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Pat Smear Remembers Nirvana's Final Year

With a deluxe reissue of 'In Utero' out soon, the band's touring guitarist looks back

Kurt Cobain and Pat Smear at Nirvana's 'Unplugged in New York' taping in November 1993.
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
August 29, 2013 10:00 AM ET

On December 13th, 1993, Nirvana played a raw, bruising hometown show in Seattle. "We were on that night," says touring guitarist Pat Smear, who had joined the band at Kurt Cobain's invitation that summer. "If you listen to the shows from back then, it's just so obvious how into it Kurt was."

That night's set, with furious versions of "Pennyroyal Tea," "Serve the Servants" and more, is a highlight of the 20th-anniversary reissue of Nirvana's third LP, In Utero, due out September 24th in a range of deluxe formats. Other treasures include producer Steve Albini's abrasive, never-before-heard original mixes of "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies"; a pair of long-lost instrumental jams; and demos and handwritten lyrics from the final year of Cobain's life. "Listening to that stuff, you can get sad," says Smear. "Especially when you hear Kurt talking – like, 'My friend's gone, forever.'"

See Where In Utero Ranks On Our List of the Greatest Albums of the Nineties

Before joining Nirvana, Smear – who co-founded the influential punk act the Germs in 1977 – hadn't made music in a long time. "It was an unexpected phone call from Kurt, and I jumped at it," he recalls. "I was a fan, like everyone else. I had actually read an interview with them not too long before he called me, where he said Nirvana was always meant to be four people. I thought, 'Wow, I want that.' And then it happened."

After Smear said yes, Cobain gave him a cassette with an unmastered version of In Utero. "I was blown away," he says. "I had heard all the rumors and controversy swirling about the In Utero recordings – there was a lot of, 'Oh, the record label hates it,' it was going to ruin the band, that kind of stuff. When I heard it, I was like, 'What's the big deal? I get it, it's not as polished as Nevermind, but it's still full of great songs that everyone's going to want to play on the radio.'"

In September 1993, Smear played his first gig with Nirvana, who tore through "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Rape Me" on Saturday Night Live's 19th season premiere. "I remember the first day of rehearsal at the SNL studio, they forgot me," he says, laughing. "A couple hours later, someone called me and goes, 'Oh, we're used to having three guys, sorry!'"

That fall, he joined Nirvana for what would be their final U.S. tour. "It was great, but it was also stressful – you know, I had a lot of songs to learn," Smear says. "Then I got pretty drunk at the first couple of gigs we did, and the nerves were gone."

Despite the tragedy that ended the band a few months later, Smear says his memories of that time are mostly positive. "My Nirvana experience was much different than the other three guys," he says. "For me, it was really new and exciting. I was just a guy from a punk rock band, thrown into this huge thing. There were dark periods, too. But there wasn't a dark cloud over the whole thing."

Today, Smear plays in Foo Fighters with fellow Nirvana alum Dave Grohl. Earlier this summer, he, Grohl and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic joined Paul McCartney for a wild five-song jam session onstage in Seattle. "That was really cool," Smear says. "We went up thinking we were just going to play 'Cut Me Some Slack' [their 2012 soundtrack tune]. All right, whatever, we got this. Then around lunchtime that day, Dave calls me and goes, 'I just talked to Paul and he gave me the set list.' Whoa! The first thing I did was, I ran down to the pawnshop down the street from the hotel and bought a guitar and did some homework."

Grohl recently let slip that the Foos have been writing new material for their next album. Smear is tight-lipped on that subject, except for one promise: "It's going to be fucking rad," he says. "I can tell you that."

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