The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thirty years ago, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ rocked the Midwest

Grunge wasn’t just a Seattle thing, and it didn’t flame out as quickly as people thought.

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Thirty years ago this coming September, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album took over the airwaves, announcing the mainstream arrival of a quirky band from Seattle, as well as an underground music scene that had been simmering for the previous decade. Since that watershed moment, “Nevermind” has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. With its cover of a naked baby swimming after a dollar bill and the tongue-in-cheek youth anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” leading the charge, the record captured an entire generation’s cynical response to Reagan-era politics and its ever-more-limited economic prospects in the deindustrializing United States.

Almost overnight, the disaffected youths in the band’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video seemed to leap from TV screens into the hallways of American high schools. Flannel shirts, ripped jeans and Converse All-Stars quickly became the de facto uniform of a growing subculture. The Seattle scene became famous and the major music labels began an obsessive search for the next Nirvana.

But they didn’t just look to the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the success of Nirvana also lifted fortunes in smaller cities across the Midwest. The Nirvana phenomenon drew young people to the alternative rock underground in droves, providing legitimate audiences for local bands that were used to playing for a handful of friends.

Consider, for example, the case of Peoria, Ill. In June 1995, Rolling Stone magazine sent a writer to this midsize Midwestern city to cover an all-ages punk show at a rented-out American Legion hall. Topping the bill were Chicago noise rockers the Jesus Lizard. The band had an unimpeachable reputation in independent music circles and had even released a split single with Nirvana two years earlier. The Peoria gig was a warm-up for their slot on that summer’s Lollapalooza tour, to be followed by their major-label debut for Capitol Records. It seemed that the Jesus Lizard might be the next Nirvana.

Peoria had long been a test market for consumer products, conservative politics and, many years earlier, vaudeville acts. The “Will it play in Peoria?” catchphrase captured its reputation as a supposedly typical American city — largely White, working-class and Republican. Musically, it was a city of bar-rock bands that served up safe, watered-down covers of Ted Nugent or Eddie Money. Yet in the Nirvana years of the early to mid-1990s, Peoria boasted a dynamic independent music scene, featuring dozens of interesting and odd bands with names such as Fast Food Revolution, Nora Hate and Frozen at Sea.

All-ages punk-rock shows at a local skate park regularly drew young people by the hundreds. The city’s lone coffee shop began hosting poetry readings and open-mic nights, while the historic Madison Theatre launched an “Alternative Night” featuring local bands. By 1995, the city’s do-it-yourself punk scene, largely organized by teenagers, had become a modest destination for some relatively big-name touring acts — including Hum, Man or Astro-man?, Fugazi and, of course, the Jesus Lizard.

Nirvana’s success inspired passionate showgoers and musicians to revamp and re-create the local music scene. And in this, Peoria was hardly unique. Local shows that once might have drawn a few dozen people in cities such as Sioux City, Iowa, or Racine, Wis., were suddenly overwhelmed by several hundred. In Peoria, more than 500 youths eagerly crammed into the American Legion hall to see the Jesus Lizard, while 900 saw Fugazi play inside a rented exhibit hall at the Expo Gardens fairground.

Soon, however, the bottom fell out — at least as far as the music industry was concerned. Underground heavy hitters such as the Jesus Lizard, Samiam and Jawbreaker never replicated Nirvana’s success. In fact, outside Green Day, few bands that made the jump to a major label did. MTV abandoned music videos in favor of reality-TV shows. The Lollapalooza tour came to a crashing halt in 1997, and major record labels returned to a more predictable formula for manufacturing pop hits.

And yet, new waves of underground bands and independent record labels continued to provide all-ages entertainment through decentralized local scenes and DIY touring networks. The emergence of CD burners and online music sharing soon diminished the industry’s powerful grip even further.

In fact, in Peoria, the punk-rock scene trekked on. The skate park and historic theater gave way to other show spaces: a pizza joint, a church basement and a record store. A new coffee shop in the nearby town of Washington started hosting raucous hardcore punk shows — and a painting of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain on its wall held court over the proceedings. New bands formed in Peoria, and some would go on to tour the world. Most notably, Planes Mistaken for Stars, Minsk, the Forecast and Scouts Honor would find some amount of international acclaim in the 21st century — an impressive feat for a city of 115,000.

For thousands of its young people — driven to create art and community, unwilling to be passive consumers — the city was more than a national test market or a bland footnote to its coastal counterparts. It was a seminal hub for emo, hardcore, ska and punk shows in truly alternative venues. Many of the tattoo artists, graphic designers and small-business owners in Peoria today first cut their teeth in that underground scene.

Thirty years on from “Nevermind,” the music industry is an entirely different animal. Rock musicians no longer lead the cultural vanguard. Yet in the wake of a deadly virus that decimated the infrastructure of live music from coast to coast, rebuilding will require imagination and inspiration. Today’s youths no longer swim in a sea of grunge-era flannel, yet the supernova of creativity that followed Nirvana’s astonishing success may provide a compelling blueprint for the post-covid-19 moment.