Even for an event that occurred a quarter century ago, there was a deluge of Nirvana anecdotes. Here are four more remembrances from concertgoers. Think of them as album deep cuts: If you’re a fan of the band, they’re just as essential as the radio hits. These conversations have been summarized and condensed for clarity.
Chris McBride, SIS-SPA/BA '94
“I was the Student Union Board chair. Normally, we booked bands ourselves. But in the case of the Nirvana show, Seth Hurwitz at I.M.P. offered it to us. He’s a big promoter in DC, and he’s been around forever. He looked for a venue, and Bender was the right size and configuration. So, we were super excited and said we’d love to do it. We’d set aside a large portion of the tickets for students, but it was not an impossible show to get tickets for. We produced the show, so we were essentially responsible for the arena and everything. I’d been a Nirvana fan for quite a while. During the concert, I was actually on the side of the stage, and I got kicked off a few songs in. I was told to go down where everybody else was in the crowd. They sounded incredible. It was an awesome show—just loud and kind of as you’d expect. I would definitely say they were among the top three bands I saw perform on campus. I mean, we had a lot of memorable shows. We had Cypress Hill and Beck. But Nirvana was probably one for the ages, because of what happened after that. It was obviously the band’s last tour.”
Mike Panetta, SPA/BA ’93, SPA/MA '94
“I was in my fifth year at AU, getting my master’s degree. I saw a poster that said Nirvana was coming. And I went over to see the details and it said, ‘American University, Bender Arena.’ And in my mind, I said, ‘At AU?’ I think a lot of people had that same reaction. Like, ‘There’s no way Nirvana is playing here.’ I was still living in the dorms at the time, because I was an RA in Letts. And I felt like almost everybody I knew was going. It was great, you just walked across campus to go to the show. We wanted to get there early, because the Breeders were opening up and we were fans of them as well. I remember it just being a really festive, fun atmosphere. Just being on the floor of Bender Arena and saying, ‘Wow, one of the biggest bands in the world is playing right here.’ It was crazy because I was thinking to myself, ‘I just played intramural basketball here a couple days ago, and now I’m watching Nirvana.’ They had the grunge sound that was really popular then, but for this one song, they brought out a cello player. It added more complexity to the music. I thought that was really impressive. I remember just the quality of the musicians that we had in Bender Arena that night. They sounded awesome, and it was one of those college experiences you’ll never forget. Now, I work in an office with a lot of Millennials. And one time I was talking about the concert after Prince died. Somebody made the comment that, ‘You never know when people are going to go. If you ever get a chance to see an artist that you really like, you should take advantage of it.’ And I said, ‘That’s true. I saw Nirvana months before Kurt Cobain killed himself.’ People were like, ‘Wow, you saw Nirvana?’ It made me feel old, but it also made me feel kind of cool at the same time.”
“I was living in Virginia and went to the show with a friend. I had not been to many concerts at that time. My first concert was Jesus Jones. So, not the coolest. But I had also been to the Pixies and Cowboy Junkies. I had transitioned, during that time, from preppy Ashley skirts to wearing combat boots and cut-off jeans. Just that whole grunge aesthetic really spoke to me. And I remember the Breeders opened for them, and I was in the mosh pit. Some guy was being lifted and carried across, crowd surfing, and his shoe kind of clocked my jaw a little bit. Totally unintentional, and I wasn’t hurt. But I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m tough!’ And then when Nirvana came on stage, I got out of the mosh pit. I thought the crowd was going to get jacked up, and I’m too prissy for that. So, when Nirvana played, we were in the bleachers. It was a really great show. Everybody was having the same experience. It was positive. It was a good scene; it wasn’t overwhelming or anything like that. There was just a good energy to the whole show. Their music didn’t feel performative. It didn’t feel artificial. It felt connected emotionally to the cynicism, to the rage, that had no place to go. It felt like an outlet.”
“I’m from DC, and back then, I tried to see every good show. My wife wouldn’t go, and my friends in DC were all Deadheads, so I went by myself. I was about 27 or 28, and generally the Nirvana fans were a little younger. I’m a musician. I’ve seen tons of good concerts, and that was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. And the encore was really trippy. Kurt was standing on top of stacks of amplifiers, really high up in the air, and shaking them like they were going to fall into the audience. I think the other band members were like, ‘Don’t let Kurt kill himself.’ In hindsight, I thought, ‘He was almost killing himself at the show, doing so many dangerous acts on stage.’ But the other crazy thing is that he could still put on the most amazing performance anybody’s ever seen. Just the intensity and the power and the tightness and the song selection. It was a long time ago, but the whole thing is just stamped in my head. I wasn’t that obsessed with the grunge personalities or that whole scene. I just liked to crank it up loud, and play my drums to it, and listen to it in the car. I was never really that into being part of the cultural revolution. I just liked the music.”