By Ron Synovitz (reposted from currently offline Rude Truth website)
Editor’s Note: This Basement report, written in 2021 by international correspondent Ron Synovitz, is a contribution to Craig S. Wilson’s forthcoming book: “Carbondale Underground: Tales From The 90s.” A fix of Rude Truth from a first-hand witness of Nirvana’s July 4, 1989 visit to Carbondale, Illinois, this testimonial document is aimed at dispelling decades of myths and misinformation told by people who weren’t there.
If Nirvana Played To Nobody, Would They Make A Sound?
By Ron Synovitz
The 1990s started six months early in Carbondale, Illinois, with a punk rock version of the philosophical question: “If a tree fell in the woods…”
If Nirvana played a tiny family-owned venue before they were famous and almost nobody was there, would they still make a sound?
The answer is “yes.” But the myths echoing into the future would have little to do with historical reality.
The fact is, Nirvana did play 611 Pizza in Carbondale on July 4, 1989 during their first U.S. tour. But they didn’t stay in town longer than seven hours, maybe less.
They spent the whole time on “the Strip” — a section of U.S. Highway 51 lined with restaurants and student bars alongside the Illinois Central Railroad.
Normally crowded, the Strip was like a ghost-town that Fourth of July. Nirvana’s 611 show got no advance promotion because of the holiday and because it was added to the tour just days earlier.
They played for about 35 minutes to almost no one. Then they loaded their gear back into their van and drove to Iowa City for a gig the next day.
I know this for a fact because, although I missed the show by minutes, I arrived in time to meet Nirvana as they were loading out.
“We drove across the Mississippi River today,” Kurt Cobain told me. “It’s huge. I had no idea. This is the first time I’ve ever crossed east of the Mississippi.”
Some fan websites doubt Nirvana’s 611 Pizza show happened and omit it from their gig lists.
Their assessment is based on the lack of advertisements or reviews in the student newspaper, “The Daily Egyptian,” and the fact that no fliers, photos, video, or audio recordings of the show have surfaced on the Internet. “If it’s not on the Internet, it didn’t happen.”
There are punk fans in Carbondale who also doubt the show happened. They say they or their friends would have heard about it and been there. But at the time, Nirvana was barely known outside of Seattle.
If any local music journalist was interested and capable of shooting video or photos, it would have been Patrick Houdek – the teenaged publisher of Thrasher’s Digest.
Patrick used his camcorder to document many punk bands at 611 and in Carbondale’s basements during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Unfortunately, he was out of town on July 4, 1989.
Tall-tale versions of “it happened” also have mutated into myths via the rumor mill.
One myth has Nirvana going to a party afterwards at the Lost Cross punk house where Kurt Cobain “got so wasted he puked on the floor.” Another has them playing at Lost Cross and “blowing the roof off the place.” There are tales of Kurt crashing on the Lost Cross couch while the rest of the band slept on the floor.
All these myths, including claims that the 611 show never happened, have taken on lives of their own – defended as truth by those who want to believe whatever version they’ve become invested in.
Claims and counterclaims about a historical event by those who weren’t there are inevitable in the absence of physical or written documentation.
It’s the typical substitution of fantasy for fact that forms rock myths from Elvis and The Beatles to Nirvana’s 611 show.
But I am a first-hand witness who spoke at length with Kurt Cobain at 611 Pizza that Fourth of July. And when the truth about that day mutated into local myths, I wasn’t in Carbondale to set the record straight.
Within two months, I’d finished my master’s degree in journalism history at SIU and moved from Carbondale. By the height of Nirvana’s fame, I’d left the United States altogether to work in the Balkans.
I became a foreign correspondent and was focused on covering other kinds of history unfolding before my eyes – political and economic transition across post-communist Europe and Asia, the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
For more than three decades, it has been the essence of my profession to dig out the truth from conflicting perspectives and separate fact from fiction.
It’s time I put down in writing what really happened in Carbondale the day Nirvana played.
Load In, Set Up
It was a Tuesday on July 4, 1989. Most SIU students were gone for the summer. Of the few still there that semester, many took Monday off and left town for an extended Fourth of July weekend. Carbondale seemed deserted.
Sound engineer Mike Blaine Sharp was in the gravel parking lot behind 611 Pizza that afternoon when Nirvana arrived in a white 1985 Dodge van rented for them by their record label, Sub Pop.
The venue didn’t have its own sound system, so Sub Pop rented a PA from a Carbondale-based firm called Robco Audio. Sharp was there to deliver Robco’s PA and help Nirvana set it up.
I actually met Sharp at 611 Pizza later that night. In August 2021, I phoned him to discuss what he remembers. It was the first time we talked since 1989 when we’d spoken to Kurt Cobain together.
“I initially thought they were from Texas,” Sharp said. “When they pulled up, they were like ‘Hey, we just drove all the way from Dallas, man!”
“They weren’t dog tired. There might have been a certain exuberance that they’d finally made it to their next destination… ‘All right! We’re here!’ That kind of thing,” Sharp recalls. “I used to play with a band called October’s Child and we played all over the Midwest. I was like, ‘OK. Guys on the road. I know this.’”
Sharp remembers Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic getting out of the van.
“He was a tall fellow – like a short person in a tall person’s body. He did not look like he was walking well. And I thought 12 hours in a vehicle will probably do that to you.”
Sharp describes the drummer, Chad Channing, as “the chatty one of the bunch” who “seemed to do more talking than the others.”
As Sharp hauled the PA through the back door of 611 Pizza, Nirvana carried in their drums and amps themselves. They didn’t have a roadie.
Sharp says he was impressed by how quickly Channing loaded in first and got his drum kit set up.
For a cost of “probably about $50,” Sharp says the gear rented to Nirvana included two of Robco Audio’s Klipsch La Scala speakers – each with a 15-inch woofer, a horn midrange, and a smaller horn tweeter.
He says Robco also provided a small 150-watt Peavy power amp with a couple of microphones and mic stands.
Sharp let Nirvana use his own mix board, an eight-channel Yamaha PM430 stereo board from the 1970s.
Robco Audio owner Robbie Stokes says he didn’t remember that his company had supplied a sound system to Nirvana until years later when he was reminded of it by Sharp.
“It has slipped my memory because, at the time, if somebody said something then, what did ‘Nirvana’ mean to me? Or any of us? Nothing. It was just some punk band from the West Coast,” Stokes said.
When told in 2021 about naysayers who claim Nirvana never played at 611 Pizza, Stokes insists: “It did happen! Why does Mike Sharp say it happened, in such detail? He was on site!”
Still, Sharp wasn’t at the venue when Nirvana performed. The Robco rental deal did not include his services as a live sound engineer.
“Nobody mixed Nirvana that night,” Sharp says.
He says the band was a bit “annoyed” when he told them he had to run off to Paducah, Kentucky to do the monitor mix for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils at a Fourth of July concert on the banks of the Ohio River.
To supply Paducah Riverfest ’89, Robco Audio had pooled together most of Stokes’ gear with Carbondale’s other main supplier of concert equipment, Sound Core.
“They needed the gear from both companies to make that show happen like that, so there was very little left over in town for Nirvana,” Sharp explains. “I don’t think there were even monitors, to tell you the truth, because all of that had gone down to Paducah.”
For Nirvana to hear Kurt’s vocals, Sharp angled one of the main PA speakers toward the band. It was a stop-gap solution that risked creating a feedback loop from the vocal mic, especially without a live soundman to keep feedback under control.
“I think it was just basically vocals and maybe I did kick drum,” Sharp says, recollecting that he’d put a Shure Sm-57 or Sm-58 vocal microphone inside the kick drum because all the good drum mics went to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
The windowless 611 Pizza was so tiny that it didn’t need mics on all the drums and amps.
The “stage” was just a space on the floor in the middle of the back room with a fake ceiling and walls painted black.
There were two black upholstered booths on one side of the band and another booth across the room. A bench ran along the back wall. An audience of a few dozen would fill the venue.
Sharp says he didn’t even hear Kurt Cobain sing to test the vocal mic, quickly checking it himself to make sure it was working.
Once the drums were set up and the PA was connected and working, Sharp says he left his mix board on “default settings.”
“I was out of there before anything began,” Sharp remembers. “I didn’t do the sound check or the show. I was out of the room before they even had guitar amps running.”
“I wasn’t even sure who the vocalist was at that point. I asked if they wanted to check the microphone and they declined. They were, like ‘Nah, no.’ So I said: ‘OK, I’ve got to get going. It’s a long drive to Paducah.’”
Sharp also knew he’d have to drive back to Carbondale later, before 611 Pizza closed for the night, to get the PA back.
“Their show was already over by the time I got back,” he says.
‘Finding Nirvana In Carbondale’
By the summer of 2021, the mayor of neighboring Murphysboro – 40-year-old Will Stephens – had become so fascinated by the conflicting tales he’d heard that he launched his own podcast investigation: “Finding Nirvana In Carbondale.”
“My ultimate goal is to have the city put up a historical marker on the site,” Stephens told me when he tracked me down as a first-hand witness. “I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
Stephens quickly discovered that Carbondale’s main entertainment newspaper of the era, Nightlife, didn’t begin publishing until March 1990 – too late to leave a printed account.
Nightlife editor Chris Wissman told him that even after his paper started publishing, it was difficult to get information from 611 Pizza.
“People at the venue often didn’t know who was playing or their [gig] book wasn’t there,” Wissman said. “If the book wasn’t available or the people you’d call were busy slinging pizzas or Schaefer Lights or whatever, they wouldn’t tell you what was in the book.”
“You had to call at the right time and talk to the right person to get that information,” Wissman said. “It probably wasn’t on the Daily Egyptian’s radar to get that.”
But 611 Pizza was on the radar of Sub Pop Records in Seattle by the summer of 1989.
Sub Pop booking agent Danny Bland arranged Nirvana’s first U.S. tour to promote the “Bleach” album.
He told Stephens that he has a “drug-addled mind” and can’t specifically remember adding 611 Pizza to Nirvana’s itinerary. But he said he does remember 611 Pizza as a venue where he routed Sub Pop bands on cross-country tours like Nirvana’s.
“Oh yeah, I did a lot of shows there,” Bland told Stephens. “I booked several Sub Pop acts in that place.”
“I remember there were a few places we could do shows just on the sort of power of the Sub Pop label name alone,” Bland explained. “For a lot of bands on the roster, the Sub Pop logo would be bigger than any band name because that’s the thing that people recognized. And there were certain college towns…”
“I could book stuff in Fort Worth but I couldn’t get it in Dallas for some reason. It was a sort of pre ‘before-anyone-cared’ time,” Bland said. “So [611 Pizza] was one of the places that I put bands, yeah.”
“I booked the first couple of Nirvana tours,” Bland recalled, adding that “no other agents were interested.”
“I was over my head but young and confident and no one knew any better,” Bland said. “Any records that I’d kept have long since disappeared.”
Still, Bland was able to point Stephens to one “artifact of the grunge era” on display at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle – a hand-written itinerary he’d given to Nirvana before they set off on that first tour.
“It was hand-written by me because that’s basically how I handed out information back then,” Bland says.
When Stephens tracked down the document, he discovered to his chagrin that it only contains the second page of the itinerary – starting on July 9. For years, Stephens says, it was thought that the first page was lost.
But another copy of the itinerary, with the first page intact, has been discovered. On display at the museum’s Experience Music Project, it’s a Sub Pop office copy written before the tour started — not the papers Nirvana carried with them as they added shows along their way.
It lists a July 2 date in Fort Worth, Texas, at a venue called “Axis Club” and a July 5 gig at “Gabe’s Oasis” in Iowa City.
It does not list Nirvana’s July 3 show at The Electric Jungle in Dallas nor the 611 Pizza show on July 4, because both of those gigs were added after the tour had begun.
At 611 Pizza that July 4th, Kurt Cobain told me their Dallas and Carbondale dates originally were meant to be days off after playing eight nights in a row.
The Dallas gig was arranged when Nirvana was in neighboring Fort Worth. Video and hastily made fliers from Dallas exist, proving the show happened even though it’s not on the pre-tour itinerary.
Kurt said the 611 Pizza show was organized “by our record label” while they were in Texas.
That means Danny Bland would have arranged the date by telephoning Aaron Nauth – the 611 Pizza employee who had taken on the task of booking shows there and at Lost Cross.
When Stephens asked Bland if it was normal to add shows in the middle of a tour, Bland said: “We’d go wherever we could go – whoever would have us. We did do crazy drives and played for no money. That’s pretty standard practice. We had a miserable time and we loved it.”
Aaron told me in 2021 that he doesn’t remember taking Bland’s phone call to book Nirvana’s 611 gig. But he also admits that his memory is foggy.
Unfortunately, Aaron didn’t keep written records of many shows he booked, other than promo fliers he made. He did not make a flier for the Nirvana show and did not work there that night.
Empty College Town
While Mike Sharp was setting up the PA for Nirvana, I was working on my journalism master’s thesis in the basement of the SIU Communications Building.
I’d been given an office in the art shop of WSIU-TV for my graduate assistantship. Coincidentally, underground publisher Adnon Kitkuda and I also worked covert graveyard shifts there in 1989 to put together his newspaper “Basement: Little Egypt’s Fix Of Rude Truth.”
The School of Journalism was eerily quiet that day. The student-run Daily Egyptian wasn’t published through the holiday weekend. The printing press room was locked. The windows had been dark since the previous Friday.
When I finished my research for the day, I went off to look for friends at the House O’ Voodew, a punk house in the 400 block of East College Street.
I crossed the railroad tracks near 611 Pizza and made it as far as the 200 block of East College when I bumped into Mike ‘Taz’ Kartje, the drummer from a Carbondale punk band I’d recorded called Diet Christ.
Taz had a big grin on his face. He held a brown-paper bag full of bottle rockets. Soon, a few other friends arrived who’d been hanging out at the House O’ Voodew.
Jim Reed was there along with a young goth girl named Cassandra. Jim was an undergrad who’d just moved into Lost Cross with Aaron Nauth.
Rob Koss, an art student who’d painted the 611 Pizza sign, also showed up along with a mohawked SIU student named Donny Selmarten.
We had a bottle-rocket fight right there, oblivious to the fact that a future-world-famous rock band was on the Strip just a couple blocks away.
At dusk, Taz said he had to run off and our bottle-rocket fight ended. As the rest of us sat on the grass, I asked if there were any shows or parties that night.
Jim said nothing was planned at Lost Cross because his housemate, Aaron, “had some other shit to do.”
No parties were planned at House O’ Voodew or Club Romex either.
But Cassandra said: “There’s a band from Seattle playing at 611 tonight. They’re called Nirvana. There’s a buzz about them. They just released an album on Sub Pop.”
“How did you hear about them?” I asked Cassandra.
“I saw a magazine article about the whole Seattle scene at House O’ Voodew,” she replied.
“Oh yeah,” Jim chimed in. “Aaron got a call a couple of days ago from some record label guy on the West Coast to book a band at 611 tonight. Never heard of them.”
“Aaron’s too busy to deal with it,” Donny added. “I forgot about it, but we’re supposed to go over and see if they need a place to crash.”
It was quite normal for friends in Carbondale’s punk scene to help out-of-town bands that way.
In February 1989, when the Oakland band Neurosis passed through on a tour to promote their Lookout Records releases, they stayed for a week at “The Quadrangle Apartments” where Aaron, Jim, Rob, and Donny were living at the time.
Aaron ended up booking two shows for Neurosis at 611 Pizza that week.
Carbondale punk houses and 611 Pizza hosted a lot of bands from Chicago and other Midwest cities, along with West Coast bands on independent labels, like Plaid Retina, Mr. T Experience, and Eyeball.
I was interested in seeing a Sub Pop band from the Pacific Northwest. I’d lived in Eugene, Oregon, a couple of years earlier and had recorded bands there with the same reel-to-reel 4-track I used to record Diet Christ in the House O’ Voodew basement.
“They’ve probably already started,” I said. “We’d better head over now if we want to see them.”
Jim and Cassandra said they’d come over later. Rob said he’d be there soon.
We agreed to meet at the show. Donny Selmarten and I walked straight over. Rob would meet us there, but Jim and Cassandra never made it.
When Donny and I arrived at 611 Pizza, I was surprised to see a friend from Club Romex, Malcolm Robertson, working the door.
Malcolm would become a regular employee of 611 Pizza the following year. That night was the first time I saw him working there.
Unlike Aaron Nauth’s usual spot near the pizza counter, Malcolm was perched on a bar stool halfway down the entrance hallway.
“Are you working here now?” I asked Malcolm.
“Nah, I’m just filling in for Aaron tonight,” he said. “He’s got some other stuff to do.”
“How much is the cover?” I asked.
“Nothing now. It was three bucks, but they just finished.”
“Oh, crap. That sucks,” I said. “Were they any good?”
“Well, I sat here most of the time. I didn’t really see them other than peeking around the corner for a bit,” Malcolm said. “They sounded great. But I think their name is stupid.”
“It’s a great name,” I replied.
“It’s stupid,” Malcolm insisted.
A guy and a girl who’d seen the show, paying audience members, walked past us on their way out. I didn’t recognize them from Carbondale basement shows and they weren’t dressed like punks.
“How was the band?” I asked.
“They were incredible,” the girl said with exhilaration, as if she’d just had a life-altering experience. “They played a song called ‘Love Buzz’ that was amazing.”
The guy nodded in agreement but wasn’t as excited as she was.
I asked them if they were SIU students. They said they were both studying broadcast journalism.
To this day, I wonder if they’d randomly wandered into the venue and whether, years later, they realized they’d seen the nascent Nirvana just two weeks into their first U.S. tour.
Malcolm looked toward the end of the hall where a short guy with long blond hair had just walked up to the pizza-ordering counter. He wore a black leather jacket, a plain white undershirt, cut-off shorts, and sneakers.
“That’s the singer over there if you want to talk to him,” Malcolm said, waving Donny and me in.
“You guys played too early,” I told the singer, unaware I was talking to a future rock legend named Kurt Cobain. “A bunch of friends are coming over later to check you out, too.”
“Sorry man,” Kurt said as he turned to grab Malcolm’s attention. “Hey, can we get some pizza?”
“Oh, we’re all out of pizza sauce and cheese,” Malcolm lamented empathetically.
Then Malcolm had an idea — a kind of blank pizza called “focaccia.” It’s an oven-baked Italian bread known in some parts of Italy as “pizza bianca.”
“We’ve still got pizza dough,” Malcolm said. “We can make fresh bread in the oven with olive oil and salt like they do in Rome.”
“That sounds great,” Kurt replied. “We’re pretty hungry.”
Malcolm went behind the counter and poured beer from the tap into plastic cups for Kurt, Donny, and me.
Then he turned to the cook, Sam Chang, who was standing by the oven. I could see Malcolm there explaining how to prepare the blank pizza — telling Sam that he shouldn’t flatten the dough.
Sam Chang owned 611 Pizza. He usually stayed in the kitchen smoking and making pizza while bands played. Not surprisingly, Sam now says he doesn’t remember any details about the Nirvana show.
“I don’t have any record of that,” Chang told Stephens for his podcast. “Sorry about that. If I had, you’d be welcome to have it. But I just don’t keep anything. There were a lot of bands that played there. I might be confused with other bands. I don’t recall much.”
Malcolm stayed busy in the kitchen with Sam during most of my conversation with Kurt.
I told Kurt: “You guys should have put fliers around. We only heard about it a few minutes ago by word of mouth. We came straight over.”
“We have fliers,” Kurt insisted. “Our record label sent them out ahead of time to the venues. They’re supposed to make copies and put them up.”
Then Kurt explained how Nirvana was originally meant to have July 3rd and 4th as rest days. Since Sub Pop added the Dallas and 611 Pizza shows after their tour had begun, he said 611 probably didn’t get the promo materials in time.
Donny leaned back against the wall while Kurt explained why Nirvana didn’t have time to put up their own fliers around Carbondale that day.
“We just got into town this afternoon,” Kurt said. “We drove straight from Dallas. We haven’t seen anything. We just set everything up for the show. I hung out in here the whole time, watching our gear.”
I asked Kurt how the tour was going. He told me how crossing the Mississippi River for the first time that day was a big deal for him.
“It’s been long drives, but things are really starting to happen,” he said. He was upbeat and confident about the future. You could feel from his energy that Nirvana was on a rising curve.
“We’re going to be big. Bigger than the Ozark Mountain Daredevils,” Kurt predicted with a passive-aggressive sneer.
“The Toppermost of the Poppermost,” I joked, making a reference to a phrase John Lennon used to pep talk The Beatles in their pre-fame Hamburg days.
“I love The Beatles,” Kurt replied.
He told me how Sub Pop arranged the tour to promote their album. He said he was really happy about how the record sounded.
“Bleach” was officially released on June 15. The tour started with gigs in Seattle and San Francisco on June 21 and 22.
“In the last 10 days, we drove from L.A. across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas,” Kurt said. “We did four shows in Texas – San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, and Dallas last night.”
Knowing other bands whose vehicles broke down from such demanding treks, I asked if they’d had problems with their van so far.
“We stop every 400 miles and do a vehicle check,” Kurt explained. “We check all the fluids – oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, the water in the battery. We even check the radiator hoses. The last thing we need is a breakdown.”
Kurt didn’t seem to mind that almost nobody saw their 611 Pizza show. He was already thinking about getting to the next gig.
Nirvana’s bass player came over. He had long dark hair, cut like a member of a 1960s garage band. He looked intimidatingly tall standing next to Kurt. But he was very friendly.
“Hey Kurt, the bass amp is all loaded,” he said, signaling that the rest of the gear could be packed in the van.
“Bass amp first?” I asked him.
“Yeah, well, we’ve got our bed rolls. Then the bass cab has to go in. It’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Bass cab first. Then, amps and guitars. Drums last.”
He introduced himself as Krist and asked Kurt about pizza.
Krist Novoselic was happy enough when Kurt told him they’d have fresh bread.
“I’m not as hungry as Kurt is,” Krist joked. “I went to that place across the street and got myself a gyros before we played. El Grecos.”
Kurt laughed and said: “You should have brought me one.”
You could tell Kurt and Krist were tight friends.
The drummer, Chad Channing, came round the corner from the stage room. Dave Grohl hadn’t yet joined Nirvana.
Chad was followed by the band’s other guitarist on that first U.S. tour, Jason Everman.
Soon to leave Nirvana and play bass briefly for Soundgarden, Everman would go on to become a U.S. Army Ranger and a member of the U.S. Special Operations Forces – serving combat duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kurt repeated the news about the pizza.
Chad shrugged and went back around the corner to finish packing up his drums.
Jason Everman moaned. He was grumpy. Total different vibe from Kurt and Krist. Negative energy. The tension between him versus Kurt and Krist was palpable.
Kurt said bluntly: “Jason, go load the amps and help Chad get the drums in the van. It’s your turn to be roadie.”
Jason grumbled and walked off.
“It must be tough living on the road with three other guys in a van,” I said.
“Tell me about it,” Kurt replied.
Common Friends, D.I.Y. Values
I asked Kurt what was happening with the Pacific Northwest scene, mentioning that I’d recorded a band called Snakepit a couple of years earlier when I lived in Eugene, Oregon.
Kurt’s face lit up. We had common friends in Snakepit – the singer and lead guitarist Mike Johnson, who would later become the bass player of Dinosaur Jr., and rhythm guitarist Billy Karren, who’d soon be the only male member of the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill.
“I know Mike Johnson,” Kurt said. “He came down to L.A. to see us play at Rhino Records in Westwood. Do you know that neighborhood? We had a really good show there.”
Kurt also knew the Snakepit cassette album I’d recorded in 1987 – “From Vegas to Memphis.” Released by Dunghill Records, it was voted “Pacific-Northwest Best Home Recording” in 1988 by readers of Seattle’s “Rocket” newspaper.
I’d gotten letters from Snakepit since then and knew Billy Karren was doing a project in Olympia called The Go-Team on Calvin Johnson’s K Records.
Kurt said he’d played guitar on a Go-Team record being released that month – “Bikini Twilight,” with Calvin Johnson on guitar and future Bikini Kill drummer Toby Vail.
“This tape was a big reason I quit school and moved to Eugene in 1988,” Toby Vail now says about Snakepit’s “From Vegas to Memphis.”
By the end of 1989, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic would be in the studio with Mike Johnson for the first solo album by Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan — “The Winding Sheet.”
Mike Johnson produced Lanegan’s version of the Lead Belly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” with Kurt on electric guitar and Krist on bass.
Nirvana would reprise the song in 1993 with Kurt singing for their MTV Unplugged performance.
Krist asked me what the best bands were that I’d seen in Carbondale.
I mentioned a concert the previous September by Rapeman – former Big Black frontman Steve Albini’s band with the drummer and bass player of Scratch Acid – and how the name spawned an anti-rape “Take Back The Night” protest in front of the venue, Two Hearts.
Kurt got excited again, saying Rapeman was one of the best bands he’d ever seen.
I told them how Steve Albini and I were interns together at the Marion Chronicle-Tribune in Indiana during the winter of 1982-83 when Steve was a journalism student at Northwestern University and I was an undergrad at Ball State.
We spoke about Albini’s dedication to punk rock ethos and how he liked “vicious noise” that made his head spin, “like a jolt,” pushing him, “the music, the audience, and everything involved as close to the precipice as possible.”
In February 1993, Albini would spend two weeks with Nirvana recording their final studio album, “In Utero.”
Broken Mix Board
Malcolm brought the blank pizza out to Kurt and Krist from the kitchen. They were rectangular single slices, the shape of 611’s usual thin-crust offering. But the dough had risen into a thick crust.
The smell of stale beer was replaced by the scent of fresh bread. When Kurt bit into it, he was ecstatic. He spun around with a big smile on his face and took another bite.
As we continued to talk, Mike Sharp walked round the corner from the back room. Sharp had returned from Paducah, come in through the back door, and quickly loaded out the rented PA.
He apologized for not being able to work the mix board. Kurt was friendly and seemed to appreciate what he had done.
Sharp asked whether they could hear the vocals loud enough without any monitors.
“It was good for half a PA,” Kurt replied, describing how one of the main speakers dropped out in the middle of the show.
Mike looked surprised and concerned.
“I was worried that they’d blown the horn out on one of the Klipsch speakers – something that would be hard to replace,” Sharp now recalls. “But it was my mix board. It was a stereo board, so one side of the stereo feed must have disappeared during their show. It was one of the main outputs.”
“They might have been pressing the thing to get a little more oomph out of it,” he says. “Or maybe it was just its time. I bought the board in 1977, so it had a few years on it.”
Having never repaired his board, Sharp now laughs about owning a vintage 1970s Yamaha mixer that was blown out by Kurt Cobain’s voice.
Standing next to Krist Novoselic that night, I noticed he didn’t have a beer. I offered to buy him one, but he declined: “No thanks. We’re supposed to get them free anyway, but I’ve got to drive.”
I told them there was space at the Lost Cross house if they needed a place to crash. But both Kurt and Krist were determined to get right back on the road.
“We’ve got to drive all the way to Iowa City for a show tomorrow,” Kurt said, looking at Krist. “What is that, like, another six or eight hours?”
“Where’s the itinerary?” Krist asked.
“It’s in the van in the front,” Kurt replied.
“It’ll be about an eight-hour drive,” Mike offered. ““Where are you playing in Iowa City?”
“Some place called Gabe’s Oasis,” Kurt said.
“Oh, I know the place,” Mike said. “You’ll have to carry stuff up to the second floor for the load in. But it’s a cool place, and there should be a sound man too.”
Rob Koss, the artist who painted the 611 Pizza sign, arrived.
Rob was a stalwart of the Carbondale punk scene. He drew illustrations for Thrasher’s Digest and another Carbondale fanzine called Extortion. He also made fliers for gigs and did the cover art for several do-it-yourself releases by southern Illinois punk bands.
Disappointed to find he’d missed the show, Rob joined the conversation.
Kurt noticed Rob’s black cloth bag and recognized that it was an expensive set of color drawing pens.
“Oh, you’re an artist. I’m an artist too,” Kurt said. “Well, I do illustrations and stuff for fliers. But I’ve really been getting into making collages lately.”
Rob and Kurt immediately hit it off. They discovered they shared a fondness for Winston Smith, the American illustrator who used the medium of collage to design cover art for Dead Kennedys records on the Alternative Tentacles label.
Kurt said he was making collages from photos taken by a doctor to document his patients’ diseases and injuries.
“Are they autopsy photos?” I asked.
“No, they’re living patients,” Kurt said. “I found a whole photo album at an estate sale of some doctor who died. You’re not supposed to be able to get things like that. Privacy issues. It should have been destroyed.”
Kurt said he’d put one of the photos, a diseased vagina, on his refrigerator.
He said he was enthralled by images of human flesh rotting on a person while they’re still alive.
That struck a note with Rob. “I was fascinated by the human condition. I still am,” Rob said when I phoned him in 2021 to ask about the artists they’d discussed.
“I was surely talking about Ivan Albright, a grotesque Chicago-based painter who did The Picture Of Dorian Gray in the 1940s. He is a fantastic artist,” Rob said.
Rob also told Kurt how he’d snuck into the university medical library to copy photos from a book on victims of industrial accidents – “people who’d got their hands stuck in machinery and things like that.”
“One guy sawed himself in half with a band saw because he was upset at his wife,” Rob said. “I made a T-shirt of that.”
Kurt laughed at the idea of committing suicide by throwing yourself on an industrial band saw.
As Rob and Kurt talked about art grotesque, Donny went to the pay phone just inside the front door and called Aaron Nauth at Lost Cross.
Aaron had just finished whatever he was doing and was ready to join us. But Donny told him the show was over and the band was going straight back out on the road. Nirvana would not be staying at Lost Cross.
The new plan was for us to meet up with Aaron and Jim at The Quads. There was a keg left over from a barely attended party that needed to be drained.
Shortly after Donny hung up the phone, it was time for Nirvana to go.
We said goodbye and went out the front door while they left through the back.
Donny, Rob, and I walked together to The Quads where we met Jim and Aaron by the keg.
None of us realized the significance of the band we’d just met.
On July 18, 1989, exactly two weeks after performing at 611 Pizza, Jason Everman played his last gig with Nirvana at the Pyramid Club in New York City. Everman told music journalists that he quit Nirvana. Kurt Cobain insisted Everman was fired for being moody.
Whatever the case, their tensions brought an end to the band’s first cross-country tour nearly a month early. Ten more gigs that had been booked through August 13 were canceled.
In May 1990, Chad Channing played his last Nirvana show and was replaced on drums by Dave Grohl.
Mike Sharp still works as a soundman in the Chicago area. He jokes that if he ever fixes the mix board that Kurt Cobain’s voice broke, he’ll encase the broken part in plastic and keep it on his desk.
Rob Koss lives in Switzerland where he runs a tattoo business.
“I don’t have a very good memory for details,” Rob said when I asked him what he could remember about that night. “I have a very visual memory. I do remember our bottle rocket fight.”
For me, a strong memory for details has been a vital tool as an international correspondent.
But Nirvana was just one of many unknown punk bands that toured through Carbondale before I left the United States three decades ago.
It took me about 25 years to realize I’d met Nirvana before their fame.
It happened around 2015 when I was contacted by a Nirvana fan website that was trying to confirm whether the 611 Pizza show really took place.
The webmaster said a “doorman” named Malcolm Robertson was the only person on the Internet “claiming” it happened. The webmaster said Malcolm had offered my contacts as another witness.
For years, Malcolm had been telling mutual friends in Carbondale that I also met Nirvana at 611 Pizza that night. But I wasn’t around anymore to back Malcolm up and confirm that he was telling the truth.
Malcolm says he’d been bullied online by fans from around the world who insisted he was lying. He was pretty fed up with arguing about the few details he could remember.
Either to avoid being the victim of more social media dogpiles, or simply because of blurred memories, Malcolm now expresses uncertainty about the event.
He refused to be interviewed by Stephens for his “Finding Nirvana In Carbondale” podcast. Malcolm replied to Stephens’ request with a short text message, saying he thought that he had been in Chicago on the night of the show and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Malcolm did not specify to Stephens that he was actually in Chicago for the Fourth of July 1990.
Unsure what year the Nirvana show had been, Malcolm wrongly concluded that it couldn’t have been 1989 because his payroll records show he wasn’t a regular employee of 611 Pizza until 1990.
He’d forgotten that he was just filling in for Aaron Nauth in 1989 on the night of the Nirvana show.
When I asked Malcolm about it around 2015, though, he mentioned how hungry Kurt Cobain had been and how happy he was to eat a piece of pizza bread without any cheese or sauce.
Those words triggered a revelation – a moving image in my mind, the recollection of Kurt grinning and spinning as he ate blank pizza at 611.
It opened a floodgate of memories. Funny. In all those years, though their music was omnipresent, I hadn’t put it together.
I’d met Kurt Cobain in Carbondale when he was just 22 years old, playing to an audience of almost no one, and predicting that his band was going to be “bigger than the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.”
(Copyright 2021 by Ron Synovitz, all rights reserved; published with permission from the author. Ron Synovitz graduated from SIU-C in August 1989 with an M.A. in journalism history. He is a senior international correspondent at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a partner at Golden HIVE recording studios in Prague, Czech Republic. He also contributed to Chris Bryans’ 2020 authorized biography of Killing Joke, “A Prophecy Fulfilled,” documenting more than a decade of the English band’s work in Prague.)
https://widgets.wp.com/likes/index.html?ver=20220105#blog_id=197728712&post_id=123&origin=rudetruth110572515.wordpress.com&obj_id=197728712-123-63767209a98f0Posted byBuzz FugaziPosted inPunk RockTags:1989, 1993, 611 Pizza, Aaron Nauth, Adam Broad, Adnon Kitkuda, Afghanistan, Alternative Press, Asia, Axis Club, Balkans, Ball State, Basement, Basement Writers Cooperative, Bikini Kill, Bikini Twilight, Billy Karren, Calvin Johnson, Carbondale, Cassandra, Chad Channing, Chris Wissman, Craig Wilson, Dallas, Danny Bland, Dave Grohl, Diet Christ, Dodge, Donny Selmarten, Dunghill Records, EU, Eugene, Europe, Fanzine, Fliers, Fort Worth, Gabe’s Oasis, House O’ Voodew, Illinois, Illinois Central Railroad, Indiana, Internet, Iowa City, Iraq, Jason Everman, Jim Reed, K Records, Kentucky, Klipsch, Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain, L.A., Leadbelly, Los Angeles, Lost Cross House, Malcolm Robertson, Marion Chronicle-Tribune, Mark Lanegan, Mike ‘Taz’ Kartje, Mike Blaine Sharp, Mike Johnson, Mississippi River, MTV, Museum of Pop Culture, NATO, Nirvana, Northwestern University, October’s Child, Oregon, Ozark Mountain Devils, Paducah, Photos, post-communist, Rangers, Rapeman, Recording, Rhino Records, Riot Grrrl, Rob Koss, Robbie Stokes, Robco Audio, Ron Synovitz, Sam Chang, Schaefer Lights, Scratch Acid, Seattle, Shure, SIU, Snakepit, Sound Core, Soundgarden, Southern Illinois University, Steve Albini, Sub Pop, Take Back The Night, The Daily Egyptian, The Electric Jungle, The Go-Team, The Winding Sheet, Toby Vail, Two Hearts, U.S. Special Operations Forces, Underground, United States, Van, Video, Westwood, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Will Stephens, Yamaha, Yugoslavia