By Mat Weir
The month of June in Santa Cruz is all about celebrations. Of course, it marks the beginning of summer. Then it’s the month of Pride, recognizing LGBTQ+ communities, love and rights in honor of the Stonewall uprising in New York on 6/28/69. It’s also the month of Juneteenth, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans dating back to Texas in 1866 and which finally became a national holiday just this week. But on Friday, June 18th 2021, Santa Cruzans have another, much lesser known reason to celebrate as that date marks the 30th anniversary of grunge gods, Nirvana,
playing the Catalyst stage. A night that is somehow, miraculously, immortalized on YouTube, by an audience member, most likely young, stoned and feeling rebellious.
Now, before we go any further, in no way am I saying a band of white dudes from Seattle playing our town is anywhere near the historical importance as Pride or Juneteenth. Afterall, they’re just a rock band. But maybe it’s more important than summer. After all, that happens every year but Nirvana only played Santa Cruz once.
What makes Nirvana so special is unlike so many other bands from the early 90s, they somehow transcended their scene, story and even their own humanity, becoming more myth than reality. Just last year Cobain’s MTV Unplugged acoustic guitar sold for $6million at auction and in 2019 his green cardigan sweater became the most expensive sweater ever sold at auction for $334,000.
Of course, much of that has to do with lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, Kurt Cobain, tragically committing suicide at the young age of 27–after years of depression and addiction–at the height of the band’s fame. Like so many others who joined the so-called 27 Club before him–Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones–Cobain’s death affected an entire generation, this time spurred on by MTV as well as radio. For those of us alive to see it, we will never forget MTV News host, Kurt Loder, announcing Cobain’s death juxtaposed with pictures of angst-ridden, crying teens in flannel with Doc Martens and the sense of disbelief that came with it. To this day, conspiracies abound about Cobain’s suicide.
But three years before his tragic ending, Nirvana played The Catalyst Club, opening for Dinosaur Jr. on tour for the later’s fourth album, Green Mind. Led by J. Macis, Dinosaur Jr. was beloved by Nirvana, so of course when asked they agreed to open on the mini West Coast tour. In fact, Cobain loved Dinosaur Jr. so much he asked Macis to join the band not once, but twice.
What makes this particular tour so special are several key factors. It was only an eight day tour, highlighting both bands’ indie, DIY status at the time. So if you saw any of the dates, consider yourself one of the chosen few.
It was also a break for Nirvana, who was in the midst of recording what would be their masterpiece, mainstream breakthrough, Nevermind, which they finished in June ’91 and released three months later on September 24, 1991. That makes this the FIRST TIME audiences ever heard songs like “Polly,” “Drain You,” and–of course–”Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Santa Cruz local and audience member, Jeremy True, remembers the first time hearing the song that would break the band to the world.
“On that mini tour they started playing a song live,” he writes to me. “The verses were still in progress, but by the 2nd chorus they already had the crowd singing ‘Hello Hello Hello How Low.’”
One thing that made Nirvana’s only Catalyst show so cool is that the YouTube audio is the earliest known live recording of the anti-sexual violence anthem, “Rape Me.” Plus, these new songs made up a whopping 35% of the setlist giving the audience a full dose of Nevermind.
As if all that isn’t enough, Nirvana had just hired an energetic, 21-year-old new drummer named Dave Grohl, only eight months prior. We’re talking major milestones for the band and fans alike. In less than a year from their Catalyst appearance, Nirvana would be splattered all over MTV, corporate magazines and headlining sold-out shows of their own, soon to become the biggest band of the decade.
In the 2000 movie, High Fidelity, protagonist Rob Gordon says, “Some people never got over Vietnam, or the night their band opened for Nirvana,” and for those who were lucky enough to be at the Catalyst, it’s one show they will remember for the rest of their lives.
“It was electrifying,” says Adam Schrock. “At that time it was something we had never heard before, especially compared to Bleach [Nirvana’s debut album].”
In 1991 Schrock was 19 and a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan. Of course he had heard Nirvana before and liked them, but wasn’t attending that night to see them. More of an added bonus they were opening for his favorite band. But what he saw changed his perception forever.
“I definitely had the feeling that ‘something just happened here,’” he remembers. “You could tell just by the way the crow reacted, it was amazing. Everyone was just so into it!”
“The show was magic,” Tabitha Stroup, founder of local food companies Terroir in a Jar and Friend in Cheeses Jam Company writes to me. “The grunge movement was in full swing but Nirvana was its own sound. . . it was mesmerizing seeing those three boys musically connect.”
Nirvana was so mesmerizing, Schrock and his friends didn’t even stay for the complete Dinosaur Jr. set.
“Nirvana’s set was perfectly put together to show what was coming,” he says. “It was definitely something that made me feel, ‘These guys are going places.’”
For Dinosaur Jr.’s part, Jeremy True remembers that “they were great.” Unfortunately, he also had to leave early in order to catch the last bus back to Ben Lomond.
“They had just started playing a cover of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’!?!” he recalls.
But when it came to Nirvana’s set, True was also blown away, even if he doesn’t quite remember all of it.
“I really have this memory that Kurt went crowd surfing with his guitar,” he writes. “I could have sworn he was playing it somehow at the same time.”
Stroup also recollects this through the 30 year haze.
“Vaguely, I’m sure [it happened], I was drunk,” she writes, adding at the time she was a “21 year old feral animal” who had just moved to town. “But that rings true.”
Unfortunately, no video exists (that anyone knows of) but the online, audience recording has the band at full power, the top of their “A” game before heroin and fame crashed it all down. Even today you can feel the energy on songs like “Lithium” and “Drain You,” the later which was so new Cobain forgets the lyrics part way. Previous songs from Bleach like “School,” “Negative Creep,” “Love Buzz” and their cover of “Molly’s Lips” (originally by The Vaselines) are in prime form, with Cobain’s voice clear and in top-qualiy form.
It was a special, one time only moment in life, serendipitously recorded and posted online for posterity. Thirty years later, its impact still reverberates.
“I didn’t think the mainstream was ready for that,” Schrock says. “The fact that they got so huge still blows my mind.”
1 second ago
First of all, you have to put yourself in a place where you’ve never heard ‘Nevermind’, hard to do. Than you have to admit how important Butch Vig was to making that album the sensational, runaway success that it was. I, too, was there to see Dibosaur Jr. ( I went to The Catalyst ALL the time.) and, in fact rarely watched opening bands, prefering to drink beer in the back bar or upstairs playing pool. This night, however we found ourselves in the main room as Nirvana was coming on and for no particular reason decided to check it out for a minute. There weren’t that many people, you can hear it on this recording. The crowd noise and echoey emptiness was exactly what it soubded like to the 20 or so of us standing around with beers in our hands looking up at Kurts very angry, bored, ecstatic, depressed looking face. I wasn’t a punk fan and assumed thats what this band was and was prepared to hate and probably even heckle a bit. They started out slowly and indifferent. Novoselic was amused, bass slung low. Ghrol was Ghrol….lots of energy, more interested in how the band was doing and not caring about the audience. He was no punk drummer, that is what strtuck me the most. Oh, and I’d never heard drums hit THAT hard ever. I really liked Cobains voice, could see that he was an accidental frontman, excellent at it despite himself. I thought lyrically they were way ahead of just about any band I’d seen in opening slots at The Cat. It didn’t always make 100% literal sense, yet you could understand, feel just what he was saying, it was poetic but not obviously so. Then, they would do a couple of traditional punk songs and I’d think to myself ‘ok, well this is what they really are and I don’t like this. I’d leave to take a lap around the fern bar front of the club, only to be drug back by the sound of some song that was instantly catchy and different from anything they’d done so far in the set. And for a punk band they ‘jammed’ to use the hippy word, free form improv. Kurt playing these ‘solos’ that were just wacked out noise and yet made ‘sense’, theres that word and idea again. The crowd quickly grew with people looking at each other like ‘are you seeing/liking this? I am.’ The ‘Teen Spirit’ was incredible. I was parked up about 5 people back from the stage for the rest of the set. They were very workman-like, no ‘cool guy’ banter with each other or the audience, no feeling that they thought they had to provide any artifice at all. If us lost in performing this music the way we do isn’t enough of a show, maybe we’re not the band for you. If you’re looking for lush, practiced harmony backup singing or long between stories about the last show…you were out of luck. The audience started going from standing and staring forward without a great deal of exuberance to jostleing, to pogoing to mimicing Kurts wild, abandoned, free form stumble, to light slam dancing. The use of dynamics became apparent quickly because everytime they got quiet everyone stopped and waited very still for the inevitable loud and fast part and Kurts freakout to just go ape shit in place. Us guys were enjoying ourselves it seemed as I scanned the now full crowd, but the women and girls were losing their shit! I’d see the occasional punk princess up in the front really going all out for their favorite act…but EVERY girl I saw was rapt and ‘dancing’ like no one was watching. They were getting literally turned on, and probably 50% of them had never heard a song by Nirvana before. Dinosaur jr. stood no chance and put on a good but not great show, probably affected that most of the audience was in small circles discussing what they’d seen earlier, or was still recovering blankly from the assault of the Nirvana set……..Thank You, go Slugs.
I was there too. And yes Kurt did kind of crowd surf while playing his guitar, but there were so few people that he basically played while walking around in the crowd. I was impressed with this, knowing nothing of the band at the time. I went with a friend who was really into anything on Sub Pop. Ended up seeing Nirvana two more times, both headlining arenas. This show is a definite feather in my cap!