Fallout joys

By BRETT MILANO  |  September 18, 2007

The band that finally changed the world wasn’t even trying. The Seattle trio Nirvana had already been around for two years before most of the world noticed. At one of Nirvana’s first Boston-area shows, in 1990, the band played the tiny Jamaica Plain rock bar Green Street Station, sharing a bill with the noisy Boston band the Cheater Slicks. (Asked about that show years later, Dave Shannon, the Cheater Slicks’ guitarist, said, “We figured, big deal — a bunch of hippies from Seattle.”) Yet, Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, nearly changed the climate overnight when it was released in September 1991. Nirvana’s leader, Kurt Cobain — a disheveled cynic with a heroin problem and bad taste in clothes — was nobody’s idea of a pop star. But there was something hugely affecting about his songs and hugely energizing about the band’s guitar sound; Nevermind’s producer, Butch Vig, knew how to exploit both. And the music business reacted to Nirvana’s runaway success the only way it knew how: by looking everywhere for more of the same.

What happened in Boston post-Nirvana was the equivalent of that white limo pulling up at Bill Janovitz’s house. Sometimes it seemed that youth culture was being recast in Kurt Cobain’s image: soulful, alienated, and streetwise teens were turning up on MTV, in mainstream television shows (90210 and My So-Called Life), and in newly aware teen mags such as the late, lamented Sassy, with its coveted “Cute Band Alert.” (To its eternal embarrassment, Buffalo Tom could manage only a “Cute Drummer Alert.”) Two area bands, Boston’s Green Magnet School and Providence’s Six Finger Satellite, were also signed to Nirvana’s original label, Sub Pop. According to the guitarist Chris Pearson, the former band was signed because the label owner thought they recalled English punk. “But of course, when our album came out, all the English critics compared us to Nirvana.”

Combining with Nirvana’s rise — and to some extent causing it — was the fact that a younger crop of music fans, raised on club gigs and college radio, were getting positions of influence. Once-prominent local scenesters were now working behind the scenes at major labels (the Rat’s former booking agent, Julie Farman, was doing A&R at Epic/Sony; the former WERS DJ Debbie Southwood Smith was at MCA; and another local, Steev Riccardo, went from Enigma to A&M). Also moving up in the world was Mark Kates, who had answered phones at WBCN and worked at Rick Harte’s Ace of Hearts label. In 1991 he was working promotion at Geffen Records, when Nirvana was about to be its flagship band.

It wasn’t just Nirvana sound-alikes getting record deals, it was anyone with a cult or club or critical buzz that could conceivably translate into Nirvana-like sales; the old ideas of what was and wasn’t commercially viable temporarily went out the window. As a prime example of how the rules were changing, Capitol Records was signing — and a former member of Led Zeppelin was producing — a Texas band that disc jockeys had previously been afraid even to name on the air: the Butthole Surfers.

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