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A day to remember: shooting Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' video

The final article in our series taking you behind the scenes of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video shoot.

The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” shoot went on longer than Nirvana had anticipated. When director Sam Bayer began shooting a sequence involving “metal guys” who ripped their shirts off to reveal their tattoos (a sequence that ultimately wasn’t used), photographer Kevin Estrada had time for a quick photo shoot with his longtime friends in Nirvana.

During the break, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain began running around with what he assumed was a towel tied around his neck like a cape. “He was running around like Superman — cracking up and laughing,” said Estrada. Then Estrada noticed that the “towel” was actually a tapestry that featured a picture of Jesus. “So I put it on Kurt, I laid it over his body, and then I put the face over his face,” Estrada explained. “And I grabbed his guitar and had him hold it. Kurt’s cracking up underneath, and I said, ‘Kurt, you look like Punk Rock Jesus!’” Estrada got two pictures of Cobain as "Punk Rock Jesus," and also took pictures of the band; the only photos of Nirvana at the “Teen Spirit” video shoot.

The shoot lasted all day and into the night. “But we didn’t get tired of hearing the song,” said Estrada’s friend, Rob Cardenaz, also present that day. “I mean, the whole thing was exciting. It was the first video shoot that I’d ever been to. The hard part was trying to get our seats back where we wanted to be, right up front.”

“By the end of the day, you were tired and definitely weren’t as intense as at the beginning,” Cardenaz admits. “But once the started it was still just fun. It progressively got more and more crazy as it went along. I even had to take my glasses off, because I was afraid of losing them. Towards the end, they finally said, ‘Okay, go ahead, this is going to be the last take, you can go destroy everything, do whatever you want.’ That’s when everybody was allowed to just run across everything. The final hurrah I guess.”

It was then that Cardenaz and Estrada chose to duck out. “We ended up leaving probably around 10 o’clock, and it went on until 11 or midnight,” Estrada said. “We were just exhausted. Especially after the big thing on the floor where everything’s getting destroyed; after that we were like, what else is there to do? We’re exhausted, we’re out of here. So we said goodbye to the band.”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” made its debut on September 14, 1991, on MTV’s alternative music show “120 Minutes.” “I was just shaking,” Estrada recalled of the first time he saw the video. “First I was shaking because I was so excited for them. And then I was shaking because I was seeing me and my friend on this video. Even my dad, who doesn’t watch MTV, called me and said, ‘Hey, are you in a video? I saw this video and you’re jumping around, going crazy — is that you?’ And it was just Wow, even my dad has seen Nirvana. It was just surreal.”

“I was just blown away by how everything plays out with the song,” said Cardenaz. “And then seeing myself and my friends in there — we actually got in the video, you can see us, so it was pretty exciting. I thought it was a pretty powerful video, but I didn’t think it was going to take over the world like it did.”

By January 1992, “Nevermind” would be at the top of the “Billboard” charts, and Estrada’s and Cardenaz’s relationship with Nirvana changed forever. “The whole Nirvana thing just blew up and they just became bigger than life,” said Estrada. “And all of a sudden, there was no more time to just hang out and do nothing with them. I couldn’t sit in the van with Kurt anymore, I couldn’t just sit in the dressing room and talk about cartoons. It was a whole different world. He was being pulled in 20 different directions.”

But they’ll also always be a part of Nirvana’s story for their participation in the making of the band’s breakthrough video. And it still remains a favorite song. “People have told me about songs that get played out, but if it comes on the radio I’ll just hang out and listen,” says Cardenaz. “It’s one of those songs that’s still fresh to me. And when I hear it, it still invokes those little nostalgic feelings. I’m definitely not tired of it. I’ll listen to it. I won’t change the station.”

Read Part One of this series here. Read Part Two of this series here.