On the evening of Friday the 13th in September 1991, the funky little counter-cultural and gay friendly nightclub Re-bar at 1114 Howell Street in downtown Seattle is the site of a music-business party held to celebrate the pending release of a second album by the then still pre-fame "grunge rock" band Nirvana. While Nevermind will go on to make music history by selling more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone, on this night the members of Nirvana make minor rock 'n' roll history by becoming perhaps the only group ever to be 86'd from their own party for engaging in a drunken food fight.
It has long been a rock 'n' roll tradition for a band (and its associated record label) to throw a "listening party" to mark the occasion of a new album's release. Usually the artists don't perform at such functions, but instead act as genial and grateful hosts to a crowd of industry insiders, family members, and friends who all gather to listen to the disc being played over a sound system. Typically attendees are also offered an array of appetizers and a few libations and perhaps some promotional souvenirs.
But the fabled saga of how Nirvana's Nevermind party unfolded is one that takes the cake for riotous misbehavior. The event was held at Re-bar, a dance venue that a couple of entrepreneurs, Steve Wells and Pit Kwiecinski, opened in January 1990 in an obscure location (formerly the Axel Rock club) just south of Denny Way on the fringe of downtown Seattle. Re-bar became a popular place that held disco nights, art exhibits, theatrical productions, burlesque shows, and occasional performances by live bands. In time it would come to be recognized as "a cherished home for grunge punks, misfits, weirdos, drag queens, poets, freaks, and celebrities, [which] has long stood as a crown jewel of Seattle's LGBT community" (Bernard).
But running a joint that catered to those crowds was no easy task. As Wells recalled: "Something most people today can't even imagine about the Washington State Liquor Control Board [WSLCB] in the late 1980s and early '90s: Getting a license to sell beer and wine, let alone spirits, was a very difficult process. Maintaining that license could be even more difficult. Especially downtown. New clubs, especially gay clubs or any clubs that played Black music, were under the microscope. In 1991, Re-bar became very popular, and then attracted unwarranted attention from WSLCB agents. On busy nights, and sometimes just around 1:30 a.m., even on slow nights, they would often park their cars across the street, watching the front door, and would make sweeps through the bar, checking IDs, usually in a very confrontational manner" (Schmader).
Nevertheless, Re-bar was the spot chosen for a party focused on Nevermind, the soon-to-be-released album by Nirvana -- a punk band on the very cusp of becoming established among the biggest pop celebrities of their generation. Adding to the overall excitement of the times was that the commercial and cultural concept of the Pacific Northwest's rock scene (and sound) as "grunge" was already taking hold in the mainstream consciousness.
Originally from Aberdeen, the members of Nirvana had already established a solid underground reputation for their excellence as songwriters and players since their first recordings debuted on Seattle's Sub Pop label in 1988. The band -- now composed of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), bassist Krist Novoselic (b. 1965), and drummer Dave Grohl (b. 1969) -- had seen "Smells Like Teen Spirit," its first single for David Geffen's big-time DGC label, issued in the United States on September 10, 1991, and find massive immediate success. But no one could have predicted the whirlwind of craziness that would erupt globally following the official September 24 release date of the Nevermind album.
When word began spreading about the mind-blowing quality of Nevermind, Re-bar management agreed to have DGC and Nirvana hold a record-release party in the venue -- a modest beer-and-wine joint that was not licensed to serve hard liquor or cocktails. A party invitation card (replete with a seven-syllable term referencing the fear of the number 13) was sent out containing this enticing text:
On Friday the 13th,
join Nirvana and DGC Records
for a release party in honor of Nirvana's
DGC debut album Nevermind.
Edible food, drinks, prizes you might
want to take home, a few surprises,
people to meet, the band to
greet ... But nevermind all that, the
important part is the music. Hear
Nevermind in its entirety and loud."
DGC's Northwest promotions rep, Susie Tennant, served as host of the party, one that would feature a couple of kegs of beer and catered comestibles. A packed-in crowd of Nirvana's friends and fellow musicians, Sub Pop bigwigs -- including that label's co-founder Bruce Pavitt, who was recruited to work the turntables as DJ -- local record-shop employees, radio dee-jays, and other industry insiders gathered at the Re-bar for a night of fun listening to the new record spin. The publicity shy "band was told it would be a low-key affair and that they could invite their friends. They arrived to find the walls of the club plastered with Nirvana posters. They had to schmooze with all kinds of dull music biz types and endure hearing their album played twice in a row" (Azzerad, 191).
At first "[t]he band members were friendly, signed autographs, and spoke highly of their new album. By the end of the evening, however, the party turned into typical Nirvana mayhem" (Berkenstadt and Cross). That was in part because the "band had smuggled in a half gallon of Jim Beam [bourbon], a violation of Washington liquor law. But before any liquor inspector could bust them, mayhem erupted" (Cross).
Pavitt had already spun Nevermind a couple times, and now the very well-lubricated Nirvana guys begged him to stop and instead spin some trashy disco and New Wave records. "Everything went great for about two hours," Steve Wells recalled, "but then I noticed that Kurt, Krist, Dave, and others kept going up into the DJ booth, and they were obviously getting drunker and drunker ... way more than they could on beer. Then the free beer ran out, and things started to get kinda rowdy. Then we noticed the WSLCB's cars had pulled up into the parking lot across the street, headlights on, pointed at the front door. I got scared, climbed up into the DJ booth, and found Bruce and his buddies chugging on a half gallon of, I think, Jack Daniel's ... Empty bottles littered the floor" (Schmader).
Punk and Disorderly
It was about then that the boys jumped up and swung into action. One account says that "[a]fter the band finished ripping all the posters off the walls [Krist] heaved a tamale at Kurt and [their old pal, and guitarist/vocalist with Earth] Dylan Carlson. Kurt remembers retaliating with a salvo of guacamole ... Soon food was flying everywhere, with no regard for the industry geeks whose suits were getting splattered" (Azzerad, 192).
"It was so much fun," remembered Kim Warnick, bassist with Seattle punks the Fastbacks. "Empty kegs were being rolled around on the floor" (True). "I guess I freaked about the whole situation," Wells recalled, "rounded them up, including Bruce, and with the help of the doormen, got them out of the door just in time for them all to barf on the curb" (Schmader). The bandmates hung out in the side alley for a while, laughing and talking through a window to their friends still celebrating inside. Novoselic would later recall: "We were laughing, saying 'Oh my God, we just got kicked out of our own record release party!'" (Cross).
"Soon after," Steve Wells concluded, "the WSLCB guys approached with their flashlights and I then declared the party was 'OVER,' turned up the lights, and told everyone to leave, making me out to be a total asshole with the crowd. Oh, well" (Schmader). Meanwhile, Nirvana and a few friends had jumped into the limousine that Susie Tennant had rented for the night, and headed off to party further at the nearby loft of Jeff Ross (the fellow responsible for printing many of Nirvana's T-shirts). Ejected from that space after setting off some fire extinguishers, the miscreant musicians wound up their big night with a joyfully anarchic and destructive final stand -- one that included slingshots and eggs, compact discs and microwave ovens, etc. -- at the apartment that Tennant and Warnick shared at 7231 3rd Avenue NW in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood.
Within days Nirvana set out on the autumn Nevermind tour, one that saw the band reaping rave reviews while the album captured the ears of the world, their singles rocketed onto radio, their videos onto MTV, and the bandmates' life trajectories were forever transformed. For its part, Nevermind would shock the music industry by selling 2 million copies before the end of the year, and go on to be recognized as one of the greatest, and best-selling, rock 'n' roll albums of all time.