Terri Wilder recalls the day clearly. It was October 6, 1991, and she was preparing for a graduate degree at the University of Georgia when a friend asked her to see a band called Nirvana play in Atlanta.
“Who the hell is Nirvana?” Wilder asked.
The show was two days before Wilder’s 24th birthday and two weeks after the release of “Nevermind,” the band’s landmark album. She was “mesmerized.”
“I remember it was not music I’d heard before,” Wilder said, “But you got the sense that this was something special.”
Her friend knew the band’s manager, and Wilder got to go backstage. She didn’t talk to lead singer Kurt Cobain, but “I very clearly remember him sitting on a couch and looking very socially uncomfortable.” She recalled a woman trying to flirt with the shy, budding rock star, who seemed unsure of himself.
“He wasn’t comfortable as the center of attention,” Wilder said.
A week later “Nevermind” was certified gold and the band’s breakthrough hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was playing constantly on MTV. Cobain — who died less than three years later, on April 5, 1994 — had become the reluctant voice of Generation X.
A shocking death
Cobain and Nirvana heralded rock’s grunge era of the early 1990s, bookending an era dominated by ’80s synth pop, New Wave and hair bands like Bon Jovi. Cobain eschewed slick, corporate rock, and his anguished lyrics and distorted riffs expressed both intimacy and rebellion.
“It was a great time to be alive in your twenties,” Wilder said. Over the next few years she began regularly going to shows by similar bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
But she added, when you’re young, “you’re in this bubble thinking twenty-year-olds don’t die.”
Wilder remembers MTV’s Kurt Loder delivering the news that Cobain had been found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound.
The rocker joined Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison in the so-called 27 Club, a group of famous musicians who all died unexpectedly at age 27.
At that point, Wilder had only known a couple of people who had died. “It was shocking to my generation,” she said.
Nirvana’s lasting influence
A quarter century later, Cobain’s career continues to fascinate and inspire. Rolling Stone named he and Nirvana 30th on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
And of course, “Nevermind” tops Rolling Stone’s list of most influential grunge albums.
Spencer Elden, who swam naked as a baby on the cover of “Nevermind,” told CNN in 2011 that his father, who worked rigging special effects in Hollywood, got the gig with a friend to photograph the famous album cover. He put his infant son in the water and snapped a few photos that entered rock history.
In 2015, a 19-year-old girl in Washington found rare photos of her father playing with Cobain in his first-ever concert in Raymond, Washington in the spring of 1987.
And that same year, fans salivated over never-before-heard musical recordings of the alt-rock icon, dormant for 21 years, that surfaced ahead of filmmaker Brett Morgen’s film biography “Montage of Heck.”
Danny Goldberg, Nirvana’s manager, released a memoir this week about his time with Cobain and the band, titled “Serving the Servant.”
Nirvana wasn’t the first grunge or alt-rock band, but that breakthrough moment in the fall of 1991 remains perhaps their most important contribution to music. They helped pioneer a genre of rock and helped other Seattle bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden reach fans around the world.
“Even if people weren’t famous, 1992-1996 was a great time to hear local bands too,” said Wilder, who now lives in New York City. After the Nirvana show she became focused on checking out new music. But she never saw them, or Cobain, again.
“I kind of miss that era,” she said. “It was one of the happiest times of my life.”