Dave Grohl: The Path To Nirvana

Reaching The Top

On 30 September MTV introduced the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video as a world premiere on its flagship alternative show 120 Minutes. Two weeks later the video was moved into the channel’s Buzz Bin slot, intended to showcase new talent: artists selected for the Buzz Bin could expect to have their video aired between 12 and 30 times a day. With “Teen Spirit” also riding high on the Billboard Alternative, Modern Rock, and Top 40 charts, it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the Seattle trio.

“It didn’t matter what time of day or night you turned on MTV, ‘Teen Spirit’ was on,” recalls Nirvana PR Anton Brookes. “You’d walk down the street and you’d hear it on the radio. You’d walk into a shop or bar and it would be blaring out. Everywhere you went it was there. It was surreal.”

“My band Kyuss was on tour,” recalls Queens Of The Stone Age/Them Crooked Vultures frontman Josh Homme, “and I remember seeing the video on MTV at 3A.M. in a hotel room. I was saying, ‘Man, this is so good, everyone should be into this music but they’re not going to be. It’s not going to get played because it’s too good.’ About a week later I realized how wrong I was ...”

“The video was probably the key element in that song becoming a hit,” says Grohl. “People heard the song on the radio and they thought, ‘This is great,’ but when kids saw the video on MTV they thought, ‘This is cool. These guys are kinda ugly and they’re tearing up their high school.’ We were touring and we’d go back to the hotel and turn on the TV and see our video and go, ‘That’s so funny, we’re on TV, and we’ve just played the 9:30 Club!’ or whatever. And then with the video came more people and the clubs got bigger and bigger.”

On October 12, 1991 Nevermind entered the Billboard album chart at #144. That same day Butch Vig drove down to Chicago from Madison to meet up with the band at their headline show at The Metro, the same venue Cobain, Novoselic, and Chad Channing had played as a support band on the eve of their Smart Studio session 18 months previously. The drummer was astonished to find around 5,000 people waiting in line for the 1,100-capacity club.

“At that point there was a huge buzz in the air,” says Vig. “People were calling me going, ‘Oh my God, the Nirvana record is amazing.’ And I knew there was this electricity in the air, that something was going to happen for them.”

Keeping A Cool Head

On November 2, 1991, as Nirvana headed over to Europe for six weeks of headline shows, Nevermind broke into the Top 40 of the Billboard 200, hitting #35. The following week the album moved up to #17. One week later it was at #9: the next it sat at #4. In the two months since its release the album had now sold 1.2 million copies in the U.S. alone.

“I was at Geffen when [Guns N’ Roses’ hugely successful 1987 debut] Appetite For Destruction was released,” Mark Kates, then the promotions director at Geffen, told Details magazine, “so I’d seen a phenomenon happen before. And in this job it’s very helpful to have had that kind of experience, to be able to read signs and be able to see things that indicate far more than the specific nature of what they are. Let’s just say you get an inner feeling that something is going on that not only can you not control, but also you wouldn’t want to control.”

This inability to control the momentum around Nirvana may have been exhilarating for the suits at Geffen, but soon enough the three young men in the eye of the hurricane began to feel like their lives were no longer their own. Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Nirvana — an autograph, an interview, a photograph, a handshake, an endorsement, an outrageous quote, a punk-rock gesture. And Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl were expected to comply with every request, every demand.

The first indications that the pressures engendered by the unexpected success of Nevermind might be having an effect on the mental health of the three musicians behind it came during Nirvana’s winter ’91 European tour.

“On that tour I remember the introduction of anxiety into my life,” says Grohl. “I had this fear of being alone, because I was so surrounded. I was being pushed and pulled to go do interviews, and go do TV and go say hello to these people and those people. We had no idea what it all meant then. I didn’t have my own hotel room, I was sharing with [tour manager] Alex MacLeod, and when I got back home it became really hard to go to sleep at night if I was in a room by myself. I was so used to being surrounded by chaos that silence or solitude kinda flipped me out.

“But was I comfortable selling 10 million records and buying a house and finally being able to support myself playing music? Absolutely. I never had a problem with that. I have never, ever wished for less.”

Gathering Clouds

On January 11, 1992, Nevermind displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album from the top of the Billboard 200. Nirvana were now the nation’s favorite, and most bewildered, new pop stars. That same weekend the band were in New York City to perform on Saturday Night Live, America’s highest-rating TV program, and the show on which Dave Grohl had first stumbled upon the existence of punk rock 12 years previously. It was a weekend no one in the Nirvana camp would ever forget.

On the morning of January 11, Danny Goldberg received a phone call at home from Courtney Love, asking if he could deliver $5,000 in cash to her at the Omni Hotel in midtown Manhattan, as she and Cobain were of a mind to do some shopping before the SNL taping. Nirvana’s manager dropped off the money in $100 bills later that morning. That afternoon Love and Cobain strolled down to “Alphabet City” on Manhattan’s scuzzy Lower East Side and scored a quantity of China White heroin, returned to their hotel suite, and locked the door.

According to Come As You Are [by Michael Azerrad, Main Street Books, 1993], Cobain and Love first did heroin together in Amsterdam during Nirvana’s winter ’91 European tour. Both had dabbled with the drug previously — Cobain started using on a casual basis in Olympia, while Love later claimed to have first shot up at a party at actor Charlie Sheen’s house — but using together helped the couple spin their own little cocoon in which to shelter from an increasingly turbulent outside world.

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