Nirvana splash Sir Henry's


Nirvana in Cork: The legendary 1991 gig in Sir Henrys

Kurt Cobain and co were barely known when they arrived in Ireland for the first gig as support act on a tour with Sonic Youth. Nobody who saw them play at the half-full Cork venue thirty years ago could have suspected what was about to unfold, writes Des O'Driscoll

Nirvana on stage in Sir Henrys, Cork, on August 20, 1991. Picture: Ed Sirrs / Camera Press

i t's a question that would make for a fine tie-breaker in a music quiz. Where was the first place outside of America where Nirvana played 'Smells Like Teen Spirit’ live?

The answer, of course, was at South Main Street in Cork, in a half-full Sir Henrys. For a generation of music fans in the city, it’s the ultimate ‘I was there’ tale. How they witnessed the then little-known trio play support to Sonic Youth on Tuesday, August 20, 1991, on the first date of a European tour.

Those of us who really were there had a range of reactions. Some recall benevolent indifference to a fairly decent support band; others pegged Nirvana as an act to watch out for; perhaps a handful really thought they were great.

Whatever the reaction, nobody – including the band themselves – would have predicted what was coming next. Grunge was about to become the defining rock sound of the early 1990s, jolting new life into guitar-based music, with Nirvana as its finest exponents. A few short months after that trip to Ireland, they would be ranked among the biggest bands in the world.

 
cobain_bollard_grand_parade

Kurt Cobain goofing around on a bollard outside the Grand Parade Hotel in Cork.

TOUR OF CORK


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

Nirvana had arrived in the southern city early on Tuesday morning and checked into the Grand Parade Hotel, part of the same complex as Sir Henrys. The modest, redbricked hotel provided a welcome chance to rest after what had been a gruelling week.

Just three days earlier, the band had been in California, shooting the video for the yet-to-be-released song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Dave Markey, who had been invited by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth to capture Super-8 footage of the tour, met Nirvana at LAX airport for the flight to London.

“They'd been up all night making the video so were really tired, but we all still drank plenty on the plane on the way over,” recalls Markey, whose footage would become the landmark tour documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. “They were so excited and giddy, and we were all really up for the adventure.”

Nirvana and Markey met up with Sonic Youth in the UK capital and the filmmaker journeyed with the Seattle trio to Ireland in a rented Euro-Van via a car ferry from Wales.

On the day they arrived in Cork, music journalist Shane Fitzsimons, of the city’s Evening Echo newspaper, met up with the bands at their hotel and offered to bring them for a walk around the city.

Not everyone was interested, but Fitzsimons and local woman Siobhán Bardsley were joined for the stroll by Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic from Nirvana, and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.

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,” says Fitzsimons.

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 ‘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.

Bardsley had brought her camera and happily obliged.



The school-concert themed video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was directed by Samuel Bayer, who'd later go on to make the video for such songs as The Cranberries' 'Zombie', as well as directing the 2010 version of Nightmare On Elm Street.

 
 

Dave Grohl outside former fish shop Baltimore Stores on MacCurtain Street in Cork. Picture: Siobhan Bardsley

 


That stroll on a sunny day in Cork obviously left its mark on the 22-year-old Grohl. His mother was of Irish stock, with the maiden name of Hanlon. Grohl later recalled: “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 newspaper 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.”

Dave Markey spent plenty of time in the company of Cobain in Ireland and on the rest of the tour, and recalls that the soon-to-be-megastar seemed very happy in himself. “In contrast to what came afterwards, almost any time I saw him on that tour he had a smile on his face, and he just really wanted to be there,” says Markee.

Others recall Cobain, 24, as a quiet and polite figure. Though he had already dabbled with heroin by then, nobody who spoke to us for this article saw any signs that Cobain was using the drug on this side of the Atlantic.

“Everybody drank quite a bit, and there was some hash-smoking, but that really was it,” says Markey.

Play as you read: Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' live at Sir Henrys.
Cobain stare

Kurt Cobain on stage at Sir Henrys stares at the audience. Picture: Ed Sirrs / Camera Press

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 Dublin organiser Gerry Harford on booking Sonic Youth.

“Then, I got a call to say that I could get Nirvana as support in Cork for £100,” Blair told me in 2014, a few months before he passed away.

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 Blair’s dealings were with Sonic Youth’s tour manager, but on the evening of the gig 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 food, 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 recalled, laughing.

 
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The ticket and poster for the Sonic Youth and Nirvana gig at Sir Henrys, which was priced at £7.50. Picture: Cork Zine Archive

DOOM, GLOOM AND GOOD TIMES


cork in 1991 was still in the grip of a long recession that had drained Leeside of many of its young people. Despite the emigration and fairly stagnant economy of the pre-Celtic Tiger era, the city wasn't necessarily an unpleasant place to live. Particularly for those with an interest in music.

Sir Henrys was in its heyday as one of the best dance-music clubs in Europe, and the venue also hosted regular gigs by other local and international bands.

Those emigrant links to London even had an upside. The 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 music fans also fed off 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. Many of those making their way to South Main Street on that balmy Tuesday night still 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, 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 pub such as the Liberty, a favoured watering hole of Cork's young punks and indie heads.

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.”

Play as you read:  'Negative Creep' live at Sir Henrys.
Nirvana collage

A montage of the pictures of Nirvana and Sonic Youth taken by gig attendees Eamonn Cunningham and Rory Wales.


Among the handful of others eager to catch the support act was Eamonn Cunningham, from Tallow, Co Waterford. The 20-year-old had been catching some of the early buzz around Nirvana from the pages of NME and Melody Maker, and had heard the band's debut album Bleach via a C90 cassette that was doing the rounds.

Whatever about being in the minority of people in Sir Henrys who were familiar with Nirvana's music, Cunningham was in an even smaller subgroup of fans who brought cameras to gigs in that era. Within his group, there were even two cameras – Rory Wales brought the other.

When Cunningham and co arrived at the venue, Nirvana had just taken to stage, so the pals went straight to the front. As well as using their disposable cameras to snap the only colour pictures in existence of the gig, Cunningham also recalls there was one song in particular stood out for him.

“It was my first time hearing it and I remember thinking it was brilliant. About three weeks later I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit on the radio, and went 'That's the song!'” says Cunningham.

The Tallow man went on to see the band again at the Point Depot in Dublin in 1992, and also still has his ticket for the scheduled gig at the RDS on April 8, 1994, three days after Cobain's death.

At Sir Henry's, Cunningham wouldn't have realised the guy nearby with the much fancier camera was actually responsible for some of the best pictures he'd have seen in the UK music press. Ed Sirrs was in Cork covering the first night of the tour for NME, and was surprised to see so much space in front of the stage.

“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 most memorable of his photographs actually came after Nirvana's set, when Sonic Youth were on stage.

“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 tell Sirrs' NME colleague, Keith Cameron, that he suffered from narcolepsy.

 
Cobain Bench

An exhausted Kurt Cobain asleep on a bench near the stage while headline act Sonic Youth played. Picture: Ed Sirrs / Camera Press

By the time of the Henrys gig, Cameron had already seen Nirvana live at least four times, and the Scottish journalist was an early champion of the group.

“As the gig went on, there were more and more people getting into it,” says Cameron, one of the figures on the dancefloor during the Seattle band's set. “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’.”

Perhaps the smallish crowd helped ensure that Kurt Cobain looked totally immersed in the music during the performance, jumping around in his yellow t-shirt and trademark torn jeans, one of his guitars bearing a sticker with the words: ‘Vandalism: Beautiful As A Rock In A Cop’s Face’.

Bearded bass player Krist Novoselic went barefoot 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 recording was made of 40-minutes of Nirvana’s set in Sir Henrys. The 12 songs on the recording include five from the then soon-to-be-released Nevermind album, most notably that first performance outside the US of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, one of the last tracks to be written for the record.

 
 
 

American filmmaker Dave Markey on the outside stairs of Sir Henrys on the day of the gig. Picture: Siobhan Bardsley 

Sir Henrys closed in 2003 and the building was demolished soon afterwards. Though a bar takes up some of the site, the adjoining Grand Parade Hotel has remained unused ever since.

Filmmaker Dave Markey included a few short clips of the Cork gig in his finished documentary, as well as the audio from the performances of 'Teen Spirit', 'School', and "Negative Creep.

Markey also got the name for his famous film while hanging out in the Grand Parade Hotel. A video for Motley Crue's cover version of the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK' came on the TV screen, and he recalls quipping: “1991, the year punk finally breaks!”

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 of the Henrys gig. “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 first European airing of 'Teen Spirit' 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, the recording suggests the Henrys crowd got more raucous and appreciative during the set. When Nirvana took to the stage shortly after 9pm, there were probably about 200 people in the venue, but most of the approximately 500 who attended on the night would have arrived by the time the support band were finishing.

Of course, most of the crowd's thoughts soon turned to Sonic Youth, who lived up to their top billing with a set which may not be talked about as much nowadays, but was enthusiastically received on the night. Thurston Moore wore a t-shirt emblazoned with an image of Brendan Behan.

 
Thurston_Moore_of_Sonic_Youth
 
The Brendan Behan t-shirt Thurston Moore was wearing on stage was given to the band by local journalist Shane Fitzsimons. “That was made by a pal of mine, Simon Jones,” recalls Fitzsimons, who tried to get Jones’s name on the guest list at the Top Hat in Dublin in return for more t-shirts. Sonic Youth guitarist and literature fan Lee Ranaldo said he wouldn’t remember the name. “So we agreed that he’d put Samuel Beckett +1 on the list, which he did.”

Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on stage in Sir Henrys wearing the Brendan Behan t-shirt given to him by a local journalist. Picture: Eamonn Cunningham 

 

Cameron of the NME mixed with Nirvana 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, Sir Henrys manager Sean O’Neill got the word that Nirvana were hungry; 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 they'd intersect with Nirvana and Sonic Youth again on the Friday.

Nirvana were sixth on the bill that day – one below Chapterhouse on a day that was headlined by Nick Cave - and played 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.”

In 1992, Nirvana would return to Reading, this time as main-stage headliners above Nick Cave, while Sultans Of Ping made their festival debut that weekend at the Sessions Tent.

 
Cobain Wings

A later picture of Kurt Cobain performing for MTV in 1993. By then, his personal problems and heroin habit were spiralling out of control. Picture:  Getty Images/Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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 September and the little-known grunge band were soon being hailed as the messiahs of the rock world.

'Teen Spirit' would become an instantly-recognisable anthem, becoming so popular that the band began to feel uncomfortable with the track, and they started leaving it out of some live sets. That single was also responsible for pushing Nevermind towards the top of record charts around the world, including the No 1 slot in Ireland and America. The album would eventually clock sales of over 30 million.

As ever, the new-found fame proved to be a double-edged sword. The pressures of this new existence seemed to exacerbate Cobain’s existing mental health issues and drug abuse, and he continued on his well-documented spiral.

Seattle journalist Charles R Cross got access to Cobain’s diaries while researching his biography, Heavier Than Heaven, 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.

Cross also remembers his magazine, The Rocket, having trouble pinning down Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, 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,” he says.

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 on from 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, took his own life through a combination of heroin and a gunshot.

Filmmaker Markey was at home in California when he saw the awful news on TV. “The strange thing about it was that they were using clips from my film on the news channel, but they were showing images of Thurston Moore, saying he was Kurt,” recalls Markey.

“To be honest, Kurt's death wasn't a huge surprise as we'd heard about the overdose in Rome [March 4, 1994], and the whole vibe around him had already gone very dark. But it was still a shock, and so sad.”

Inevitably, some of sense of tragedy around Cobain's death can get lost as the 27-year-old's rock-star status and the passage of time ensure it's a story that tends to get filed under 'celebrity'. Which probably makes it all the more important to remember the singer as the happy young man who was so delighted to be in Cork all those years ago.

* This is an updated and extended version of an article first published on Friday, April 04, 2014, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death


Morty McCarthy of the Sultans would later encounter US musician and feminist activist Kathleen Hanna on a family trip to New York. Her band, Le Tigre, who were doing in-store appearance at Tower Records, brought McCarthy's three-year-old daughter Nina up on stage. Nirvana connection? Hanna was also the person who unknowingly created the name for the famous song when she had written a deodorant reference on her friend Kurt Cobain's bedroom wall, ''Kurt smells like Teen Spirit".

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