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Nirvana: Up Close and So Far Away

I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I heard Nirvana. It was December 1991, and I was riding in the backseat of my parents car as we drove north on McDowell Road.

My world was generally filled with the music of my parents liking. Usually our car was filled with the pop sounds of Whitney Houston and Madonna. I cannot tell you why on this particular evening we were listening to the radio, but we were.

Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on the radio. The riff rang through our small car, electrifying me instantly. Initially I could not distinguish what it was the male lead singer was saying, but I remember thinking how strange it was that I didn’t care. I did not want to sing along. I wanted to bust out of my seat. I wanted to move. Never in my short life had I heard anything like it. I waited for my parents to notice the same thing and break from their conversation. Surely one couldn’t help but be as blown away as I was. I remember the song coming to the end, the brief ringing of the reverb, and my folks switching off the radio, unaware that it was over. I cannot recall what was said, but they did not appreciate the song as I had. This was not my parents’ music, it was not for them.

Nirvana, AZ state fair

I was experiencing that pivotal moment when we separate ourselves as individuals, and step out of the lines that were drawn for us. It was the beginning of turning point for my musical tastes as well. Nothing was quite the same after that, and all the pop I once liked was tarnished with an air of insincerity.

It is safe to say that I picked a guitar because of bands like Nirvana. Their music was an ignition event for me. As with all great music that ascends entertainment, and becomes inspiration, Nirvana brought with them all their influences. All the music that I would find because of them would serve as an accelerant to a burning love for music that I still carry today.

In my mind there are only two types of Nirvana fans: those who were fortunate to see them live, and up close, and those who never will.

On Oct. 18, 1993, Nirvana played the Arizona State Fair. The band’s fourth appearance in Arizona was in support of their In Utero album that had just been released Sept. 21 of that same year. That October evening in 1993 became the first concert Tempe resident Jason Stauffer would attend. He was less than a week shy of his 14th birthday. I sat down with Stauffer recently to ask about his time at the show.

Before you went to the show, were you into Nirvana?

I was into them actually. I had just gotten a CD player the Christmas before, and joined that BMG Music Club. It was one of those deals where you get 12 CDs for the price of one. You pick things you like and they send a bunch of stuff that fits your preferences. It was like snail mail Pandora. I had received Nevermind. I liked them a lot.

Tell me how this evening came about?

Well, a friend of mine by the name of Mike Clark was going to the show, along with another friend of ours. Mike was more into music than I was. I mean, he went on to be in bands, DJ, I think he may even be a radio DJ somewhere in the Bay Area… I cannot recall if we happened to look up the show, or if he told me about it. The state fair typically had musical groups, and the shows were usually free. We may have had to pay to get into the fairgrounds, but it was free after that. So we all piled into Mike’s mom’s minivan and headed there. We paid our way into the grounds, and went straight into the show.

I remember wanting to grab a spot a little further back than Mike wanted. Mudhoney opened, as I recall. The crowd seemed big, and when Nirvana hit the stage the masses just swooped in, and rushed toward the stage. It almost seemed choreographed. I was glad we were not in the group that pushed forward.

Can you tell me what you remember most about that show?

I recall them playing “Drain You.” I remember Kurt looked like his hair was bright red, but that may have been the lights. Behind him was that medical mannequin with the wings, the angel I guess. There was another one and I seem to remember him throwing one of them out in the crowd.

It was a really good show. They played a lot of songs and I recognized quite a few. I am really glad I went. I remember thinking later that I had been lucky to have seen them.

Just as I recall where I was the first time I heard Nirvana, I also know exactly where I was on Oct. 18, 1993. I lived a half a mile from the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but I was 14 and still two years away from being allowed to attend concerts.

In the fall, you could almost hear the sounds of the fair carried on the cool night air. On that night in particular, I hoped against hope that the soundwaves from the show would carry all the way to my front porch as I sat on the stoop. My balled fist holding up my solemn face, I wanted to hear and feel the music that was being played just down the street.

I was so close, but ultimately too far away.

I still want to believe I heard them play that night, but I am grown now and I know that it is unlikely. I now share something in common with a new generation of Nirvana fans. We are relegated to the fate of forever appreciating them from afar.

The state fair performance would be the last time Nirvana would play in Arizona. A little over six months later, Kurt Cobain was gone.

The beautiful thing about the Internet is the amazing footage that has made its way onto sites like YouTube. It is a great testament to the continued relevance of Nirvana that more and more of these live performances are available to view. If you haven’t had a chance to look up Nirvana at The Mason Jar, or the state fair performance, I recommend you do so. These performances were filmed in a time before cell phone cameras, so someone out there thought they were great enough to support a boombox-sized camcorder on his or her shoulder for an entire concert.

Watching these performances you can’t help but see the greatness, and just why they made the impact that they did. It reminds me of two important things: how great Nirvana is, and of how many amazingly talented bands play venues around the Valley each night. Get out there! You wouldn’t want to miss something truly great.


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