Every year for the past twenty years on December 31st, San Francisco’s famed Haight Street has been overrun by a fluorescence of Deadheads, in town for the annual Grateful Dead show at the Oakland Coliseum. Their inescapable presence on that particular day has long been a frustrating symbol that for much of America, culturally speaking, time has continued to stand stock-still.
On the afternoon of December 31st, 1991, however, the Deadheads finally met their match. They were greeted on the streets by a healthy host of obstreperous young longhairs clad in cutoffs and combat boots, their thighs all bulging from a lifetime spent on skateboards. This new contingent of rock fans had invaded the city not for the Dead, but for the concert featuring Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even the most casual observer would have had no trouble deciding which side of youth culture would be more fun to belong to.
An atmosphere of jubilation pervaded the Cow Palace as the 16,000 fans who crowded the sold-out arena celebrated a mass victory for a new popular-rock aesthetic. The victory was articulated by all three bands, each of which dissed their cross-Bay rivals in very specific terms, beginning with opening act Pearl Jam, whose singer, Eddie Vedder, greeted the roaring throng with “Want to hear some songs by the Dead?” The audience booed with gleeful derision, as Vedder burst into an a cappella rendition of Fugazi‘s antirape song “Suggestion.” “Don’t go partying on other people’s pussies unless they want you to,” he said (referring to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ anthem “Party on Your Pussy”).
The point was well taken, for despite the rampant Seventies-isms of much of the evening’s music – Nirvana’s work is often compared to Blue Oyster Cult’s, the Chili Peppers draw heavily on Seventies funksters like George Clinton, and Pearl Jam is equally rooted in other, more staid classic-rock-radio conventions – there is clearly an entirely different sensibility at work here. One of the most visible differences is a reliance on athleticism to carry each show, and the ingenuity of each band is quite amusing, from Nirvana’s impromptu baseball game – which utilized guitars as bats and amplifiers as balls – to Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis’s long handstand during one of Flea’s impressive bass solos. Pearl Jam’s opening set was particularly energetic: Singer Vedder climbed up the lighting ladder and, at the set’s close, leapt courageously into the audience’s maw.
The crowd was impressed, but the night clearly belonged to the next band up, Nirvana, whose new album, Nevermind, hit Number One on the Billboard charts that very week. In fact, the record sold so unexpectedly well in the months since the show was booked that its popularity had well outstripped the headlining Chili Peppers by a factor of four to one. Thus, after the briefest of set changes, Nirvana played a taut forty-five-minute set that completely wrecked what was left of the audience’s composure. Members of the mosh pit, which stretched from the stage to the back of the arena, were being thrown in the air like clods of dirt caught up in a live minefield. By the time Nirvana threw in its hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in midset, the crowd had risen up, rolling forward in a relentless wave of motion. The atmosphere was so infectious that even members of the band’s own entourage, standing in the comparative safety of the stage wings, periodically lost their heads and leapt off the rim into the boiling crowd below.
Nirvana’s set drew largely from its first album, Bleach, but the audience was as familiar with those songs – “School,” “Floyd the Barber,” “About a Girl” – as it was with the selections from Nevermind, which included “Lithium,” “Breed” and “Drain You.” Singer Kurt Cobain, his hair dyed purple for the occasion, vacillated onstage between nearly cataleptic detachment and unnerving inner intensity. The instant the set finished, he and his band mates destroyed their instruments in a cheery display of wanton violence. They didn’t just throw them around, either – they lovingly unscrewed each piece, the better to batter them into little tiny shards, while the audience howled with glee. There was no encore.
When the lights came up, the exhausted audience attempted to marshal its resources to match the Chili Peppers’ legendary live force. But when the Peppers appeared – bassist Flea upside down, lowered to the stage by ropes tied to his ankles – they seemed to have trouble finding their much-vaunted groove. Despite the two fire-eaters, numerous naked dancers painted in Day-Glo and huge sonic booms that were set off at midnight, the final twenty minutes of the set – which included bits of Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and all of Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” – were by far the best. Once again, the audience roiled. The final stage diver, Eddie Vedder, took the plunge during an encore version of “Yertle the Turtle.”
The Chili Peppers ended up ruling the night out of sheer noisiness and force of character. But it was Nirvana that had already had the last word – when bassist Chris Novoselic butchered the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” as the band ended its set with the song “Territorial Pissings.” “Gotta find a way, a better way,” goes the manic chorus – but it was an injunction that had just rendered itself entirely needless. Well before midnight, the crowd already had.
This story is from the February 20th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.