|Nirvana Tour Diary
by Mark Jickling
[Last November, 1/2 Japanese opened 8 East Coast shows for Nirvana, Virginia to Massachusetts. The lineup was Gilles-Vincent Rieder, drums; John Sluggett, guitar; Jad Fair, frontman; and your obedient servant, also guitar. No bass! We were the first of three bands -- the Breeders being the second -- and we went on between 7 and 8 PM and played for half an hour. We did about 13 songs, and actually kept it to 25 minutes most nights. 1/4 of the band (me) had never played 3/4 of the songs before. What was I doing there?]
Don Fleming set me up for it. It was the Columbus Day weekend and we had finished the big-band part of the second and final 1/2 Japanese alumni show at the Knitting Factory. Some of the old magic and power had (unexpectedly) come back and we were raving in the dressing room -- firing the current lineup (on stage that very moment) and replacing them with -- who else? -- ourselves. "By the third Nirvana show it'll be really hot," says Don, a joke that I can't resist repeating later to Jad. I get up on a fire hydrant on Houston Street and say, "Jad! Dave, Don, and I decided that we're doing the Nirvana tour!" He doesn't bat an eyelash: "I wanted to talk to you about that..." I was hooked.
We played a warm-up show in Chapel Hill, got to bed at four, got up at seven, drove four hours to Williamsburg, Va. (Our itinerary -- the black book -- said we had to be there by noon to have any chance of a sound check.) We found the arena, threaded our way among the buses and tractor-trailers, and there we were: in a huge basketball gym with seats up to the roof. The stage was being put together, light rigs swinging in the air. We met Jeff Mason, the tour major-domo, who greeted us warmly, but (to our dismay) said, "Well, you're four hours early; there's nothing for you to do now." So we watched the tour machinery, saw the old part of town, and met Big John, Nirvana's guitar technician, who looks like a pro wrestler with lots of earrings and tattoos. He's a Scot, and we got along very well, especially once we established a mutual acquaintance, i.e., the exquisite Pastels.
Finally our sound check time came, but the Breeders were still onstage. They had a big problem with their distorted vocal mike, which they use for one song -- the sound wasn't clean enough. (Eventually, they bought a new Fender amp to handle it, getting exactly the same sound that Jad was getting from an $8.95 megaphone from Toys-r-Us.) So by the time we got on stage, the kids were coming into the hall, sprinting up to the front. Meanwhile we had found our dressing room, full of curious food and drink. It was the classic Jad rider: six quarts of YooHoo, six half-pound Hershey bars, you get the picture. (There was some reasonable stuff: vegetables, cheese, beer...) John and Gilles lost no time negotiating an exchange with Karina (another Scot, on the catering crew): they traded most of the YooHoo for a fifth of tequila. Next night, there it was, and every night after. Gilles and John were basically never sober again. They asked for a bottle of red wine as well, but this was slow to appear.
We hit the stage at seven o'clock exactly, and the moshing and crowd surfing began immediately. The lights were such that we could see about seventy-five feet out into the crowd with no trouble. There was a space between the stage and the crowd where security men caught people spinning down and handed them out to the sides -- not at all violently, to our relief. Shirts were flying onto the stage. The crowd was roiling and churning and there was just this solid noise -- it was impossible to tell how favorable or unfavorable their reaction might be...at least until we did a real quiet song, This Could Be the Night. Jad asked: "Do you want to know how an angel kisses?" Two thousand voices scream, "NO!" A lesser man might have cut the song short, but Jad asked again. Same answer, this time from three thousand, four thousand, who knows. The second it was over I was down on my knees hitting the fake Howlin' Wolf riff of Firecracker harder than I'd ever played it before, skinning a knuckle, blood on the white guitar. I turned my new Rat box up to ten and started Charmed Life, our last song, with some pure grunge, but Jad and Gilles started waving me off, they wanted to stop right then. Gilles' kick drum pedal had been broken since the beginning of the set; I hadn't noticed. The crowd noise was still thick and impenetrable, but then I seemed to hear emerge from the general din a chant, from the back of the hall, to the tune of the Chrysler ad version of Volare, "We hate you, you suck." This was awful. No one else in the band heard it, and in fact they still believe that I hallucinated it, which is of course possible. But I don't think so. Gilles came offstage slamming pieces of the drum kit left and right, and I headed for the dressing room.
I put on about four layers of clothes, including my winter coat, and sat down on the floor. No one else was there. I was telling myself not to take it personally, it was just the ritual slaughter of the opening band, etc., and that the rest of the tour would be kind of fun anyway, but this was just rationalizing. I really felt like there was a million-pound weight on my head. Then into my view came a pair of blue jeans so worn and ragged that only pure aesthetic will could have been keeping them from disintegration. I looked up. "I'm Kurt." I introduced myself. "You guys were great." "Uh, I'm not sure your audience thought so..." He shrugged, "Oh, they're like that every night." "This is what we have to look forward to for the rest of the tour?" Another shrug, then he tells me how great he thought Gilles was. He asked if we'd been rehearsing, and I didn't dare tell the awful truth -- this band hasn't rehearsed since 1985! John came in, we talked about how glad we all were to be doing the shows, and so on, until Kurt left to watch the Breeders. I thought, "This is the tabloid monster, who shot up his crack baby in the womb?" He seemed like a pretty nice guy.
We woke up in my house in Washington. Jad was at the breakfast table with a page full of numbers. The tour was only going to make $92.00, he figured. (T-shirt sales in Willamsburg: 0) That night we played in the National Guard armory in Philadelphia, a century-old cast-iron echo chamber. Gilles had bought a new drum set before we left in the morning. There were a few "older" people in the audience, i.e. college students. We had, needless to say, dumped This Could Be the Night from the set, going to loud-and-fast, or loud-and-mid- tempo, anyway. And, to my surprise, the crowd liked us! The monstrous weight melted into air! My brother Andy was there, and Gilles and I stayed at his house, the others heading back to Hoboken. We heard Nirvana for the first time, but the acoustics made it hard to tell what they sounded like. We listened from directly behind the stage and from the sides, but it was mostly thump and roar. Jad, Sheenah, and Simon ventured out into the hall. "I hope it sounds much better out there," I said. "It sounds better back here," Jad replied.
The next night the sound was actually pretty good, and we were all big Nirvana fans from then on. It was an arena in the middle of a big field south of Bethlehem, Pa. We got an even better response, but I was still nervous. Were we connecting? Who were these kids anyway? I had no idea what we sounded like: we had never really played together before, I didn't know most of the songs, and I was all alone on stage left. Jad and John were fairly close together on the right, but they were 75 feet from me. It wasn't bad -- I enjoyed having a lot of space to spin and twirl, but it made communication hard. John complained that every time he looked my way I had disappeared in the speakers, but every time I looked at him for a cue his back was turned. Anyway, I spent a lot of time looking out into the crowd. Nirvana matched the kids' energy level, and I think we could, but it would take some practice. Gilles wanted to take breaks between songs, to drink, to wipe the sweat off, but I wanted to kick right into the next song. "We can't give them any time to think!" was my attitude.
Dave Grohl was in the Breeders' dressing room after the show, flat on his back, banging his head against the bottom of a chair, which was hopping around like a dancing Cossack. "You guys fucking ruled tonight!" he was screaming. "You ruled last night!" Otherwise, what struck me was the almost monastic atmosphere of the tour: everyone had some job to do, there were no hangers-on from the record company or publicist, and everything seemed to work amazingly well. Big corporations should be half so efficient. It wasn't a bad life.
When we got to Springfield, the next day, and were helping ourselves to lunch, the matter of the bottle of wine that Gilles and John had been begging for came up. Jeff Mason sat down at our table and said that the request had been passed up and down and around, and back to him. "The concern is," he said, "that that's a lot of alcohol for four guys." In other words, we are looking like the degenerates of the tour! This is a pleasant thought. Actually, the sad fact is that I haven't been able to get drunk once: either with my cold it just gives me a headache, or when the adrenalin kicks in I go out of my mind and the alcohol has no effect at all.
The "civic center" turns out to be a hockey rink, with some boards thrown over the ice. It's freezing! Again we get a good response, and a Kung Fu slipper lands at my feet. Right before Mary Shelley John goes to change guitars -- having broken the requisite number of strings -- but it seems he's forgotten to bring the Fender onstage. He walks off and completely vanishes. I stall for time, hitting low, doomy notes on my E-string, but still he doesn't come back. After an eternity (well, maybe 10 seconds), we couldn't wait any longer and went into the song. I'm praying that he'll show up before the chorus, since I still haven't figured out when the change comes. He does, barely, but then the guitar strap breaks. This is getting interesting.
As we leave the stage, there is Kurt with his dinner plate in hand saying, "Great show!" Gilles comes into the dressing room walking on air. Kurt had called him a "fucking amazing crazy punk rock jazz drummer" and talked about some recording next year. Nirvana's show is incredible, ending with a 20- minute feedback solo by Kurt, on his back, with Chris pouring Evian water on him.
The next show is in Fitchburg, Mass., in another hockey rink, also freezing. The music is loosening up, or maybe it's the quadruple shots of tequila certain band members are indulging in before the show. John's solo on Song of Joy and Love, the only remaining "pretty" song in the set, has gone from lyrical and melodic to jagged and wild. While he plays it, his guitar seems to be bouncing up and down at arm's length in front of him, neck perpendicular to the floor. I don't see how he does it. We play and run, wanting to cover half the distance to D.C. We met Come, the band that is taking our opening spot on the tour when we're done with it. Good luck to them. I tell them I'm scared to death, but having a great time.
I take my family over to Bender Arena before the DC show. Unfortunately, when we arrive the Nirvana soundcheck is going on, so it's very loud and dark. The kids get nervous, and none of them wants to come to the show at all. A few minutes later would have been the contemplative part of the pre-show, when the light woman makes dancing Saturns on the screen. Jad's stepson Simon, age 9, on the other hand, has come all the way down from Hoboken for the show. He's crazy about Nirvana, and the crowd action doesn't faze him a bit.
Half Japanese gets real applause, seems like genuine enthusiasm. The home town crowd! I'm exultant, but Gilles thinks we played badly: "We don't start the songs together, with a big PA it's just a noise, etc." Even the bottle of wine that has finally materialized in the dressing room fails to cheer him up. This is where it hurts not to be a real band -- you don't know what the others are looking for musically. (I don't, anyway.) But Jay Spiegel is there and he gives us the best review of the entire tour: "It was raging!" Now there's good taste in music! Thanks, Rummie!
I thought New York would be easy. People have heard of us there, and we've always gotten good reviews. Two minutes into the Coliseum show, though, we were getting pelted. A lifesaver, another lifesaver, the whole pack of lifesavers...quarters...pencils...who brings pencils to a mosh pit, anyway?...cigarette lighters...paper wads. A constant rain of these things, a million people giving us the finger, cries of "you suck" (but nothing as creative or organized as Williamsburg...): it was very strange. The Breeders, on the other hand, got a great response. Sometimes it seemed that the more an audience liked us, the less they liked the Breeders, and vice versa. But we sold a lot of T-shirts that night; you figure it out.
I changed my shirt before I went out into the room, so that nobody would recognize me and start throwing money. The place was filthy and decrepit, like an indoor parking garage. Finally I ended up backstage, watching Kurt through a gap in the speakers, when these girls came up behind me and stood there watching through the same slit for about 20 minutes. They looked kind of sleazy, but in a very polished and perfect way. The opposite of your typical Nirvana grunge kid, in other words. Then it hit me: they were models! Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and a third who I'm sure is equally famous! I was impressed. And let me say that Kate Moss's stomach, which was not covered by her clothing, had a slightly convex curve to it, so let's not have any more stupid jokes and columns about her anorexia, please.
The last night: Roseland. By this time the adrenalin demands of these big crowds have just about worn me out. I went to visit my friend Peter in the afternoon and fell asleep on his couch. After the night before, I expect the crowd to revile us. It seems like it's love or hate, nothing in between. So we play (with a secret weapon: Michael Galinsky of Sleepy Head on bass -- thank you, Michael!), and what happens? Polite applause! The only reaction I couldn't have imagined in a million years!
Since it's our last show, Nirvana invites us onstage with them for their noise encore. We sort of plan to do I Wanna Be Your Dog, and Jad does sing the words, through one of his distortion megaphone toys. But it's pure chaos: Gilles and Chris are pounding on a floor tom, Dave is wandering back and forth with a bass that may or may not be plugged in, and Kurt is behind the drums doing a basic funk rhythm. I try to follow him, not bothering to move my left hand. I'm standing in front of Pat's amps, and it's so loud my bones are buzzing. This surprises me, since he has been almost inaudible in the PA every night. He hands his guitar to Simon, and leads him out into the middle of the stage. With a little coaching, Simon is raising the guitar over his head, and smashing it down. At that point, I had to leave the stage. If there's one thing I've learned from a dozen years in rock and roll, it's when to let the kids take over.