Denver may not have been the most obvious port-of-call for Nirvana, but the city's music community steadfastly supported the now-legendary band, from its very first local appearance to what would end up becoming its national farewell tour. And as the 21st anniversary of Kurt Cobain's April 5 suicide approaches, the city's musicians still have fond memories of the Seattle band's visits.
Denver musician Matt Bischoff, a co-founder of The Fluid who currently plays guitar in The Buckingham Squares, recalls the thriving Denver community that embraced Cobain and company as one of their own. "The scene was all over the map," says Bischoff. "I'd always come back from being out on the road and people would tell me what I'd missed. It sometimes felt like coming back to a foreign place it was changing so fast."
Meanwhile, The Fluid forged its own Seattle connection by becoming the first non-local band to sign with Sub Pop, the indie label that nurtured Nirvana up until Geffen Records came calling.
The two groups first met when The Fluid and Nirvana were both recording in the same studio with grunge super-producer Jack Endino.
"We ended up at Reciprocal Recording and were loading our gear out as Nirvana were loading in; they were ready to record Bleach," says Bischoff. "Being on Sub Pop definitely didn't hurt. It helped us get beyond what we'd been doing on our own. We at least had advertising in magazines and started playing in a better class of place, instead of the rundown hole-in-the-wall venues."
Nirvana's first Denver show was scheduled for July 26, 1989, but the dispirited band canceled their first national tour a week before they were scheduled to take off. The band then sacked their second guitarist, and after a period of recuperation, arrived in October to make amends.
While the bands' roles would soon be reversed, it was The Fluid's fans who brought Nirvana a substantially larger audience. "Nirvana were out touring Bleach, so we asked, 'Wanna play with us?'" Bischoff recalls. "Everyone into rock was hip to what they were putting out. So we brought in our crowd, then there were all the curiosity seekers who wanted to see what Sub Pop was about." Adverts for the show even had "Sub Pop Recording Artists" emblazoned across the top that nearly overshadowed the bands themselves.
The venue was The Garage inside 23 Parish Club. Andy Monley of Denver band Jux County remembers it as "a huge dance club, three floors of an old warehouse. The Garage was attached and was the best place to play in Denver as far as good sound, good crowds, good atmosphere.
"They had numerous spaces, dance music stuff going on, pool tables, then The Garage itself for the live bands. You could cram a few hundred people in, and when you got a crowd like that it was a sea of people ... It always seemed like Denver would become the next mecca of music, but it never exploded."
Bischoff does recall Nirvana having its share of mishaps throughout the gig.
"Kurt was having problems with his distortion pedal. I offered him another one but he just looked at it and said, 'I don't know ...' Musicians are weird, they get used to their gear, so asking them to play with something else just doesn't work. They also had trouble with the guitars not staying in tune.
"But in the end, the technical side didn't matter. We had a great crowd — people were real excited, crazy. Lots of beer spilled onstage, lots of sweat, people rolling around on top of the audience. People got caught up in the excitement of something they could see was taking off."
When Nirvana returned on May 14, 1990, Jux County provided local color. "Nirvana were on their way and a lot of people were there to see them," says Monley of the sold-out show. "There were plenty of people bothering them, so I didn't feel the need to disturb them. The Garage used to record interviews with their bands, so I remember them putting Kurt in front of a bunch of lights and a camera. My other main memory is their bass player being really tall."
It wouldn't be long before Nirvana's story exploded. "They were chameleonic shape-shifters," recalls Kurt Danielson from fellow Seattle Sub Pop band Tad. "The received wisdom was they were going to have cult status, be a big indie band, but it was beyond anyone's imagination that they'd transcend that ... I always felt a real pride and satisfaction seeing my friends grow."
Jello Biafra, the legendary Dead Kennedys frontman and Colorado native who founded the Alternative Tentacles label — whose roster includes Denver band Slim Cessna's Auto Club — encountered Nirvana at a 1992 benefit concert.
"I'm introduced to Kurt and I could tell he seemed shell-shocked, not knowing when the next shoe was going to drop. The wolves and piranhas wanted a piece of him. I couldn't resist anyway asking him why he didn't name his baby after me — I used to use that as a joke way of congratulating people on their family — but he couldn't tell I was joking. He may be the only person I've ever asked who thought I was serious. It was real evidence that he was just in shock at the position he'd gotten himself in."
Nirvana's farewell to Denver took place at the Coliseum in December 1993, more than two years after the release of Nevermind and its breakthough single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The band had come a long way — 1989's $10 ticket had doubled in price, while the arena accommodated 10,000 people. The band was now a foursome, with guitarist Pat Smear added.
Cobain despised arena shows, and the earlier free-wheeling energy had been replaced by a barely varying set across the entire tour. The band put in a workmanlike performance that night, and departed with only a handful of dates left before their final U.S. show.
But the musicians who were there at the beginning would rather remember the excited and ambitious young band that found Denver such a hospitable home for music. "It's not like Austin or L.A.," says Monley, "but there are so many good bands, and it's enjoyable knowing that musical expression really matters to people here."
Nick Soulsby's I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana features original interviews with musicians from 170 of the bands who played shows with Kurt Cobain during Nirvana's seven-year run. The book was published by St. Martin's Press on March 31.