JEFF GILBERT (journalist; KZOK DJ; concert organizer) I actually hold the distinction of being the first person in Seattle to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio. Three of us got the record. I was working over at KZOK, an AM station. Cathy Faulkner over at KISW got it, and there was somebody else. They said, “Not until noon. We’re gonna be listening.” Well, I just went up to the clock and advanced it five minutes ahead of time, because as the guy on the low end of the dial on AM, I thought, This is how I say “Fuck you” to the rest of ‘em. So I played it first.
Something changed in the week or two following: That song never left the radio. It just kept getting more and more requests. Suddenly, it just felt different around town. It’s like, you’re on the very top of the roller coaster and you’re about to go into that big, spinning dive. That anticipation, it was in the air.
CRAIG MONTGOMERY (Nirvana soundman) We drove down to L.A. from Seattle to film the “Teen Spirit” video and do some shows. And I remember being in the van, and Kurt was in the back and he played me “Teen Spirit” on the boom box. And he asked me, “Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?”
SAMUEL BAYER (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” video director) I had come out to Los Angeles in the summer of 1991 hoping to get my big break directing videos. I knew Robin Sloane, who commissioned videos at Geffen Records. Took her out to lunch, begged her for some work, and she was nice enough to send me an advance of some songs from the Nirvana album. I’ve said this before, but I think that they picked me because I had the worst reel. It was a bunch of artsy, pretend videos. I think one of them was set to Muddy Waters music and one of them was for a stockbroker that had hired me to do a video for his band in New York. (Laughs.) Maybe it was a punk thing to do, to pick the guy with the really bad reel.
CRAIG MONTGOMERY The “Teen Spirit” director wanted to do all this story, narrative stuff, and Kurt just wanted to have the band playing and kids going nuts. Krist wanted booze and sent me out to liquor stores to get it. Did that cause things to disintegrate? The thing was never integrated enough to disintegrate.
SAMUEL BAYER It was completely out of control. I was a very hungry, angry young man that wanted to make the greatest video of all time, and they were a band that had never made a video before—or at least, a corporate video—and we clashed like oil and water from the get-go. It was an all-day shoot from 10 in the morning to 11 at night. I pulled in every favor I possibly could: The janitor was the janitor from my apartment complex in Venice; the cheerleaders were strippers recruited from some strip club in L.A.
DAVE GROHL Originally we wanted L7 to be the cheerleaders, that was our idea. So instead I think they got porn stars. Which kinda wasn’t really the vibe we were going for.
KRIST NOVOSELIC I go, “Well, why don’t we have the cheerleaders, they’ll be cheerleaders, but they’ll have anarchy A’s on their shirts.” So that’s a whole nod to the punk-rock sensibility.
SAMUEL BAYER The kids were recruited from a Nirvana show on the Sunset Strip, and they were egging on the band, so it was kind of me versus them—and I was losing. Kurt absolutely hated me by the end. He didn’t want to lip-synch the song. And I always believed that maybe his anger with me added a whole level of intensity to his performance. I always had a vision for something destructive at the end of the video, but truth be told, I was so beat up by the end of the day I just couldn’t take any more. I was sitting on the dolly and somebody came up to me and said, “Kurt wants to invite the kids down to destroy the set.” And I’m like, “Great. Destroy the set. What do I care?” And the kids came down, and it was this beautiful display of anarchy and destruction; I just flipped the camera on and shot 400 feet of film, and that was the end of the video.
Kurt wasn’t happy with the edit. He sat with me in the editing bay to finalize it. He took out a bunch of conceptual shots that in retrospect absolutely should have been removed, and he switched some performance stuff around, purposefully putting in a shot where you can tell he’s not playing the proper chords. It was very uncomfortable—we weren’t real friendly with each other—and I was just happy when the whole thing was over. That was the last time I saw him: disheveled, looking like he just woke up on the sidewalk, walking out into the sunlight.
AMY FINNERTY (MTV director of music programming and talent relations) The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video came in at the same time the new Guns N’ Roses video came in, and at this point I hadn’t worked at MTV for very long. I went to Abbey Konowitch, the head of the programming department at that point, and said, “Look, I love this place. I’m having a great time. That being said, this place doesn’t really represent my generation. We really aren’t playing videos from bands that I’m passionate about. We have something that’s come in that I’m extremely passionate about. I’m just saying to you that if we don’t play this, I don’t feel like there’s a place for me here.” I put my job on the line, basically. I believed in it that much.
The video world-premiered on 120 Minutes. Within a week or two, we got it in heavy rotation, and within less than a month, the face of MTV had started to make a major transition.
SAMUEL BAYER In the fall of 1991, that video was getting a lot of airplay on MTV, and I would spend hours at my girlfriend’s house just laying in bed waiting for it to come on, ’cause it was really exciting, really like nothing else out there. At the time, I think my competition was a million-dollar Guns N’ Roses video and Michael Jackson doing something with Eddie Murphy or MC Hammer. The “Teen Spirit” video was nasty, brown-colored—it looked dirty, it really stood out. Within a year of that, there were a lot of different-looking videos: Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden. It seemed like all the videos now had this angry, dark vibe to them.
In August of 1990, I found myself laying on my stomach Comments during performance at Joe’s Pub, New York, December 15, 2010.
You open the cell door and boom Michael Azerrad, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Main Street Books/Doubleday, 1993, p. 178.
“More low end!” Nathaniel Penn, “The Moment We Found Nirvana,” GQ, June 2011.
Originally we wanted L7 to be the cheerleaders Videos That Rocked the World, episode one, aired on Fuse, November 26, 2007.
I go, “Well, why don’t we have the cheerleaders” Ibid.
Excerpted from EVERYBODY LOVES OUR TOWN: An Oral History Of Grunge. Copyright © 2011 by Mark Yarm. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Learn more about the book here and buy it here.