Cork '91 - When Nirvana came to town

To mark tomorrow’s 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, Des O’Driscoll looks back on the day in 1991 when the late singer’s band played a support slot at Sir Henry’s in Cork.

FOR a generation of Cork music fans, it’s the ultimate ‘I was there’ tale. Nirvana. Sir Henry’s. Tuesday, August 20, 1991. How a little-known trio played support to Sonic Youth in a 750-capacity venue that was less than half full when they took to the stage. It was the first time a European audience had heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ played live, and those of us who really were there remain split into two camps. Some recall benevolent indifference to just another support band; others remember brilliance.

Both Nirvana and their well-established label-mates Sonic Youth were playing Cork and the Top Hat in Dun Laoghaire as a warm-up for the Reading Festival and other European dates.

Nirvana had arrived in the city early on Tuesday morning and checked into the Grand Parade Hotel, part of the same complex as Sir Henrys. A gruelling few days had just seen them shoot the video for the yet-to-be-released ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at the weekend in California, followed by a flight to London, where they met up with Sonic Youth and made their way to Ireland via a rented Euro-Van and a car ferry from Wales. No wonder Kurt Cobain seemed to sleep so much while in Ireland.

During the day, music journalist Shane Fitzsimons, of the city’s Evening Echo newspaper, met up with the bands at the hotel and offered to bring them for a walk around Cork. Not everyone was interested, but Fitzsimons and local woman Siobhán O’Mahony were joined for the stroll by Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic from Nirvana, and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. Their first stop was Comet Records on Washington Street, where the Sonics signed a few autographs. “Nobody bothered much with the Nirvana lads,” says Fitzsimons. Then the sextet headed to MacCurtain Street to visit second-hand record store the Swap Shop (Leeside Music). “Thurston — who’s a big record collector — was on the hunt for a single named ‘The Shamrock Shuffle’, by the Billy Roche Band, from Wexford. They had a browse, but he was disappointed not to find it.”

After a stop-off at Crowleys music shop down the street, where Grohl was nonplussed by Fitzsimons’ efforts to get him to buy a bodhrán, the quiet Nirvana drummer at last got animated when they spotted a sign emblazoned ‘Baltimore Stores’ above the door of a long-derelict fish shop at no 31 MacCurtain Street. “He got all excited and wanted a picture taken underneath it so he could show his friends at home. I explained to them how the original Baltimore was in West Cork,” says Fitzsimons.

That stroll on a sunny day in Cork obviously left its mark on the 22-year-old Grohl. In 2011, he told journalist Ed Power: “My mother has Irish ancestry. That was my first time in Ireland. I remember waking up in the morning, walking around Cork. I ran back to my hotel room and called my mother — ‘Mom, all the women look like you’!”

Meanwhile, Cobain had also been moved by his own time on Leeside. Some researchers say his ancestors were Cobanes from Co Antrim, but the singer himself reckoned his people were Coburns from the south. He told the Observer in 1993: “They came from County Cork, which is a really weird coincidence, because when we toured Ireland we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze. I’d never felt more spiritual in my life. It was the weirdest feeling and I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this. I was almost in tears the whole day. Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I’ve had a sense that I was from Ireland.”

The presence of Cobain’s friend was one of the reasons why he didn’t mix as much as some of the other musicians while in Cork, but his introverted personality was also a factor. Those who did encounter the late singer in the city remember a quiet 24-year-old who was exceedingly polite when he did engage. Also, nobody who spoke to us for this article saw any indications of heroin use, even though it was a drug he had been using to some degree by 1991.

COME AS YOU ARE

The Sir Henrys gig came about when Des Blair, a well-respected local promoter who also brought the likes of BB King and John Martyn to Cork, had been working with Gerry Harford, in Dublin, on bringing New York band Sonic Youth over. “Then, I got a call to say that I could get Nirvana as support in Cork for £100,” says Blair.

Like the vast majority of other people, the promoter knew little about the Seattle outfit, but for such a small fee it wasn’t a difficult decision to add them to the bill. Most of the Blair’s dealings were with Sonic Youth’s tour manager, but that evening he did form the impression that Nirvana were both broke and hungry. After the sound-check in Sir Henrys, Sonic Youth were going for a meal in Café Mexicana on Careys Lane. Blair agreed to also fork out for the support band’s meal, but asked for the groups to get two separate bills, with an allowance of £10 a head for Nirvana.

When Blair went to pay at the restaurant the next day, he was surprised to find just one food item listed on the bill. “They had just got some nachos and spent the rest on wine,” he laughs.

MUSICAL YOUTH

Cork in 1991 was still in the grip of a recession that had drained the city of many of its young people, forced to jump on a Slattery’s bus to London and other destinations. But that’s not to say it was an unpleasant place to live. For those with an interest in music, the city was thriving. Sir Henrys was in its heyday as one of the best dance-music clubs on the planet, and the venue also hosted regular gigs by quality local and international bands.

Those emigrant links to London even had an upside. The fluid movement of people between the two cities helped ensure that many of the local youth were far more informed musically than one might expect of a provincial city in southern Ireland. This was a pre-internet age, when word-of-mouth was paramount in spreading knowledge of alternative music, and Leeside’s indie kids also fed off flocks of compilation tapes, and radio DJs such as Dave Fanning and John Peel.

In the lead-up to the August 20 gig, the news had been dominated all week by a crisis in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, with tanks on the streets of Moscow, but many of those making their way to South Main Street on that balmy Tuesday night had plenty to be cheerful about, even if few suspected how much value was on offer for their £7.50 ticket.

Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t make the most of their opportunity. Among the ‘I was there’ tales you’ll still hear in Cork’s pubs, a large percentage come with the caveat, “… but I was late for Nirvana”. For the vast majority, the focus was very much on Sonic Youth, and missing part of a support set by a band they’d barely heard of was worth it to have the ‘one more’ in a favourite pub such as the Liberty.

Among those who did make it on time was Morty McCarthy, drummer with local group Sultans of Ping. “I left the Liberty Bar early, because there were members of Cork band Muffdive who were big into Nirvana and had seen them the previous year in London. They were hassling us all, ‘You have to see this band’,” he says. “Nirvana got a good reaction, but there were only a few people dancing. It was my first time hearing them, and I was blown away.”

Ken Harte from Timoleague was another glad to have made it to Sir Henrys early. “I had heard Bleach, but they sounded much rawer live, leaning further to the punk end of things. They had a fierce raw energy, and it was obvious there was something special about them.”

The free space in front of the stage in Sir Henrys was a surprise to NME photographer Ed Sirrs, a man who had built both his reputation for great live shots and his collection of bruises by being willing to work from the maddest of mosh pits. “The previous time I photographed them in London, was a real bone-crusher and I expected the same in Cork. It was strange being able to move left and right,” says Sirrs. The photographer took a famous photo of Cobain asleep on one of the benches the club had bought from an old church in Blarney. “I was at the bottom of some steps to the side of the stage, and I spin around 180 degrees and in the dark there’s kurt asleep on the bench. He was just a few feet away from the stage where Sonic Youth were going hell for leather. There was pandemonium going on there, and to be able to sleep in that situation was something else.” The next day, Cobain would claim he suffered from narcolepsy.

Among the small group of people dancing behind the photographer during Nirvana’s set was his NME colleague, Keith Cameron. By the time of the Henrys gig, he had already seen Nirvana live at least four times, and the Scottish journalist deserves plenty kudos for the way he had been championing the group in the pages of Sounds and NME since the late 1980s.

“As the gig went on, there were more and more people getting into it,” he says of the Henrys gig. “I think that era was the best time to see them — just before the release of Nevermind, up until the end of that year. After that, it all began to go a bit crazy. Back then, they weren’t freaked out yet by the actuality of becoming this ‘thing’.”

When the three members of Nirvana took to the stage in Sir Henrys shortly after 9pm, there were probably about 200 people in the venue, but many more of the approximately 500 who attended on the night would have arrived by the end of the set.

Perhaps the smallish crowd helped ensure that Kurt Cobain looked totally immersed in the music, jumping around in his trademark torn jeans and going through several guitars, one bearing a sticker with the words: ‘Vandalism: Beautiful As A Rock In A Cop’s Face’.

Bearded bass player Krist Novoselic went barefooted on the stage, while the long-haired, clean-shaven youngster of the group, Dave Grohl, flung himself at his Ludwig kit with typical, frenetic energy. The future Foo Fighter also got a cheer when, between songs, he played the distinctive drum intro from U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.

A live recording was purportedly made of 40-minutes of Nirvana’s set in Sir Henrys. This was presumably recorded on DAT tape, through the mixing desk, on behalf of Dave Markey, a young filmmaker travelling with the bands, and little bits of Super-8 footage from Cork pop up in his resulting tour documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

The 12 songs on the recording include five from the then soon-to-be-released Nevermind album, most notably the first performance outside the US of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, one of the last tracks to be written for the album.

The NME’s Keith Cameron had already been familiar with some of the Nevermind material from previous gigs and promo tapes.

“It was just exciting to hear those new songs in their realised state,” Cameron says. “It was the first time I heard ‘Teen Spirit’ live. It was a song which kind of threw me, as I had expected them to release a song like ‘In Bloom’ or ‘Lithium’. But hearing it live, it made a lot of sense — you could not escape its magnitude.”

The song’s first European airing early in the set drew no more than a decent ripple of applause and a few hoots from the crowd, to which Cobain responded: “Thank-you, you’re very gracious and kind.” The set also featured a blistering version of ‘Negative Creep’ from the Bleach album, in which Cobain sings the opening verses in an unusual falsetto.

Despite the fact that only a few people were jumping around for Nirvana, as the set wears on you can hear the Henrys crowd getting more raucous and appreciative.

Cameron mixed with the band after the gig in the hotel and travelled with them to Dublin the next day. He remembers the trio being in good form after the Cork set. “They were tired, but very, very happy to be there. Kurt always liked smaller venues. He liked to be able to see people and their reaction to his music. In later years when there were thousands at the gig and faces that’d stretch to the far horizon - that really wasn’t where he was most comfortable.”

As the bands celebrated the first gig of the tour, club manager Sean O’Neill got the word that Nirvana were starving; not surprising if they had only snacked on nachos earlier in the evening. “We sent out for a load of chips and burgers from the chipper [now Hillbillys] at the corner of Tuckey Street. They were treated to what was real Cork cuisine back then!” says O’Neill.

The next day, both groups travelled to Dublin in their separate vehicles, with Cobain spending most of his time asleep on the floor of Nirvana’s van.

Also on that Wednesday, a group of 30-40 Cork people — mostly Liberty regulars — caught the ferry to Wales on their way to the Reading Festival, where both bands played the Friday. Nirvana were seventh on the bill that day and went on in the afternoon. “In terms of the Cork scene, that Sir Henrys gig and the trip to Reading were a big kick-on in driving everything on,” says Morty McCarthy. “And it was the next year that both the Sultans of Ping and the Frank and Walters broke.”

TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

In many ways, those August gigs in Ireland came at the end of an era for Nirvana. From then on, life got more complicated. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and the album Nevermind were released in mid-September and the little-known grunge band were suddenly being hailed as the new messiahs of the music world. The pressures of this new existence seemed to exacerbate Cobain’s already existing mental health issues and drug abuse.

Seattle journalist Charles R Cross got access to Cobain’s diaries while researching his book on the band, and saw evidence of how troubled the singer’s life really had become. “Holding in my hand a sheet with his handwriting on it that read ‘Please please God, please let me kick this’ was moving beyond description,” says Cross. He also remembers his magazine, The Rocket, having trouble pinning down Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, this week in April 1994, for an interview she had promised to do.

“Only later did I find out it was because she had been out searching for Kurt.”

Unfortunately, Love’s efforts — not least on behalf of their 1½-year-old daughter Frances Bean, born on August 18, 1992, almost exactly a year after the Cork gig — were in vain.

After weeks in a particularly self-destructive spiral, Cobain had made his way to his Seattle home, and on April 5, 1994, injected himself with a massive dose of heroin and then ended his life with a shotgun blast to the head.

In the coming days, much of the tragedy of the situation will be lost in memories of the anniversary of a major celebrity’s death and the discussion of the millions of records his band sold. Which possibly makes it all the more important to remember the shy and polite young man who was so happy to be in Cork all those years ago.

* ‘Mudhoney: The Sound & The Fury From Seattle’ by Keith Cameron; and Charles R Cross’s ‘Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain’ are out now.



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