The new Nirvana exhibit at Experience Music Project doesn’t bowl you over when you first walk in. No “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blasting over the loudspeakers, no looping video of Kurt Cobain crashing into a drum kit. It’s more subdued: gray walls, dim lighting, guitars behind glass casings. It feels very Pacific Northwest, like a drizzly day driving through Aberdeen. It feels right.
Senior curator Jacob McMurray wanted to go with a more contemplative mood for Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, and he’s certainly achieved that. The former Northwest Passage at EMP (home to the “Louie Louie” exhibit) has become a punk sanctuary. You could spend hours examining the 200-plus band artifacts and rock star ephemera—nearly half come straight from the attic of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic—and listening to 100 oral histories about the rise of the little grunge band that could. Former Nirvana and Soundgarden producer Steve Fisk created a special soundtrack for the exhibit: the sound of a guitar reverberating, much like the lingering resonance of the band itself. “The music’s definitely not supposed to rock—no drums,” he said yesterday (as I quietly panicked that I was talking to the Steve Fisk). “It’s about an hour of music with no melody.”
It rings behind you as you peer at the candid snapshots of Kurt, Krist (back when he was Chris), and drummer Chad Channing as teens; the photo that Chad’s mom saved (and framed) of Nirvana sharing the Moore Theatre marquee with Mudhoney and Tad. There’s a shot of the band stepping onto a plane in Australia during their 1992 Rolling Stone cover shoot, waving like goofy dignitaries; of Courtney Love pregnant; of the guys doing whippets with Sonic Youth. This is the best part of the exhibit, even more so than the busted guitars, wall-sized concert photos by Charles Peterson, or the original Sub Pop album cover art. It’s a glimpse at the boys acting like smartasses, being themselves, before they exploded on the national scene with Nevermind in 1991.
And in true EMP fashion, there are hours and hours of taped conversations telling that story, by everyone from Fisk and Novoselic (he does the entire audio tour) to Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Buzz Osborne of the Melvins.There’s also a history of punk and underground music through the ’80s and early ’90s, and a selection of sounds from the Pacific Northwest (I always forget Death Cab came from Bellingham) curated by Fisk. And an In Utero angel stands atop stacked roadie trunks, guarding it all.
View the slideshow above to get a glimpse of what’s on display. Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses opens on April 16 and will stay open through April 22, 2013.