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Teen Spirit: The making of Nirvana's landmark video

It was 20 years ago this week that Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s lead singer, guitarist, and creative force, was found dead at his Seattle home, having committed suicide. On April 10, Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Examiner looks back at the filming of the band’s landmark video, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” as told by two of the participants:

Nirvana's box set "With the Lights Out" featured the first known recording of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
DGC/UMe

In late 1988 or early 1989, music fan and aspiring photographer Kevin Estrada was photographing Soundgarden, who were then visiting Los Angeles. Estrada took note of lead singer Chris Cornell’s shirt, which plugged some band he’d never heard of: Nirvana. Cornell told him that Nirvana was another band on Soundgarden’s label, Sub Pop, they’d just released their first single, “Love Buzz,” and that they were a band well worth checking out. Estrada promptly went out and picked up the single: “And I fell in love with the band from then on.”

Estrada wasn’t just a budding photographer. Then attending UCLA, he also worked at the college's radio station, KLA, eventually becoming the station’s music director. As such, he was well placed to promote the band on the station. When Nirvana’s first album, "Bleach," came out, “We went crazy for it, and just kept playing it and playing it. And then when I saw them live they were everything I hoped for.”

Estrada and his friend Rob Cardenaz first saw Nirvana at an in-store appearance at Rhino Records in LA on June 23, 1989. “You couldn’t get in because there were too many people inside already!” Cardenaz recalled. “It was just a small little record store.” The two didn’t meet the band then, but when Nirvana returned to the LA area in February 1990, and Estrada interviewed them for KLA, a friendship was forged.

“We talked about music, we talked about their background, where they came from, we talked about [producer] Jack Endino, we talked about the tour,” said Estrada. “And then we got a little more personal. Kurt and I were really close in age, just a couple months apart. Somehow Saturday morning cartoons came up, and we started talking about cartoons and toys. And Kurt and I both were really excited about G.I. Joes and Evil Knievel toys, and I said that I still had mine and he wanted to come over and play with them. So it was a really really fun interview.”

Estrada and Cardenaz saw Nirvana at LA club Raji’s that same night (February 15, 1990), and would continue to see the band whenever they came to Los Angeles. But when they saw Nirvana at Jabberjaw on May 29, 1991, they could sense that the band was on the verge of a big change. Nirvana was in the midst of recording "Nevermind," and played a number of the songs that would later appear on the album. “It was a little more poppy, but in a good way,” Cardenaz recalled. “It sounded great; it was a good direction to go in, and the crowd responded well to it from the beginning.”

“It kept their sound, but the music also had a very radio appeal,” Estrada added. “We were kind of stuck in this murky area of music where it was either hair metal or it was really underground music. We needed something new and something refreshing to come out, and Nirvana seemed to be doing it. They had a heavy fuzzy underground sound, but they also knew how to milk a hook. I remember walking out of that show and we were all just really impressed with the new music.”

For the first time, the two found it difficult to hang out with the band after the show. “It was like, ‘Oh, there’s too many people around,” said Cardenaz. “There was already kind of that buzz that oh, these guys are going to be big. You can just tell. There was just something a little more special about them. Like it wouldn’t take them as long to become bigger.”

And when Estrada saw the band the next month at the Palladium, a woman turned to him as the band played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and said, “These guys are going to be huge.” It was a sign of things to come.

Coming up: the filming of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video here.

And the conclusion to the series here.