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An Oral History of Nirvana’s Lone, Near-Riotous St. Louis Show at Mississippi Nights 

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Eyster: I remember the vibe wasn’t quite the same after that. The tightly packed crowd down front had dispersed some and the energy level had dropped significantly.

Crone: The fact that the GnR situation had already happened too probably permeated that whole room. I think everyone was kind of expecting some sort of chaotic thing to continue. I could very easily imagine some scenario in which the show stops, things become really violent and things spill out into the street. That it didn’t is a nice sidebar. It ended with music as opposed to what happened at the GnR show.

Wagoner: There was no riot. It was chaotic, but it didn’t seem dangerous.

Harnish: They came back and said they worked it out with the bouncers, and they were going to finish up their set. Krist Novoselic sang the intro to “Get Together” [by The Youngbloods], which I didn’t even know at the time [that] he does that on the album. I just thought “Oh, cool. He was just inspired by, like, alright, we’re all together now.” I thought he was totally just winging that one. I had no idea it was on the album.

Fritz Noble, Strangulated Beatoffs, White Suburban Youth: The bass player or the drummer had a couple of my band’s records [Strangulated Beatoffs]. Kurt was a big fan of Drunks with Guns, too. They were big fans of the Drunks and the Beatoffs. They had our record “Shake Your Dick” and they loved that song. I was backstage scarfing their beers. We went back to their hotel with them. It was a nice hotel downtown across from the Arch. They weren’t like Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses. I was like, “Let’s party with these guys. Where’s the groupies? Where’s the cocaine?” They just wanted to go to bed. I guess they were the birth of the antithesis of the overblown rock star.

Utz: These were anti-rock stars, so no one was thinking they were going to become rock stars.

The cultural impact of Nevermind may be hard for Gen Z to fully conceptualize. Thirty years later, Generation X alternative rock is viewed on a macro level as really nothing more than plain old classic rock now (or “Classic Alternative,” if that’s a thing?). In St. Louis, it is not far-fetched to hear “In Bloom” sandwiched between “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” by Ted Nugent and a Guns N’ Roses track on classic rock station KSHE 95. It’s a confusing paradox for the “Alternative Nation” icons to be anointed in the “Real Rock” pantheon. As the remaining band members prepare a massive 30th anniversary reissue of Nevermind, the group is simultaneously being sued by Spencer Elden, the then-baby on the album cover, who’s accusing the band of sexual exploitation despite partaking in the recreation of the cover multiple times during early commemorative anniversaries and having “Nevermind” tattooed across his chest. Dubious lawsuits aside, the album’s zeitgeist-level influence (cover art included) is certainly worthy of a modern reexamination.

Locally, the success of “Teen Spirit” certainly influenced the formation of “Everything Alternative” terrestrial radio station 105.7 the Point in ’93, giving a platform for local alternative legends like the Urge and Fragile Porcelain Mice. The Urge’s Steve Ewing even pays tribute to Nirvana’s legacy with a smiley face logo t-shirt that quips “Smells Like Grilled Onions” for his popular restaurant Steve’s Hot Dogs. Smaller local bands like Sullen were clearly following in the footsteps of Nirvana and Sonic Youth at the turn of the century, and more recently, anarchist punks Little Big Bangs are directly inspired by their lineage.

A handwritten setlist from the show. According to lore, this list may be incomplete, and the band may have also played "Lithium" and "Territorial Pissings." - VIA ERIC EYSTER
  • VIA ERIC EYSTER
  • A handwritten setlist from the show. According to lore, this list may be incomplete, and the band may have also played "Lithium" and "Territorial Pissings."

Utz: The thing I loved the most about [Nirvana] is they had their moment but they championed all their friends. Wearing Daniel Johnston t-shirts. Taking the Boredoms out on tour. Taking the Raincoats out. Taking an ABBA tribute band. Wearing a Flipper shirt. They always helped champion the people they loved. They never forgot where they came from and always tried to bring everyone with them on the wild ride they never anticipated being on.

Patterson: Nirvana had a profound effect on mainstream culture by shattering the archetypes associated. But the mainstream was already changing because of the impact of Lollapalooza, college radio, 120 Minutes and even hip-hop. It felt like Generation X had a seat at the table and we were going to make a positive impact because we were changing the culture. The door was finally open and the freaks and weirdos were walking through. Compared to what the metal and pop scenes were pushing, the alternative crowd was more accepting and respected other people whether they were women, LGBT, people of color. There was definitely a social movement within this community to try to make positive changes regarding human rights, the environment, reproductive rights, non-violence.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy, though, was Cobain’s advocacy of female-led groups including the Slits, the Raincoats, the Breeders, L7, Bikini Kill and countless others. At the height of his fame, Cobain promoted bands led by women as superior to his own. A decade prior, hair metal groups were singing songs like “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Cherry Pie,” and now the most prominent rockstar on the planet was actively discussing feminism. This was quite a different approach. Of course, Cobain was married to the queen of punk rock, Courtney Love, who went on to find her own massive success in ‘94 with her band Hole’s album Live Through This. It’s fitting that when Nirvana was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that the group’s performance was led by some of the most prominent female figures in rock over the last five decades, including Joan Jett, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Lorde.

Conflicted by success and an audience that grew outside of college rock intellectualism, Cobain wrote in the liner notes of the EP
Incesticide: “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records.” This was an ethos not common for major label rock stars before and sometimes even after the Nevermind era.

The recent 2021 HBO documentary
Woodstock 99: Peace Love, and Rage posits that the progressive influence of alternative groups like Nirvana and REM in the early part of the decade was definitively ended by the aggro-rage that resulted in riots, looting, fires and multiple sexual assaults at the festival at the tail end of the decade. Metaphorically, Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst’s tattoo of Kurt Cobain is the equivalent of reading the graphic novel Watchmen just for the costumed superheroes that kick ass, but completely missing all the grander context of the story. More still, Durst’s red baseball caps and “my way or the highway” ethos predated MAGA by a few decades, and it’s easy to imagine that some of the people that attended Woodstock ’99 were almost certainly at the January 6 capitol riots looking for something to break. It’s unfortunate to say that Nirvana’s sound certainly inspired the empty post-grunge sounds of sadgasm groups like Puddle of Mudd, but the band’s larger cultural influences is closer to the beach-themed skate punk of Wavves, or the garage soul-baring of the late Jay Reatard. More recently, Kid Cudi and Post Malone have even paid tribute to the grunge trio. Of course, Grohl carries the torch as well with Foo Fighters, and if that band’s center-left anthem “Times Like These” can somehow influence Joe Manchin to end the filibuster, more power to him.

Wagoner: What Nevermind did…. Ultraman’s final show was two months after the Nirvana show. We had never played to more than four or five hundred people and we sold it out as a headliner at Mississippi Nights. That whole era from ’91 to ’96, a lot of people were going to see bands that they wouldn’t have gone to see before. Local bands could play for a thousand people, or the Urge could sell out a couple of nights in a row. Before that, they were just local bands. It was good for a while.

Hagin: Immediately, [Nirvana] were too big [to be playing Mississippi Nights] by the time they played. They were just honoring their contract.
Wagoner: In another couple weeks [after the Mississippi Nights show] they could have played to five thousand people or ten thousand people, but at this point they were not the biggest band in the world. They didn’t have the pressure yet of when they were rich and famous. They were still hungry, and they were still happy. I think that would have been about the best time to see them.

One of the great rock & roll sins St. Louis has committed was tearing down Mississippi Nights in 2007. For rock fans, this was as grave a disappointment as tearing down the old Busch Stadium, the only place the Beatles ever played in St. Louis, to replace it with our current Busch Stadium and Ballpark Village. Now, the only venue Nirvana ever performed at in St. Louis has been demolished to become a parking lot for the Lumière Place Casino and Hotel. The Landing’s youth culture cred hasn’t been the same since. Fittingly, Mississippi Night’s bar and exterior sign’s inclusion in the St. Louis Sound exhibit at the Missouri History Museum highlights the important role it played in St. Louis’ live music scene.

It’s remarkable, too, that the Mississippi Nights gig was just one of many legendary shows on the
Nevermind tour. Three nights later in Dallas, Texas, Cobain famously was punched in the face by a security guard while crowd surfing during “Love Buzz.” The moment was captured in the VHS Nevermind-era document Live! Tonight! Sold Out! By Halloween, the band returned to Seattle for a legendary hometown show documented in Live at the Paramount. Then, by ’92, Nirvana played arguably its most iconic electric gig at the Reading Festival to a crowd of fifty thousand, cementing the group as the biggest band of its day. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation about the Mississippi Nights gig. Even a definitive set list is hard to confirm, so this legendary gig exists only in the memory of the lucky thousand that were able to attend.

But for those lucky thousand people who actually made it to the show that night, to paraphrase “Lithium,” they found their friends, or god — or, at least, Nirvana.

[Editor's note: An early version of this story misspelled Tommy Wieprecht's last name. We regret the error.]
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