This September marks the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, a truly groundbreaking milestone in the world of rock that changed the face of popular music forever.
We are beyond honored to feature One Eleven Heavy’s Nick Mitchell Maiato’s reflections on his own personal experiences with the album’s debut and his early obsession with the band.
If you haven’t picked up the new One Eleven Heavy single, a cover of Bert Jansch’s “Open Up The Watergate,” click here to buy it today. It’s the laidback boogie that we all could use right now.
Without any further ado, take it away, Nick!
I only met Ned Netherwood from the great Phoenix, AZ based label Was Ist Das? – who released the last two records I played on – when I was in my early thirties, back when he was running underground psychedelic gigs at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, UK. I recently found out, though, that he knew one of my best friends in my teens: a rambunctious little shit called Scriv who was booted out of Hipperholme Grammar (Ned’s high school) and sent to Whitcliffe Mount (my high school, ten minutes away from Hipperholme) for whatever intolerable high jinks British kids in the late 80s/early 90s got up to. We reminisced some about him. Ned considers Scriv to have been a, ‘perplexing anomaly,’ too wrapped up in creating his own village-level, menace-to-society mythology to have been anything but an irritation. And, whilst the torn pages of soft porn mags that adorned his bedroom walls – not to mention the Black Widow catapult that sat on his windowsill – suggested this was probably not far off the truth, fourteen-year-old me found a great enabler in Scriv. He soon provided me with an unabashed entry into the world of indie rock that had remained otherwise inaccessible to the point of near unawareness until I met him on the school bus in May 1990 (when he stepped in and told Whitcliffe Mount’s resident über-thug – lets call him Bruce Baguely – to stop flicking lighted matches at my head). Thanks to Scriv, I was offered a lifelong connection to people like Ned, even though I wouldn’t meet the latter for at least another eighteen years, via introduction to an upcoming band called Nirvana.
Following the coerced sale of all my UK punk and Oi! Records when I was around twelve years old (when my mother was jolted into moral panic by an article in the trashy Sunday People, which aligned punk rock and far right politics far too closely for her comfort), hair metal, thrash metal and, more recently, the in-vogue funk metal had provided me with what seemed to be the only possible routes to rock ecstasy. Megadeth’s Rust In Peace had just made an intellectual dent in my consciousness, with its fusion of alien conspiracy theorizing and anti-nuclear weapons sentiment, and UK Headbanger’s Ball presenter Vanessa Warwick had me convinced that Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual was the natural endpoint for the entire heavy metal project. The very word ‘indie’, however, had me running for the nearest puke point. At best it conjured up images of the fay, self-styled-bookworm, flowers-hanging-out-the-back-of-his-pants posturing of Morrissey; at worst, the boxing-gloves-wearing moronism of EMF [sample lyric: “Oh! (what the fuck?)/(What the fuck? Whoa, man!)”]. I couldn’t have cared less. So, when I arrived at Scriv’s at lunchtime on Saturday November 9th 1991 – nine days before my sixteenth birthday – to go drink cans of Crest and smoke bad hash in the woods around Hunsworth Lane with he and his best pal Glynn and was told, “you’ve gotta see this new ‘indie’ band Nirvana who were on [Friday night Channel 4 youth show] The Word last night before we go – best thing I’ve ever heard,” I was naturally dubious as to the credibility of his enthusiasm.
Of course, Nirvana was neither new nor any longer an ‘indie’ band by 1991. Their Sub Pop debut Bleach had already been out two years and they were now signed to Geffen. But, as we all know, there was never any doubt they dragged the spirit of independent, anti-corporate-ism kicking and screaming into the major label mainstream, so you can forgive Scriv his error. He’d videotaped the show – Nirvana’s first ever TV appearance, no less – and interrupted his dad’s Saturday morning soccer preview to play it back for me. I still remember the feeling that came over me upon watching it. It floored me in a way nothing else ever had.
You read signifiers differently when you’re that age. Any set of sounds thrown together has the potential to be emotionally devastating to a typically frustrated kid about to turn sixteen, but so few had been in my life up until that point, at least by comparison. Nowadays, I can be far more clinically reductive about what, in Nirvana’s sound, slayed me so thoroughly: the bleakness of the two-note, clean guitar riff in F minor fed through a flanger and played over a straight 4/4 rock beat juxtaposed with a four-chord punk rock chorus played over the drum beat to Parliament’s “Give Up The Funk” is an almost stupidly simple recipe for partying through the pain. Right there, at that moment, though, I didn’t have the slightest idea how they were doing it, but it was akin to having my skull cracked open and all the rage sucked out and then re-pumped back in on repeat. We must have watched that clip five or six times in a row until Scriv’s dad, cig hanging from the corner of his mouth, began kicking up a stink and we left him to his program. The five-minute, bi-polar rollercoaster between the verse’s absolute depths of despair and the chorus’s top-of-the-world inviolability was moreish to the point of gluttony. And this is in the pre-internet days where you needed to actually own the song on a physical medium if you wanted to hear it at your own whim, so the wait between first hearing it and actually getting a copy of it for my birthday on November 18th (of course, I’d immediately gone home and asked my parents to buy me Nevermind for my present) seemed like an aeon. I actually went out in between and bought a copy of the “Sliver” b/w “Dive” 7” from Leeds punk record shop Bad in the interim and did my best to get off on that for the next nine days, though it was “Teen Spirit” I really craved.
My parents were a lot cooler than I ever really give them credit for. On Saturday November 23rd 1991, they let me have a birthday party at home and they left the house so that me and my friends could rage unimpeded. The only copy of Nevermind they’d been able to find in any of Bradford’s record stores had been on cassette – the LP had sold out and I didn’t yet own a CD player – and I played it back-to-back, over and over again, much to the chagrin of the partygoers who… ya know… wanted to party, not enter into my narcissistic obsession with the emotional incisiveness of this amazing new album. My friend Russell – the only other kid in school who played guitar and who’d also had his skull bashed-in by the Nirvana Word performance – showed up with his girlfriend Katie and asked if they could, “use [my] bed.” I was devastated. Katie had been sitting next to me in Religious Education classes for the past few months, whispering to me that she wanted to break up with Russell and that she liked me, with her friend Cheryl chiming in to, “check you two out,” from the desk behind. I distinctly recall the creaking of my bedroom’s floorboards from above as I sat downstairs, blowing smoke out of the patio doors with Scriv, listening to “Breed” and wallowing in the irony. Later, plucking their used condom from the carpet, taking it to the bathroom and going to bed drunk, high and still a virgin, listening to Nirvana quietly so as not to disturb my by-now-returned parents, I believe I was in my own personal belly of the whale of the 90s – where everything that’s happened and everything that’s yet to come makes perfect, if bleak, sense. I don’t think another band could have soundtracked that feeling more appropriately.
The following Monday, I went to Russell’s house to play guitars and grill him about the state of play between he and Katie. As soon as I got there, he said, “you’re not gonna believe this – Nirvana is playing Bradford University tomorrow night!” It was advertised in the back of the Telegraph & Argus paper in a tiny box ad. I asked him what we were waiting for and we got on the phone to see if we could reserve tickets. Apparently, the line had been jammed for hours and they’d already long sold out of advance tickets but, we were told, if we arrived early, there’d be a handful available on the door. On Tuesday November 26th, we took the 256 bus straight from school in Cleckheaton to Bradford city center with our backpacks filled with cans of £0.10 Crest beer and joined the already sizeable line outside the University’s Communal Building at around 5.30pm. By the time the doors opened at 8pm, we were half-cut, dying to piss and nervous as hell about whether or not we’d manage to get a ticket. The line edged along at pace until, to our delight, we made it to the front. The ticket stubs they handed us were leftovers from a recent African Head Charge show at the venue, which suggested they’d sold over capacity. I walked in wearing a long-sleeved Skid-Row Slave to the Grind hoodie, went straight to the merch table, bought a smiley face Nirvana shirt emblazoned with the now legendary aphorism, “Flower Sniffin Kitty Pettin’ Baby Kissin’ Corporate Rock Whores,” printed on the back, pulled it over the Skid Row shirt in a moment of grand personal symbolism and dove into the throng of people trying to squeeze toward the stage.
We ended up stage right, directly in front of a subwoofer cab and waited for the first band. Three Japanese women in Go-Go dancers’ minidresses walked out and introduced themselves as Shonen Knife and played some sub-Ramones pop-punk tunes, one of which I recall going something like, “Merry Merry Christmas/Happy Happy Christmas/Merry Merry Christmas/Happy New Year,” though maybe I dumbed it down in my disdain for all things twee. We went to get a beer around three songs in and, by the time the next band, former Vaseline Eugene Kelly’s new group Captain America, hit the stage, it was already too packed to get back to where we’d been standing. Captain America were good, but there was too much anticipation in the crowd for them ever to get across. We were all just waiting for them to clear out so we could get on with the job of watching Nirvana. In the half-hour or so between Captain America and Nirvana, the tension was palpable. A bald guy with glasses standing in front of me kept yelling, “Mr Moustache!” (I’d bought Bleach in a fever of Nirvana fandom on the day of my birthday party from Our Price Records in Bradford, so was already aware of the song) and telling his friend, “I’m gonna be the first one to stage dive to Nirvana because they’re gonna be fucking legendary.” Later, I noticed he’d pushed his way to front and was perched on the security barrier, waiting for them to take the stage so that he could make good on his commitment. Sure enough, when they finally came out and Kurt sang, “One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you,” the guy rose up for his cue and, when Dave Grohl struck his drums for the first time, dove headlong into the crowd, heralding the entire audience’s passage into a giant mosh pit, front to back. It was utterly breathtaking.
“Aneurysm” followed “Drain You” and that was followed by “School” and “Floyd The Barber” until finally, after what felt like an unreasonable amount of time, they broke into the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If the roof had already flown off when the band hit the stage, this was the moment at which the mushroom cloud exploded out the top of it. I didn’t know what the goddamn’ lyrics meant – shit, I didn’t even know what the title was about, other than it made me feel suddenly unshackled from childhood in some essential way. Didn’t matter. What mattered was that rudimentary juxtaposition of anguish and ecstasy between verse and chorus. How do you dance to the verse sections of “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” You can’t! You just have to stand there gazing at your shoes, waiting for the self-pitying passages to give way to those vital bursts of fuck-it-all frenzy. But you need both parts for the song to really mean anything – and it clearly meant a lot to every last person in that room, not one of whom appeared to be over the age of twenty-five.
“Polly” was a breather in the set and the point at which people began to turn around and talk to each other about how incredible it had been so far. I’d long since lost Russell. The girl standing behind me pulled an, ‘oh, my God!’ face and I nodded back in agreement. She introduced herself as Nadia. We danced to “Lithium,” “Sliver,” and “Breed,” and then – in that way teenagers seem so innately competent at – somehow ended up making out. We wandered back to the bar, bought beers and watched most of the rest of the show from the back of the room. For years after the event, it remained one of my biggest regrets: not fully engaging with the only Nirvana show I’d ever be able to see because I wanted to smooch with some girl I’d never met. Now, in my forties, it’s all a part of a memory that’s almost TV-show-like in its perfection. If nothing else, it gave me this paragraph. I remember we shuffled back to the throng for a little slam-dancing to the trio of “Been A Son,” “Negative Creep,” and “On A Plain,” before heading to the back, again. The rest of the set has long since faded from memory, with the exception of the closing “Territorial Pissings,” during which Nadia and I were separated as we were each bounced around the 500-capacity room as if stuffed with feathers. I didn’t see her again until I got a job at Bad in Leeds – the punk shop where I’d bought the “Sliver” b/w “Dive” 7” – around six months later, when she came in and bought a tie dye dress and we chatted for ten minutes before she left, this time forever.
The night was marked by a second life-changing event immediately after the gig. Russell, whom I’d located outside the venue, and I were told of a nearby indie rock club called Tumblers just down the hill, which would be open until 2am. I called my parents from a phone booth and told them I’d take a taxi home – I guess they were fine with it – and we went off to find the place. I’d never been to a night club before and I was too young to go to one now, but the doorman didn’t give us a moment’s trouble, baby-faced as we both were. We paid the entry price of £3 and ascended the stairs to the club above the main bar down below. I felt a rush of adrenaline that I’d never feel again in such an environment upon entering. The place was full of people who’d been in attendance at the Nirvana show. I recognized two kids from my old school, Katherine Norman and Billy Bailey. We looked at each other in joyful awareness that we’d just experienced something that would live with us forever and then they played Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” (only the second time I’d ever heard it – first time was on ITV Saturday morning show The Chart Show in the indie chart) and we almost knocked ourselves out slam-dancing to it. I dunno what happened to Russell or Katherine, but it was the first time I’d seen Billy, who was two years older than me, in a couple of years and he spent most of the night yammering excitedly at me about The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and Catherine Wheel. Within a year, me and he started a band – my first real one – with my brother and a kid I’d met recently called Dave Corney with the ridiculous name of Summum Bonum. Pretty sure the name was decided upon as a result of its semantic proximity to Nirvana. Either way, it was as catalytic as life events get. The entire rest of my existence has pretty much been spent wallowing around in the indie rock mud – playing, running a label, spending all my money on records and shows – and I can’t really see how I could ever trudge out of it with any degree of satisfaction. Nirvana is directly responsible for that.
Funny how a widely acknowledged Zeitgeist moment can get so personal, that way.
We can’t thank Nick Mitchell Maiato enough for allowing us to publish this excellent . Again, click here to check out One Eleven Heavy’s latest single, “Open Up The Watergate.” You can follow Maiato and One Eleven Heavy on Twitter at @MitchellMaiato and @oneelevenheavy, respectively.