themselves continued to pass out copies to anyone who would take the time to listen.
ABE BRENNAN, My Name: We got into Nirvana before they put anything out via demo tapes that our friend John Purkey had -- he was friends with Kurt; these were the recordings that Dale Crover... played drums on, some of which ended up on Bleach (and maybe Incesticide; I can’t remember -- fucking pot! I’m telling you! I’m glad I quit!)... We dug the Nirvana stuff right away and started going to their shows -- really small stuff back then; we’d go see them play par- ties at K Dorm at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, stuff like that . . .
BRUCE PURKEY: It wasn’t until the fall of ’88, when I got a cassette copy of their early demo from my brother that I fell in love with them. I played that tape to death in my dorm room... At the time, the dorms were filled with the sounds of Rush, the Cult, Love and Rockets, and the Cure. I tried to play Nirvana and tell everyone how amazing it was, but was mostly met with comments like, “They have horrible production values.”... All the while I was in Bellingham, my brother was telling me stories about his band and Nirvana, but neither of us really possibly expected that Nirvana would gain any sort of widespread success.
Nick Soulsby is the author of Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide and blogs about the band on his website.
Splash image of Nirvana from Nirvana.com