The day I didn’t see Nirvana live

On February 14, 1994, Nirvana played at the Zénith in Paris. A dull and formatted concert, shaken by a few storms that the half chloroformed band still blows up sometimes on stage: a huge Drain You at the beginning of the set, a Where did you sleep last night? not yet iconic to end it. This is not the best time to see Nirvana live. The apocalypse of 1989–1990, the apotheosis of Reading 1992 or MTV Unplugged 1993 are already far away. But it’s the only Nirvana concert I could have attended. Shit. And I refused. Twice. Shit. Shit.

At the beginning of the 1993 school year, I am 15 years old, I live near Paris . I still play role-playing, I have acne and a Walkman thicker than my textbook. Nirvana at the Zénith, it is Julien who tells me first about it, in front of the old prefabricated buildings where we are taught history and geography, an which smell like (french) fries when there are some in the canteen and teen spirit all year long. We’re waiting for the teacher, we have five minutes ahead of us. We throw our bags on the ground with a huge teenage disdain, and Julien gets carried away on the subject. He already has his ticket, he’s going to the show. That’s great. He’s proud and he needs witnesses. I have no illusions: I am certainly not the only one he is offering to come with him. Besides, we got along well without being really great friends and we had never talked about Nirvana. But he does not expect my outraged and instantaneous refusal at all. Nirvana? No, that’s not possible. Inconceivable. Scandalous. Without me. Thank you. For good measure, I confirm my refusal one hour later, after the class. Things are clear and unambiguous. I’m not setting foot at a Nirvana concert. I am amazed. You too, no doubt: what is it about this article where I explain to you that I regret twenty years later that I didn’t go to the concert of a band that I hate?
Patience, adolescence makes everything infinitely complex and hates simple paths. Sometimes with a lot of stupidity. Smells like teen spirit.

Before we talk about me, let’s talk about Julien again. At the time, like almost everyone else but not me, Julien had long hair. He wears butcher’s shirts and a dirty pair of Converse. Like Kurt Cobain. The last time I saw Julien, shortly after graduation, he had long hair, a plaid shirt, holes in his jeans and a pair of Converse. In the meantime, Julien went to the Zenith concert. He kept a confused memory of it, especially marked by the last encore. He felt like he had waited an eternity, which actually lasted barely 8 minutes (I have the bootleg: I know the set, the atmosphere, the sound, the timing of the concert), for Kurt Cobain to come back alone with his guitar to play Polly. Wrong, it’s Where did you sleep last night? that closes the Parisian concert. In Julien’s defense, the Leadbelly cover was almost unknown at the time. The MTV Unplugged has not been released, and the original version has not yet been used as a soundtrack for a chocolate bars TV ad.

Now, let’s talk about my second early denial, and the other high school henchman who offers me to go to the concert. Christophe talked to me after Julien. The rest is unclear. Maybe we were waiting for the bus. Maybe we were eating fries in the canteen. Even Christophe is now a bit blurry: he was taller than me, he had doubled his second. Otherwise, his hair was long, he wore plaid shirts, drilled jeans and a pair of Converse. And of course I said no to his proposal. Equally categorical and definitive. By the way, Christophe didn’t go to the concert. Not because of me, but because he couldn’t get a place.

Then why did I spit in Christophe’s face and Julien’s? Because I didn’t dare ask my mother to let me go to Paris in the evening to see a concert of hairy guys. But mostly because I was a snob and a hypocrite. We are at the beginning of the 90s: the whole world and particularly the high school courses are populated by Christophe and Julien, i. e. clones of Kurt Cobain. Everyone loves Nirvana, from Metallica fans to 80’s retarded people who still listen to synthetic pop. It annoys me to join the hairy and consensual mass of the worshippers of the god Kurt. I’m an asshole.

And I’m hiding a terrible secret: a Nirvana track is already banging my head and I’m hiding to listen to it on my big Walkman. Lithium. At first listening, I feel like I’m getting a bucket of ice-cold water in my face, and especially like it. My software has been hacked. Nothing will be the same: I like a song with big grungy guitars and a chorus composed of the only word “Yeah” screamed randomly. It’s rough, it’s dirty and I love it. I have to get used to it. Meanwhile, there’s this concert I’m not going to. There is Kurt Cobain’s suicide and a new Nirvana tidal wave on the radio and in teenage hearts. I’m comforted in my position: go you assholes, worship your Kurt by dressing up like him and playing Come as you are on a detuned guitar in the schoolyard. To sum up, since everyone loves Nirvana even more, I pretend to love them even less. And I listen to Lithium at night under the blanket.

And then everything accelerates. There is the release of Unplugged in New York, which makes me discover a more respectable Nirvana to my ears. And especially the discovery of a tape that hangs around the house. At the time, music was rare, there was no Internet. When you have a new CD or tape, you listen to it religiously. And this is a show that my brother recorded on France Inter (French radio), and which includes a long extract from another Nirvana concert, recorded at the Transmusicales in Rennes in 1991. I remember listening to that tape while doing my homework. The first track, a disgusting cover of the Baba O’Riley of the Who exasperates me. In rage, I press fast forward hoping to hear Lithium, curious about how the song sounds live. The magnetic tape winds up on the plastic pad and stops on my “top song for the next 5 years”, a track that I still play during my second hour of running when I need rage: Drain you. Its violent and dry intro, its strange ans moist bridge, its big, dirty and still melodic guitars. I’m not going to teach you a lesson on the Nirvana recipe: if you’re reading these lines, it’s because at the time you probably also wore long hair, a lumberjack’s shirt and a pair of Converse and know the bipolar formula of songwriting by Kurt Cobain. Calm/energetic. Melodic/saturated. Desperate/euphoric. I was amazed. Turned over. Railroaded for life, with the fervour of the late convert.

We are at the end of 1994. I’m going to be 16. Everything is in place. I know that I love Nirvana and I feel that this story of a failed concert and early denial will teach me a lot.
That you need courage to ask your mother for things. So, a few months later, I can see my first concert. The Garçons bouchers played in a small MJC in Seine-et-Marne: it’s messy, joyful and very noisy. I have tinnitus for two weeks. Above all, it’s extremely less chic than Nirvana to open a life of concerts.
That snobbery often leads to hypocrisy and frustration. Unfortunately, and despite all my efforts, I remained very snobbish, especially musically.
That life was a sum of experiences that were necessarily significant or missed. And that we must try to tilt the trend towards the “significant” side. Well, I didn’t really express things like that when I was 16: it came later during my philosophy studies (decided a little bit out of snobbery), and it really helped me to formulate these kinds of final sentences.
That music is organic. Let it be listened to with the ears, not with the brain.

And finally that during that Nirvana concert that I didn’t attend, that non-event of February 14, 1994, a day I have no fucking memory of, it was actually my youth that was ending at full speed and in great silence. Childhood ends when you discover that you are not unique. Adolescence when you accept to be yourself. I was finally a teenager like the others. All I need to know in order to move on.

Passionate about writing & storytelling, books, gaming, history, indie rock, books and Eastern Europe.