Sad, sad news. We received word today that Tom Sheehy, aka The Colonel — longtime Philly music publicist/scenester/historian, storied music biz vet, barroom philosopher, perennial guest list fixture, late-blooming recipient of a Ph.D. in 20th-century American History from Penn, colonel in the ‘MMaRmy, and frequent Phawker contributor — passed away this weekend. This week we will honor his memory by re-posting some of his greatest Phawker hits. We conclude our weeklong tribute to The Colonel with his 2011 remembrance of the night Nirvana honored a longstanding booking at J.C. Dobbs on October 1st 1991, one week after the release of Nevermind, an album that would in a matter of months make them The Center Of Everything. show that hundreds, if not thousands, claim to have attended, though in truth only 125 actually were there that night.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kurt Cobain took his own life 19 years ago today. We prefer to remember a happier time, the beginning, not the end. With that in mind we are re-posting The Colonel’s 2011 remembrance of Nirvana at J.C. Dobbs, just as the band was going supernova.
BY COLONEL TOM SHEEHY I’d never bothered to keep a guest list before, but that night I did — beer stains and all — somehow knowing just hours after the fact that I had witnessed something historic and I wanted an artifact to share with those that would come after. I’d never before witnessed a seismic cultural shift happen beneath my feet, but on that particular night I had a front row seat for a massive generational sea change which had been brewing since the end of the previous decade, but wasn’t fully realized until September 24th of 1991, when the trio from Seattle known as Nirvana embarked on a tour in support of their new album called Nevermind that included a blistering set on that postage stamp size stage at J.C. Dobbs, where I was working as a promoter, in Philly on the first of October. Just 90 days later, Nevermind went to number one on the Billboard album chart and 20 years later we are still feeling the aftershocks.
Prior to that legendary performance, Nirvana had already played at J.C. Dobbs twice — on April 30, 1990 and July 12, 1989, when they made their Philadelphia debut. Before their April ’90 show, I chided Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic for walking around barefoot in the bar. I told him broken glass could be anywhere in a place like this and he could seriously cut himself. Novoselic just smiled and said he had really thick skin. I then asked him how things were going, and his face struck a somewhat somber look as he shared with me some inside the band info. He told me that him and Kurt were “sick and tired of playing in places like Oklahoma, and having kids come up to us after the show and tell us how much they liked our band, but that they could not find our records in the stores. So, we’ve decided we’re going to sign with a major.” The rest is in the history books: Kurt and Chris spoke with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and they touted their new major label home, Geffen Records, as a cool place to be. Based on Sonic Youth’s recommendation, David Geffen signed Nirvana to his DGC label. Nirvana ended up touring Europe with Sonic Youth during the end of the summer of 1991. This was after they went into the studio with Butch Vig to make their second album, a recording that would define a generation.
In August of ’91, the October 1st date for J.C. Dobbs was confirmed. I immediately called my contact at Geffen’s publicity office to see if she had any advances of the new album. She said they just came in, and that she’d overnight a cassette copy to me. She also told me that she had just met the guys, and that they were really nice. She indicated it would be no problem setting up as many interviews as I needed to promote the date. Having previously promoted Nirvana shows, I knew how easy it was to work with those guys. However, when the advance cassette arrived the next day, I knew I would need no interviews, because my gut told me that this new album was so strong that we were going to sell out as soon as I got the show up for sale. I called my Geffen contact back just to share my enthusiasm for the record, and right away she told me she might have to rescind her previous offer for interviews because she was now getting 80 requests a day. At that moment, it was obvious to me that all around the country, and probably the world, promoters, critics and anyone else who heard the advance of that album knew that the band was going to go supernova.
Given the long, late hours the job required, I almost never got a phone call from work early in the morning, but when I looked at the caller ID that Tuesday morning at around 11 o’clock, I immediately knew it was about Nirvana, and I also sensed that the news had to be bad. The band’s road manager called from Pittsburgh to say that Kurt Cobain was feeling sick with stomach pains — those same stomach pains would take on a greater significance some three years later. The road manager said that the band didn’t want to cancel the Dobbs show and if we could commit to bringing in extra monitors to take strain off of Kurt, then they could perform the show. Those extra monitors were ordered seconds after that phone call ended.
Over the years, I had many acts cancel at the last minute, and to this day, none of their names are memorable. A great artist will always rise to the occasion whereas the lesser ones often failed to do so and invariably wound up in the Where Are They Are Now? bin. Kurt Cobain was going to tough it out and the show was on. As support act Das Damen (a last minute fill-in for scheduled openers The Melvins) finished their set, I started to get a little anxious. Yet is was a good sense of anxiety, for I was feeling a sense of fierce pride, because I knew that something urgent and meaningful was about to take place; the room was filled with intense anticipation as the trio took the stage. As they did on most of the dates of that tour, Nirvana opened their set with a cover of The Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam” followed quickly with “Drain You.” The set was balanced between four songs from Nevermind and their Sub-Pop repertoire. By the time they hit the fifth song of the set, which was their new single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” what began as traditional mosh pit limited to the front of the stage quickly spread and enveloped the entire downstairs floor as kids were flailing themselves over each other in a frenzy that was only superseded by the blast of sound emanating from the stage. The sight of which was simply mind-blowing.
The headline for the concert review in the Philadelphia Inquirer read: “A Trio From Seattle Rocks At J.C. Dobbs.” Critic Sam Wood remarked that “During its 45-minute set at J.C. Dobbs, Nirvana stormed with the fury of a roiling cataract.” After the show, outside the front of the club, I spoke to Kurt. I asked him how he was feeling and I also thanked him for going through with the show. I wished him and the band good luck on the rest of the tour, and then they left South Street for Washington, D.C. where they would play the 9:30 Club the following night. The next day, I got a phone call from the local WEA rep. He asked me, “Colonel? Who the hell did you have at Dobbs last night?” He went on to say, “I was driving down South Street, and the line was all the way down to TLA!” My retort was simple: Last night, we had the future.
PREVIOUSLY: It was 16 years ago today that Kurt Cobain’s body was found. Sigh. With pinpoint accuracy, I know where I was when I first saw the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, because it’s intrinsically linked to one of the great obsessions of my teen years; an Italian-American princess, three years my junior, who was both a card carrying member of the International Thespian Society, in league with the JV cheerleading squad AND a total Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio doppelganger, circa The Abyss. MORE