Inside Sonic Youth and Nirvana's Epic 1991 Tour

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Sonic Youth in Europe, Summer 1991 / Photo by Dave Markey
WRITTEN BY
Kevin O'Donnell

Months before Nirvana overtook the world with "Teen Spirit" mania in late 1991, the band was tapped by Sonic Youth for a European festival tour. Dave Markey, a friend of Sonic Youth's, was hired to film the trek, which also featured Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, and Gumball. Markey turned his experience into the classic rock doc 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which offers an all-access look at these bands before grunge overtook the world. (Watch it below.) The film - shot entirely by Markey on his Super 8 camera - has been criminally out-of-print for years. But it will get the deluxe DVD reissue treatment on September 13. SPIN asked Markey to recall, in his own words, his memories from the tour:

I was friends with Sonic Youth for a few years before filming the movie. I met them in the Eighties and they did a cover of Alice Cooper's "Hollowed Be My Name" for this movie of mine, Lovedolls Superstar. And they had asked me to do a few music videos for Goo in 1990. We had always talked about doing a longer project together and literally two weeks before their summer festival tour started in August of 1991, I got a call: "Do you want to come and shoot stuff?" So I grabbed my Super 8 and a passport and took off.

I had seen Nirvana a few times before when they played West Coast dates with Sonic Youth. But my real hang time with them was on that flight from Los Angeles to meet up with Sonic Youth in London. We all sat together. Dave [Grohl] was their new drummer. They had just shot the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video the day before and they were kept until the wee hours of the morning. When they met me, they were like "Oh, here's another film director. Oh, great!" But it was cool. I drank beers and screwdrivers the whole flight and once we landed, I started shooting the movie, getting the band all jetlagged and hungover.

When Nirvana would play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on those festival shows, it was just another one of the songs they played. They did really well at some of the bigger festivals, particularly at Reading. They clearly connected with the crowd that was there, who, at that point in time, really were bigger fans of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Maybe some fans had bought Bleach, but they weren't really the draw. I mean, some of these festivals, like Pukkelpop, Nirvana played at 11:30 in the morning! No one anticipated Nevermind's explosion.

The moment that stands out for me is that Reading performance. Nirvana played at 2:00 in the afternoon and they ended the set with "Endless, Nameless" in its entirety. And that's when Kurt [Cobain] jumped into the pit, and Thurston [Moore] came out and grabbed him.

Thurston getting Kurt out of the pit was kind of perfect. He and Kim [Gordon] were like parental figures for Kurt in a way. I think that idea would've repelled all parties involved, but it's kind of the truth. They really took the band under their wing. I remember at one festival, Nirvana were delayed getting into Germany, at the border. They missed their time slot. But Thurston took it upon himself to ask all the bands to remove 5 or 10 minutes from their set so they could get Nirvana to play.

When I was filming Sonic Youth or Nirvana or Dinosaur or whoever, they weren't censoring themselves. People were just enjoying this brief two-week tour. There was a lot of drinking going on. A lot of hash smoking.Everyone was having fun backstage.

At the time, Madonna's Truth or Dare was in theaters - this big cultural moment. So we decided to reenact scenes and we had the idea where Kurt, pretending to be Kevin Costner, meets Madonna backstage and he says, "You guys were really neat." But he had this champagne bottle and decided to fling it around the room. That was an add-on. It wasn't rehearsed. He didn't break it but everyone thought he was going to smash it through a window. Dave and Kim ran out of the room as if it was going to be set on fire. It was hilarious.

Kurt wasn't with Courtney [Love] at the time but she showed up at Rotterdam. I think she hitched a ride with the Smashing Pumpkins. She was sort of seeing Billy Corgan. You can see it in the bluescale version of the movie I've been working on. Krist [Novoselic], Dave, and Kim are all gossiping: "Courtney's here!" And - boom! - she comes in backstage arm-in-arm with Corgan, who was introduced to Sonic Youth. Kurt and Billy had never really met and, you know, maybe were even competitors. Kind of like Dylan in Don't Look Back where you see him tapping on Donovan.

When Courtney and Billy left the room, you see Kurt graffitis on the wall "Courtney Plus Gish," the name of the Pumpkins record. And everyone proceeded to lightly make fun of Billy. Krist said, "I can't go on living! I thought Courtney was in love with me!" Maybe Kurt had a crush on her at the time and didn't know how to approach her, I don't know.

I didn't have a personal rapport with Kurt. He was just another guy in the band, quiet. We chatted a bit and I could detect this really dark sense of humor, but he was very nice. You look at the 1991: The Year Punk Broke, and Kurt is just smiling through the whole thing. Those are some of the last smiles you'd see from him before Nirvana became this huge success.

There were lots of moments that I didn't capture on camera. Hole had some dates in London at the time, opening for Mudhoney. We had an off night and I remember going to the show with Kim, Thurston, and Kurt. I left my camera - I just wanted to enjoy the night. When you're documenting something, you're present but there's something between you and what's going on.

Sometimes I wish I could have documented my favorite shows, but that night I was glad I could experience it. Nowadays, everything is documented. Everything's done from an iPhone.On the web instantly. A million views. Nothing is special any more.

WATCH: 1991: The Year Punk Broke

Watch It: Introduction to 1991: The Year Punk Broke

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