The Experience Music Project in Seattle will be the home to the biggest and most complete exhibit ever dedicated to Nirvana and the grunge scene when "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" opens at the EMP on April 16th, 2011. The exhibit, which EMP began gathering material for 15 years ago, will house over 200 Nirvana artifacts and countless never-before-seen photographs of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl provided by those who were a part of the Nirvana legend. "For me it was this perfect yin and yang situation," EMP curator Jacob McMurray tells Rolling Stone. "I could show that epic myth-making side of Nirvana and also show this very intimate story about this band of guys that just wanted to rock who had really no aspirations that it would go anywhere, but it happened to go somewhere huge."
Kurt Cobain's Sunburst Stratocaster
Items range from the reel-to-reel player Cobain used to record his first ever demos when he was 15 years old to paintings Cobain made in his high school art classes to equipment the band used throughout their ascension from the Seattle grunge scene to global superstars, including this sunburst Stratocaster Cobain played at Nirvana's legendary Reading Festival gig in 1992, which he later smashed in Florida at a show on November 26th, 1993.
"That is their very first demo recording. That is hand-lettered by Jack Endino, when they recorded with Jack on January 23, 1988 and did their demo with Dale Crover drumming," McMurray says. "The story goes that Jack asked Kurt if he could make a copy for some of his friends and so Jack made a copy for Jon Poneman at Sub Pop and made some copies for his friends. So that copy was given to Daniel House who was also the bass player in Jack's band, Skin Yard. That is about as close to the source as you're going to get."
The Nirvana exhibit will trace the band's roots from Cobain's bedroom demos up through the band's legendary MTV Unplugged performance. "A lot of people that perhaps didn't get into Nirvana because of Nevermind or before that, Unplugged really was that entry point. For a lot of people that would've once felt like, 'Punk rock is a bunch of mohawked, scary people beating the shit of other people,'" McMurray said. "Unplugged sort of distilled down those kind of Beatles-esque qualities of Nirvana and Kurt's beautiful voice, and provided an entry point for them."
Black Fender Stratocaster body fragment, smashed by Kurt Cobain during the recording of ?Endless, Nameless? during the ?Nevermind? album sessions, April 1991.
"This is the guitar he was using around the time they were recording Nevermind?a black Fender Stratocaster, and he was actually recording that song 'Endless Nameless' at the time and was really frustrated in the studio while they were recording and in a fit of pique smashed it in the studio," McMurray says. "Butch Vig kept the tape rolling, so there is that secret track on Nevermind, so that is what that sounded like."
Cobain performing with Nirvana in Cambridge, Mssachusetts, April 18, 1990.
The exhibit will also feature the first guitar Cobain ever smashed onstage. "I think it's really fascinating that somebody was so excited about Nirvana in 1988, before there was ever a glimmer that they would be going anywhere, so psyched by that band that they would keep this broken guitar. It was an Evergreen student, and he held onto it and I bought it from him probably about ten years ago," McMurray says. "It really cements the fact that Nirvana is a big deal. And it's something that?I think Nirvana is one of those rare bands that is going to transcend the generations, and fifty, a hundred years from now we'll still remember them."
The album cover layout for Bleach, where typesetter Grant Alden accidentally created Nirvana's logo by laying out their name with the Onyx typeface that just happened to be in the machine.
Kurt Cobain, Jason Everman, Chad Channing and Krist Novoselic (from left), 1990.
Like past exhibits at the EMP, "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" will feature an interactive experience with video footage, informational kiosks, oral histories from Novoselic, producers Jack Endino and Steve Albini and other key voices in the Nirvana story, plus a day-long ambient score by Seattle musician and producer Steve Fisk that will play throughout the exhibit. "There's recordings for the very first show that Nirvana ever played at a house party in Raymond, Washington, this little, tiny, tiny town where Kurt — and there's photos from that show too — he looks like he's 16, I think he's probably 20 or 21 at the time. But somebody had the forethought to record that," McMurray says. The exhibit will also house a "confessional area" where Nirvana fans can discuss how Cobain's music affected them.
Krist Novoselic's Gibson Ripper electric bass guitar, purchased in December 1993, one of three black Ripper basses that Novoselic played in Nirvana between 1990 and 1994. "That was his main bass after switching from the Ibanez Black Eagle basses when Nirvana made it big," McMurray says. "We'll also have on display this old 1960s Sears bass that Cobain used to record his early Fecal Matter and Organized Confusion demos in the mid 80s."
Cobain and Novoselic backstage before a performance in Frankfurt, Germany, 1991.
Novoselic's contributed many items to the exhibit. "What was really great, and changed the scope of the exhibition dramatically for me, was being able to work with Krist Novoselic," McMurray says. "We went down to his place and pulled out twenty bins of material he had collected, and clearly hadn't looked at in a decade or more. I kept asking him, 'Is it alright if I use this for the exhibit?' and he kept saying, 'Yeah, get it out of here, take it!'"
Cobain's handwritten lyrics, from 1988, for Bleach tracks "Floyd the Barber" and "Paper Cuts."
"It was important to tell the whole story of Nirvana, but also within this larger story of what was going on in the United States from the rise of punk rock on. In the mid-Seventies when punk rock was happening or even up to the early Eighties when hardcore happened, there wasn't any infrastructure in the United States to support the music," McMurray says. "There was none of that music playing on the radio, none of the clubs would host the bands. It was this entire DIY movement inspired and driven by the kids who created this music. This was the backdrop to what the members of Nirvana were listening to when they were growing up in the Eighties. That is really the [bottom line] of the exhibition — taking punk to the masses. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Chad Channing and then later Dave Grohl, this is what they were growing up in — this punk rock message being propagated to the mainstream."
"That is a shirt Kurt wore on the cover of Spin magazine, January 1992. It's the cover when they all dyed their hair with Kool-Aid," McMurray explains.
"[Courtney] Love definitely has been a vocal part of the process [of organizing the the exhibit]. Everything's been run by her and she gives her tacit agreement on everything," McMurray says. "She hasn't contributed any [items] yet, but what I hope is that it may happen. The exhibit is going to be open for two years, so what I'm hoping is that there is ample opportunity to switch out objects. What I learned from all this working with estates and properties is that it's a strange political road. It sometimes takes a little bit to build on those things."
The Cobain-designed show poster from March 19, 1988 at the Community World Theater in Tacoma. This is the first show in which the band was billed as Nirvana.
"Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" will show at the EMP until April 22nd, 2013, but McMurray is already making plans to bring the exhibit on the road. "We've just kind of started that process of trying to define venues and see what institutions would be interested in the exhibition. I love the idea that it can be here for two years, it's such a huge draw for us being [in Nirvana's] home town. But this could go on the road," McMurray says. "There's ample opportunity to plug into whatever city's local scene, or local punk scene that was happening at the time."