Remembering Nirvana's gig in Cork after 25 years

The 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s famous gig in Cork provides the perfect excuse to remember the city’s vibrant youth culture in that era, writes Des O’Driscoll
Remembering Nirvana's gig in Cork after 25 years

ALMOST exactly 25 years ago, a future member of rock music’s royalty got a grand tour of Cork city. Not that anyone realised it at the time. Siobhan Bardsley, an 18-year-old music fan from Turners Cross, thought it might be fun to take pictures as she and Evening Echo journalist Shane Fitzsimons showed a young American drummer around the city’s record shops.

The longhaired 22-year-old was named Dave Grohl, and he had arrived in Cork on September 20, 1991, to play with his little-known band, Nirvana, for the first gig of a European tour as support act for Sonic Youth.

Just three days earlier Nirvana had been in LA to record a video for a tune that would get its first European airing at Sir Henrys that night. Three weeks later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ would be released as the first single from the band’s new album Nevermind.

Things would never be the same again. Neither for the guitar-based rock music they were about to lead a revival of; nor for the three members of the band who were about to embark on a rollercoaster ride of success that at first felt like being everything they had ever dreamed of. It would all quickly go awry, however, as one of the trio, Kurt Cobain, descended into the heroin addiction and mental health issues that would ultimately lead to him taking his own life less than three years later at the age of 27.

KURT IN CORK

Kurt Cobain in Sir Henrys in 1991. Picture: Siobhan Bardsley
Kurt Cobain in Sir Henrys in 1991. Picture: Siobhan Bardsley

Like many of the people who had associations with that legendary Cork concert, Bardsley struggles to squeeze memories out of a Tuesday that seemed so ordinary at the time. It’s the curse of hindsight that has forged it into something special. Basically, Nirvana did a decent gig in front of a half-empty hall.

“Grohl was an enthusiastic young fellah, all excited to be there,” she remembers of her encounter with the future Foo Fighter. “Cobain didn’t come around town with us, but I remember he seemed fairly quiet around the backstage area that night. There are those famous photos of him asleep backstage, but I also remember him standing by the bar in Sir Henrys watching Sonic Youth, nobody bothering him.”

Those “famous photos” of Cobain in Cork were taken by Ed Sirrs, a well-known music photographer who had been sent to Sir Henrys that night by NME, to illustrate a piece written by Keith Cameron. Twenty-five years later, Bardsley has managed to rejoin the dots between Sirrs, Cameron, Nirvana, and the wider Leeside music scene, with a commemorative exhibition at Cork City Library based around the thriving fanzine culture that existed at the time.

These DIY publications blossomed in the post-punk era as part of a counter-culture that stuck its fingers up at mainstream media. If you had a typewriter and the right attitude, you could produce a fanzine. Informal webs of like-minded people emerged in that pre-internet age, with record shops, pubs, gig venues, etc, serving as distribution centres and places to network.

Bardsley was struck with a wave of nostalgia when she came across her own collection a few years ago while searching for the Nirvana photographs she had taken in 1991.

“It was so good to pore over them,” she remembers. “It was like listening to my friends’ voices from the time, and was such an evocative experience.

“Back then, cut and paste was something you did with scissors and Pritt stick. Any phonecalls were made through a payphone or your parents’ landline.”

With the 25th anniversary of the Nirvana gig looming, she put out a few feelers. The library agreed to host an exhibition; fanzine editor Anto Dillon came onboard to assemble a new publication, Circa ’91; and the likes of Sirrs and Cameron kindly contributed their work for free. Among the highlights of the new publication is the transcript of the interview Cameron did with Nirvana the day after the Henrys gig as they drove northwards in their modest tour bus for an appearance at the Top Hat in Dun Laoghaire.

MORTY’S MEMORIES

Another contributor to Circa ’91 is Morty McCarthy, a man who should probably be stuck in a glass case at the centre of any exhibition of Cork youth culture from that era. An attendee at the Nirvana gig, he was also the drummer with Sultans of Ping and had a hand in many Cork fanzines. Sunny Days and Choc-a-Bloc both covered the music scene, while No More Plastic Pitches (also the title of a Sultans’ song) served McCarthy’s love of Cork City FC.

His piece in Circa 91 recalls how The Smiths’ two gigs in Cork in 1984 inspired many local youths like himself to form a band. He plugged into fanzine culture when he picked up a selection of them in Probe Records in Liverpool in 1985 as part of a trip to Anfield. Doing his own seemed like a logical step. “I worked for a company that had a photocopier at the time — got the secretary there to type the articles for me and cut and pasted it with photos I got from press releases and I was all set,” writes McCarthy.

END OF AN ERA

But, nostalgia aside, do fanzines still have a role? Circa ‘91 editor Anto Dillon says there still is a zine scene in Ireland, but it’s much smaller than its heyday in the 1990s.

“There are a few still out there and special editions tend to get produced for fairs or other events, but most of the energy is gone online,” says the Youghal-based Dubliner who still produces a regular fanzine entitled Loserdom.

Perhaps the digital age has indeed put paid to the fanzine era, but the treasure trove assembled for this exhibition offers a walk down memory lane for anybody who was around at the time, and an important record of a golden age in Irish youth culture for those who weren’t.

  • The Sunny Days Are Here Again exhibition runs in Cork City Library from tomorrow until Aug 27. A free copy of Circa ‘91 will be available

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