Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach
As I want you to be
As a trend, as a friend
As an old memoria
—“Come As You Are,” Nirvana
Kurt Cobain never intended to be the voice of his generation. He was famously conflicted by his stardom, pushing creative boundaries while hoping Nirvana stayed in regular rotation on MTV.
Yet once the opening chords rang out on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—the first single off the Seattle band’s second album, 1991’s Nevermind—Nirvana cemented its place in history. Popular music and the youth culture inextricably tied to it would never be the same.
Despite the band’s commercial success, Cobain harbored mixed feelings about Nevermind and thought it sounded overly polished. While touring for the band’s 1993 follow-up, In Utero, Nirvana—bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl, and guitarist Cobain—wanted to explore new artistic territory. The opening line of “Serve the Servants,” the first track on In Utero illustrates Cobain’s discontent: “Teenage angst has paid off well/now I’m bored and old.”
It was around this time—November 13, 1993—that Nirvana took the stage for the first and only time at American University’s Bender Arena. And as the sold-out crowd of 1,000 could attest, the blistering set was anything but boring. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the show, nine alumni concertgoers reminisce about an unforgettable night.
Gayle Kansagor Hope, SPA/BA ’97, was in her first semester when she heard Nirvana was coming to AU. “Back then, you had two options if you wanted to get a ticket. You could wait in line, or you could get on the phone. Obviously, there was no Internet option,” she says.
Watching the box office from her room in Anderson Hall, she jetted downstairs as soon as a line started forming for tickets, which sold for $15 to $20 a pop. “The box office opens, and there was some sort of problem with the machine that was supposed to [print] the tickets. It was going to take longer. We all had to make that decision of whether you were going to remain there, waiting for the tickets, or head back to your room and try the phone,” Hope says. “But I was adamant—I was going to see this band. I think I waited in line somewhere between five and six hours.”
Brian Nemhauser, CAS-SOC/BA ’97, was awestruck that the band played in Bender Arena. “It felt really surreal to see Nirvana on a college campus like this. They were so counterculture, and American was a pretty mainstream school. I remember that feeling, walking from Hughes to Bender, watching the show and then walking back to my dorm. Just how crazy it was to have it be that accessible, and how small of a venue it really was, relative to some of the places they’d played,” Nemhauser says.
Dave Roth, CAS/BA ’97, already had lined the walls of his dorm room with Nirvana posters and magazine clippings. “It was just incredible to know that American could pull in a band that amazing,” he says.
Kerry Sheridan, SIS/BA ’96, and her good friend Michael Girard, SIS/BA ’96, worked security for the sound booth. And Sheridan got the surprise of a lifetime before the show even started. In talking with the sound engineer, Girard had an idea. “I hopped on the microphone and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a friend here, Kerry. It’s her birthday. Can you do me a favor and sing something nice for her?’” Girard recalls.
“I just remember hearing the voice when he’s singing. And it was so funny that I heard him say, ‘Kerry.’ And it wasn’t really until after he finished that I realized it was Kurt Cobain,” Sheridan says. “Actually, my birthday was a couple months before. But I guess it still counted, right?”
Then the music started, and the mythos surrounding Nirvana withered away. It was pure rock ’n’ roll, with their guttural sound oscillating between loud and soft, fast and slow. Here we are now, entertain us.
“It was an amazing show. Just tons of energy,” says Craig Schmall, SIS/BA ’84, now an adjunct professor in the School of International Service. “We were on the floor, just behind the mosh pit area, where audience members were kind of throwing themselves around.”
They sounded so powerful, Nemhauser says, because raw Seattle grunge was easier to reproduce onstage than, say, electronic music. “That whole genre stood out because you’d listen to someone live, and they sounded exactly like they sounded on the recording.”
Girard remembers a rousing performance of “Rape Me.” Though clearly an anthem of women’s empowerment—Cobain was a staunch feminist—the song was a lightning rod for controversy, prompting Walmart to change the packaging to read “Waif Me.” “They just launched into it. I will never forget that,” Girard says. “It was just an anthemic moment for that show.”
Actor River Phoenix had died of a drug overdose just weeks before the AU concert. Cobain dedicated the first song of the encore to his fellow ’90s icon. “It was ‘Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,’ which was originally by the Vaselines. And Nirvana later performed it at the MTV Unplugged show,” Roth says. “It was great to hear it live, before it became so well-known and such a cultural touchstone.”
Cobain and Novoselic enjoyed a few humorous exchanges onstage. Grohl, who grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, mentioned his involvement with the Black Cat, a newly opened music venue in DC’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood.
The AU crowd sported garb typical of the grunge era: Doc Martens, distressed jeans, and a shirt that would come to typify a generation. “This was the peak of, like, wear a flannel shirt and simultaneously have a flannel shirt tied around your waist, in case you needed an emergency flannel shirt,” says Tarek Rizk, SIS/BA ’95, who covered the show for the Eagle, AU’s student newspaper.
Five days after the Bender Arena show, Nirvana recorded their brilliant, and oddly funereal, MTV Unplugged in New York. It was a little less than five months before Cobain would die by suicide in his Seattle home, on April 5, 1994. As much as the audience enjoyed Nirvana’s set at AU, a few noticed ominous signs of the front man’s undoing.
The show’s ending, with extensive amplifier feedback and Cobain theatrics, perplexed some concertgoers.
“The last 10 minutes were pretty bizarre,” Schmall recalls. “Kurt Cobain did this strange ‘solo’ and you could see [Novoselic] and Dave Grohl looking at each other as if they weren’t sure what Kurt was doing.”
Schmall attended the show with his housemate, and after Cobain’s death, they reflected on what they’d witnessed in Bender. “James and I looked at each other and thought that maybe we saw a sign of problems that led to it,” he says.
“After he took his own life, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh yeah, I can see that.’ He was clearly troubled,” says Tim Furlong, SOC/BA ’96, a student roadie who stood by the stage for the six-song encore. “I’ll never forget, Dave Grohl grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me back. And I said, ‘What are you doing? Are you OK?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m doing this for your own good. It’s about to get nasty in here.’”
Cobain then proceeded to break his guitars. “There were pieces flying everywhere,” Furlong says. “He had a huge box with a set of guitars. And one of the real roadies said, ‘Yeah, these are all the burner guitars. They’re the ones that he’s allowed to smash.’”
Others in the audience didn’t read as much into Cobain’s antics. Girard points out that Nirvana frequently destroyed their instruments, echoing The Who’s legendary stage demolitions.
He recalls Cobain hurling his guitar toward the rafters. “He got that guitar almost up to the roof, and it almost hit him. It came back down, and it was probably six inches from his head. You could hear the audience kind of gasp,” Girard says. “I remember Novoselic actually picking Cobain up and putting him over his shoulder and carrying him offstage.”
The student workers who interacted with the band remember them as kind and appreciative. “They came out afterwards to say thanks, and just banter a little bit about the show and about DC. They were very gracious,” says Charlie Meisch, SPA/BA ’97. “Just the fact that they came out to recognize a couple of freshmen who were running speakers around and picking up after them was great. I can’t imagine it was all that common.”
Yet Cobain added a little hijinks. “Novoselic shook our hand, and Kurt had his finger buried in his nose. So, he didn’t seem particularly interested in handshakes,” Meisch laughs. “But [he] was otherwise very cordial and friendly.”
“They were kind of a blue-collar band. They were very empathetic to the people who worked those shows,” Girard adds. “After that show, they put out a spread of food, and they said, ‘You guys eat first.’”
AU has hosted many marquee musical acts over the years: James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones. So what is it about this concert that remains so special—even sacred—to those who were there?
Given the tragic brevity of Nirvana’s touring career, seeing them live remains a badge of pride—like jamming to Jimi Hendrix at the Winterland Ballroom. But it also speaks to what Nirvana symbolized to Generation X. In 1991, the band awakened a simmering rage felt by a large subculture alienated by the plasticity of the 1980s.
School of Communication professor Aram Sinnreich believes that ’80s mainstream rock—think Journey and Bon Jovi—was bloated and homogenized, reflecting the Reagan-era corporate influence over culture. As many Americans grew weary of that sound, artists like Kurt Cobain and Public Enemy’s Chuck D offered a more authentic picture of regionally-specific, working-class communities.
“They were saying, ‘I’m being lied to through my television set,’” says Sinnreich, whose research focuses on the intersection of culture, law, and technology.
Gen Xers, those born roughly between 1965 and 1980, were exposed to heavy doses of post-Woodstock, baby boomer nostalgia—all the while being told they couldn’t measure up. “We were propagandized by our parents’ generation to feel like we were growing up in this hangover period after the 1960s—the most epic party in history. And that’s a really depressing thing to be told over and over again,” Sinnreich says. “With grunge, and the golden era of hip-hop from the same time period, there was a sense that it was a new party and it was just for us.”
Compared with baby boomers or millennials—who number 74 million and 71 million, respectively, according to the Pew Research Center—Generation X is a smaller demographic of 66 million. Not only was Nirvana’s heyday short-lived, but Gen X’s period of salience also was relatively brief, Sinnreich explains. So special events such as the AU concert can evoke even more sentimentality.
“The window within which we were culturally ascendant—that moment of time when it felt like our tastes were being reflected in the mainstream—was absolutely tiny. It was basically the ’90s,” he says. “I think Nirvana performing on college campuses in 1993 was more or less the high watermark of the cultural ascendancy.”
Kerry Sheridan sums it up this way: “It was a music that represented who we thought we were. It was not about status or money. It was more about anger, art, and being able to express yourself—not fitting into what people expected you to be. I still like that music today because it spoke to me.”
Many alumni still listen to grunge—bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Alice in Chains, that, despite being bound for the classic rock station, still attract younger listeners. Michael Girard made a Spotify playlist based on the AU show. Dave Roth got his four-year-old son into the Nirvana rarities album, Insecticide. Gayle Kansagor Hope is still among the first in line (online) for tickets when the Grohl-fronted Foo Fighters play in the DC area. And Brian Nemhauser, who lives in Seattle with his AU college sweetheart-turned-wife, Rachel, SOC/BA ’97, passed on his musical taste to his teenage son.
DC local Charlie Meisch recently was walking on Nebraska Avenue and heard “Very Ape” off In Utero. He was immediately transported back to that magical night in Bender and posted about the experience on Facebook. Comments poured in from fellow AU concertgoers, who shared their memories of the band that provided the soundtrack to their college years. As Kurt Cobain might have said: In the sun they feel as one.
Setlist: No recess
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
Serve the Servants
About a Girl
Come As You Are
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam
On a Plain
The bands that came before
Kurt Cobain frequently paid homage to his musical heroes, including opening acts The Breeders and Half Japanese. According to the Charles Cross biography, Heavier Than Heaven, Cobain was wearing a Half Japanese T-shirt the day he died. The Breeders were initially a side project for Pixies bassist Kim Deal, and Cobain worshipped the Pixies. According to Cross, Cobain’s wife, Hole lead singer Courtney Love, and musician Jennifer Finch affectionately called him “Pixie Meat” because of his small stature and obsession with the band.
Before Nirvana helped bring alternative rock to the mainstream, a thriving underground scene featured experimental, DIY noise unfit for the Billboard charts. The quirky and seminal Pixies blazed a trail for bands like Nirvana, and in fact, inspired some AU alums.
Michael Girard grew up north of Boston—where the Pixies formed in 1986—and he’s seen them in concert numerous times. “I was a fan of Nirvana because I had been a fan of the Clash. I had been a fan of the Pixies. I was a fan of bands that had influenced them,” he says.
“Most people considered The Breeders a really good opening act,” adds Tim Furlong, who was a student roadie at the show. “‘Cannonball’ was a big hit. When we heard that, the place went nuts.”
Furlong sheepishly admits to not being a hip “Pixies kid” in 1993. “I remember talking to Kim Deal off to the side of the stage, and she said, ‘Well, my other band . . . ’ And I said, ‘Oh, who’s your other band?’ She’s like, ‘Um, the Pixies.’”
Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and the rivalry that wasn’t
On April 8, 1994—the day Kurt Cobain’s body was discovered—Tarek Rizk witnessed a fascinating moment in rock ’n’ roll history. Fellow Seattle grunge rockers Pearl Jam played that night at George Mason University’s Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia. Rizk, who reviewed the concert for the Eagle, described front man Eddie Vedder’s “eulogy” to Cobain.
“He said they would most likely listen to music to get through this experience anyhow, so they might as well all be together,” Rizk recalls in an interview. “Then they played this incredible show.”
“I don’t think any of us would be in this room tonight if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain,” Vedder said to the crowd.
Nirvana had a complicated relationship with Pearl Jam. Cobain liked Vedder as a person, but he dismissed Pearl Jam as “safe rock” and accused them of “jumping on the alternative bandwagon.” Ironically, Vedder and company have outlived nearly all of their grunge contemporaries.
“Pearl Jam’s story of long-term endurance is more poignant precisely because Nirvana exists as an alternative path to early destruction,” writes Steven Hyden in Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, a book about pop music rivalries.
Yet Pearl Jam superfan and Nirvana-Bender attendee Brian Nemhauser emphasizes what made both bands special. “Authenticity was a huge part of what that movement was about: stripping away much of rock’s excess and focusing on what we considered to be real.”