Nirvana: Super Fuzz Big Muff
SCENTLESS APPRENTICE —COBAIN’S VIRGIN MUSICAL YEARS
Kurt Donald Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on February 20, 1967. Growing up in the company of several musicians—his uncle Chuck played in a rock band and his aunt Mary played guitar—Cobain showed an early interest in music. As a youngster, he would often bang at the strings on a plastic toy guitar while singing along with his favorite Beatles records. Cobain’s aunt Mary encouraged his musical development and attempted to teach him guitar when he was seven, but he had difficulty learning.
Expressing desires of becoming “John Lennon playing drums” when he grew up, Cobain started taking drum lessons in the third grade. He switched to guitar in 1981 when his uncle Chuck gave him a used electric guitar and a small 10-watt amp for his 14th birthday. “As soon as I got my guitar, I just became so obsessed with it,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad. “I don’t think it was even a Harmony. I think it was a Sears.” Cobain took guitar lessons for less than a month—just long enough to learn how to play AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Those three chords served him well when he began writing his own songs shortly thereafter.
Cobain soon set his sights on forming a band. One day, a couple of friends invited him to jam in an abandoned meat locker that they used as a practice space. Afterwards, Cobain foolishly left his guitar in the locker and was subsequently unable to return and get it back. When he finally made it back to the rehearsal space a few months later, he found his guitar in pieces. He salvaged the neck, hardware and electronics and made a new body for the guitar in wood shop, but Cobain lacked the skills to make the restored instrument intonate properly. Later he acquired a replacement, but details about the guitar are unknown.
When Cobain was 17, his mother married Pat O’Connor, whose ensuing infidelity led to a situation that greatly facilitated Cobain’s acquisition of musical gear. After Cobain’s mother learned that Pat was cheating on her, she dumped his rifle and gun collection in the river. Cobain observed his mother’s antics and later encouraged some of the neighborhood kids to fish his stepdad’s weapons out of the river. Cobain sold the guns and bought a used Peavey Vintage amplifier with two 12-inch speakers with the proceeds. Once the Peavey became a member of the Cobain household, Aberdeen rarely knew a peaceful evening.
In early 1985, Cobain moved in with his natural father who discouraged his son’s musical pursuits and convinced him to pawn his guitar. After about a week, Cobain got his guitar out of hock and moved out. He almost lost the guitar again when he loaned it to a drug dealer, but managed to repossess it a few months later. With this unknown guitar and the Peavey amp in hand, Cobain formed his first band, Fecal Matter, in late 1985.
The Peavey amp disappeared sometime between early 1986 and late 1987. Krist Novoselic remembers that Cobain gave the amp to him for about a week, in what apparently was a friendly attempt to get him to join Fecal Matter. Novoselic declined on both offers. The amp disappeared sometime after that.
By late 1987 Novoselic finally agreed to form a band with Cobain and drummer Aaron Burckhard, which they called Skid Row (no relation to the Sebastian Bach– fronted metal outfit of the same name). Photos from this era show Cobain playing a right-hand model sunburst Univox Hi-Flyer flipped over and strung for left-handed playing. According to Azerrad, Cobain’s amp during this period was a tiny Fender Champ. Also around this time, Cobain acquired a Univox Superfuzz but it was stolen from his rehearsal space.
The band’s name changed frequently, from Fecal Matter to such similarly choice monikers as Ted Ed Fred, Pen Cap Chew, Throat Oyster, Windowpane and Bliss. Eventually they settled on Nirvana. When Burckhard proved too unreliable, Cobain and Novoselic kicked him out of the band and enlisted drummer Dale Crover, who they temporarily stole from the Melvins. Three weeks later, on January 23, 1988, Nirvana recorded its first studio demo at Reciprocal Studio with Jack Endino— whose early production/engineering/mixing credits include Soundgarden, Green River, Tad and Mudhoney—behind the board.
BLOND AMBITION —THE BLEACH YEARS
Jack Endino was not supposed to work on Nirvana’s demo session, but because he was impressed by Crover’s playing with the Melvins, he insisted on doing the recording. The band’s working relationship with Endino proved to be exceptionally fortuitous. A few months after working with Nirvana for the first time, Endino played the band’s demo tape for Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop Records, who signed the band to the label. Three of the songs that Nirvana recorded during that session ended up on Bleach, the band’s first album.
“They didn’t have a whole lot of equipment,” says Endino. “In the early days, Kurt used a Randall amplifier head. It may not have even been a tube model— I think it was solid-state. I don’t recall what the speakers were.”
The band liked working with Endino, and they returned to Reciprocal Studios several times during the year to record more songs, although Chad Channing replaced Crover on drums. Nirvana signed a contract with Sub Pop, and in late December 1988, they entered Reciprocal Studios to record Bleach. The album was recorded in three days at a cost of $606.16, although five tracks from earlier sessions were included on the final album. Most of the remaining songs from the various Reciprocal sessions were released several years later on Incesticide.
“When they recorded Bleach, the Randall was in the shop so they borrowed my amp, which was a Sixties Fender Twin,” Endino recalls. “I’m a tube nut, so everything was tweaked and up to spec on that amp, but it didn’t have speakers because I had fried them. Kurt brought in a little closedback 2x12 cabinet with two Celestions, most likely 70-watt models. He was using a little orange Boss DS-1 distortion pedal and these Univox guitars [Hi-Flyers] that looked like Mosrites. The pickups were stock. I ended up getting one of those pickups from him once, because he was smashing those guitars all the time. I said, ‘You must have some extra pickups,’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah. Here’s one.’ It was in two pieces. I was able to stick the wires together and use it. It’s not the greatest sounding pickup in the world, but it seemed to work for him.”
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