When Nirvana played Edinburgh’s Southern Bar

Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, Southern Bar, Edinburgh 1991. Picture:  Mary Boon
Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, Southern Bar, Edinburgh 1991. Picture: Mary Boon
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Today it smells of cappuccino and gourmet burgers, but once it smelled like teen spirit.

Curiously nuzzled between a cobbler’s shop and the Edinburgh Himalayan Centre, The Southern Bar seems an unlikely mecca for those searching for the leading voice of Generation X.

Kurt Cobain with a Scottish Pound Note. Picture: Andy Bollen

Kurt Cobain with a Scottish Pound Note. Picture: Andy Bollen

They travel from across the country; musical pilgrims on the scent of a band that revolutionised alternative rock music forever.

Pushing through the original double doors they stop for a moment, visualising what it must have been like to have stood there on that miserable, rainy night in December 1991.

They come hoping to experience the faint essence of a singer whose stomach curdling scream gave meaning and expression to teenage torment.

They come in search of Kurt Cobain and one of the greatest, most influential rock bands of all time, Nirvana.

The Southern Bar. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The Southern Bar. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Nirvana were on the UK leg of their worldwide tour following the release of their iconic signature album Nevermind.

Their first full Scottish performance was to a sold-out Friday night crowd at the city’s Calton Studios.

Edinburgh-based band The Joyriders had invited Nirvana to support them at a charity fundraiser for the city’s Sick Kids hospital the following Sunday.

Already well known on the indie-punk rock circuit, Nirvana were at the very cusp of their international breakthrough.

Nirvana, Calton Studios, Edinburgh, 1991. Picture: Comp

Nirvana, Calton Studios, Edinburgh, 1991. Picture: Comp

But a small, bald and stern-faced Scottish doctor nearly brought all that to a premature end.

Standing in the damp, cramped backstage area in Calton Studios the doctor felt around Cobain’s throat and got him to open his mouth wide.

Andy Bollen, standing just three feet away, recalls the moment the GP looked at Cobain and abruptly said: “No, show’s over.”

Bollen, who was the drummer for support act Captain America, had watched Cobain struggling all day with chronic pain and was not surprised by the doctor’s assessment.

Kurt Cobain Calton Studios, Edinburgh, 1991. Picture: comp

Kurt Cobain Calton Studios, Edinburgh, 1991. Picture: comp

At that point they thought the tour was off and everyone would be going home.

But despite the seriousness of the situation Bollen turned to fellow bandmate James Seenan and with typical gallows humour whispered: “That means Kurt’s on the sick.”

“I know,” Seenan joked back, “It’s mental. In Scotland two minutes and he’s phoning in sick.

“That’s him officially Scottish now.”

But Cobain was determined the show must go on.

Bollen didn’t want to watch, knowing the pain his friend was in.

“He was ill and shouldn’t have played,” Bollen recalls.

“He was lying in the foetal position on the couch all day. He was really sick.”

It was the symptoms of a serious and chronic stomach complaint that would plague Cobain for the rest of his short life.

After Captain America played their set, Bollen accepted a last-minute offer of a lift home to Airdrie and a short break away from the pressure of the tour.

Loaded up on prescription antibiotics and painkillers, Cobain took to the stage.

The band opened with Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam, a cover taken from one of Cobain’s favourite Scottish bands, The Vaselines.

Miraculously at the start of the set his visceral, ripping vocals didn’t sound impaired, but halfway through the performance he began to falter.

The Edinburgh crowd stepped in, singing the chorus to About a Girl while Cobain recomposed himself.

His coughing and throat clearing plainly audible over the PA, he powered on, his sheer determination and grit seeing him through.

The following night Nirvana travelled to Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Union and an energetic, manic crowd.

Earlier that day, Smells Like Teen Spirit had entered the UK Top 40 which seemed to have whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

There was a tangible sense things were changing.

The following day had been scheduled as a day of rest for Nirvana and support bands Captain America and all-female, Japanese punk rockers Shonen Knife.

Kurt needed a break more than anyone, but he had promised to play the charity gig that night.

Flyers publicising the show were handed out after the band played Calton Studios. They didn’t name Nirvana, instead the flyer read The Joyriders, supported by “very, very special American guests”.

Sunday was a miserable night with heavy rain and wind.

Back then The Southern was a proper music pub, with a jukebox crammed full of authentic, rock and punk bands and walls decorated with ripped gig posters.

Inside The Southern an expectant crowd gathered waiting to see if the rumoured “special American guests” would actually show.

“Most of those who’d come along on the strength of the rumour that they were going to play left again on the assumption that a rumour was all it was,” said music journalist Brian Morton.

“Somebody got up and actually said so, which thinned the crowd still more, leaving maybe two dozen.”

But finally Kurt, drummer Dave Grohl and towering bass player Krist Novoselic pushed through the wooden doors of The Southern and took shelter from a particularly dreich Edinburgh night.

Krist, who didn’t play, stood at the bar enjoying a pint of The Southerns’ select ales whilst Dave and Kurt set up on the tiny stage.

The duo were introduced as Teen Spirit with Dave playing Krist’s acoustic bass guitar.

They opened with Polly and also did a cover of Shonen Knife’s Twisted Barbie to the obvious delight of the Japanese trio who were standing with Krist at the bar.

Perhaps because of Kurt’s failing throat they only played around half a dozen acoustic numbers and all too soon it was over.

“It’s pretty much axiomatic with memories of this kind that you don’t remember a single thing they actually played,” Brian Morton added.

“Just that sense of moment and occasion that comes from a very special gig.”

It was a unique moment in time for the band as they transcended from virtual underground unknowns to global phenomenon.

For the small crowd in that unpretentious Edinburgh pub who witnessed it, it was a moment they would never forget.

It would be the last time Nirvana would play a small, uncontrived, modest venue undisturbed by the mania that accompanies worldwide fame and success.

Their musical legacy still resonates from that special weekend and continues to influence today’s “slacker generation”.

Ross Campbell, 18, is studying popular music at Napier University.

His musical initiation began with Nirvana.

“When I was ten years old and first started to play guitar, Smells Like Teen Spirit was the first song I ever learned,” he said.

“Nevermind was released before I was even born, but there is no doubt it remains a hugely influential album.”

Andy Bollen documented his experience on tour with Nirvana in his book, Nirvana – a tour diary, and believes the Seattle bands’ musical legacy is a shared one.

“I’d hope the band’s punk rock spirit and supportive, sharing spirit lives on,” he said.

“You can point to bands like Idlewild, Biffy Clyro and especially Mogwai.

“But we shouldn’t forget many Seattle bands were influenced by Edinburgh bands like The Thanes and The Green Telescope.”

Less than two-and-a-half years later Cobain would take his own life as his heroin addiction spiralled out of control.

But that tragic, premature end is not how fans and fellow musicians who were around him in Scotland in the winter of 1991 choose to remember him.

‘KURT ASKED ME IF I HAD ANY BENYLIN’

THERE’S no doubt you would remember any words Kurt Cobain said to you for the rest of your life if you were lucky enough to have had a conversation with him.

For Doug Johnstone, those words were: “Have you got any Benylin?”

“He was a bit quiet,” recalls Doug, 43, one of the lucky punters in The Southern Bar who got to see Nirvana play their now famous gig that night.

“He was chatting to a mate of mine in the toilet and told him he was enjoying being out somewhere where he wasn’t being treated like a pop star.”

Doug, at the time a drummer in the band Cheese Grater, chatted to Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl about their shared passion.

“Dave Grohl was just buying everyone pints. I don’t know if he’d just had his first proper big pay cheque but he had lots of money on him.”

Doug, now an author, recalls that his band were asked to step in to headline the Southern gig when it looked like Nirvana were a no-show.

“We were terrible”, he says with a laugh.

“There was no way we were going to play when everyone was expecting Nirvana.”

CRASH OF THE STAR WHO BURNED SO BRIGHTLY

Kurt Donald Cobain, born February 1967, is thought to have killed himself on April 5, 1994.

His was discovered at his Lake Washington home by an electrician three days later, a shotgun and suicide note by his side.

Cobain had formed Nirvana with Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington state, in 1985.

They soon became an established part of the Seattle music scene and released their debut Bleach in 1989. They found breakthrough success with the iconic single Smells Like Teen Spirit and the album Nevermind, going on to become one of the biggest bands in the world.

Cobain, who married fellow musician Courtney Love and had a daughter Frances Bean, struggled with his fame and battled illness and depression along with his well-publicised heroin addiction.

His death at the age of 27, while ruled suicide, continues to be the subject of debate to this day.

Nirvana have sold more than 75 million albums worldwide.