Nirvana’s Forgotten Tacoma Connection

— by Quinten Stewart

As a lifelong resident of the Northwest who grew up outside of the Puget Sound region, it always rubbed me the wrong way that my favorite band was so strongly associated with a city which they had little connection to. I am, of course, talking about Nirvana. The grunge band has become an icon of Seattle, but looking back on their early history, there are few connections to find between the two. They were formed in Aberdeen, Washington, a small logging town near the Pacific coast. And much of their early work was created while Kurt Cobain lived in Olympia. Despite this, if you do some more digging, you can begin to find links between the popular band and the Grit City. Before they wrote themselves into music history, they were a group of kids looking for a show to play. And they found some of their first right here in Tacoma.

Next to the corner of 56th and M Street, in South Tacoma, sits a reddish brown building. Outside of a stand that looks like a former marquee, it is fairly unassuming. Today it is a church, but over 30 years ago it would live a short lifespan as the Tacoma Community World Theater, an all ages venue that provided a home for local punk rock.

On the left: The theater as it appeared in the late 1980’s. Image via discogs.com.
On the right: The building as it appears today, now a church. Author photo, March 2021.

According to livenirvana.com, a comprehensive fan website that has catalogued nearly all of Nirvana’s past, the band first played here in April of 1987, under the name of Skid Row. It is recorded as their 5th performance ever, and if you want to say, their first real show (the prior ones had been at bars or house shows). Over the next year, before ever stepping foot in Seattle, they would play here six times, under the names Bliss, Pen Cap Chew, Ted Ed Fred, and the priorly mentioned Skid Row. And at the final show, in March of 1988, they would play under the name Nirvana for the first time, a name that would stick for good.

Nirvana nearly played their “debut” for SubPop records, the Seattle label that first helped them find success, at the World Theater a month later in April of 1988. Sadly, the theater had shut down by then, and the show was moved to Seattle.

Click Here to watch the full January 1988 performance at the Community Theater.

According to livenirvana.com, the band also held numerous practice sessions in Tacoma. In the mid-to-late 80’s, Cobain lived in Olympia and was involved in the Riot Grrrl scene there. He wrote several of Nirvana’s most famous songs there, and would then travel up to Tacoma for practice, as bassist Krist Novaselic was living there at the time. They would also use a friend’s backyard barn in Tacoma to practice several times in 1991, including to record the demo that would be used to make their breakout album Nevermind just a few months later.

The band also fired their drummer at the time and replaced him with a new one from Tacoma. In his Journals, which contains the letter in which he fired said drummer for not making practice, Cobain wrote of the new drummer: “His name is Chad, he’s from Tacoma, and he can make it to practice every night” (Cobain, p.16). Chad Channing would go on to play with the band for two years, and would appear on the majority of the tracks on their first album Bleach. Meaning yes, a musician from Tacoma was a full on, legit member of Nirvana. Channing would eventually leave the band, however he would only be replaced by the legendary Dave Grohl, leaving him in pretty good company.

There is a bit of poeticism in Channings legacy though. The Tacoma drummer would end up featuring on only one song off of the bands hit record Nevermind, a song called “Polly”, which was ironically based on a story Cobain had read about a girl who had been abducted from the Tacoma Dome.

Cobain’s Journals also give a few more references to Tacoma. He writes about him and his friends making movies at Never Never Land, a fantasy type park that once existed in Pt. Defiance park next to Fort Nisqually (Cobain, p.3). He also wrote about a music store he went to on South Tacoma Way, saying that it “reeks of suburban subdivision hell” (Cobain, p.71). While not too interesting, it is somewhat fun to read about the man’s mundane experiences with our city.

Nirvana would play their seventh and final show in Tacoma in January of 1990, at another short lived venue called Legends, which was located on the corner of 13th and Fawcett near downtown Tacoma. Click Here to watch Nirvana’s full performance at Legends. This is also Channing’s only performance with the band in Tacoma.

On the left: Poster for the Legends performance with fellow grunge legends the Melvins. Image via livenirvana.com
On the right: Ticket stub from the performance via livenirvana.com

On the left: Photo from the concert of the band performing. Image by Elliott Tripoli via livenirvana.com.
On the right: The former venue as it appears today. The facade has been preserved, but the interior has been turned into a parking garage. Author photo, March 2021.

In the late 80’s it would have been difficult to predict not only how successful Nirvana would become, but also how much they propelled the Northwest to the national stage. To this day we view them, and Kurt Cobain himself, as icons of our little corner of the country, pushing flannels and cardigan sweaters to kids in cul-de-sacs everywhere. And so it’s difficult to imagine that at one point, there wasn’t much separating this band from every other group of kids playing gritty hard rock, just looking for a venue to host them. And Tacoma gave them that venue, and in doing so, allowed them to take a massive step forward in music history. All we have now is grainy video and photos, but hopefully we can begin to remember the start that Tacoma gave to the biggest sound in grunge.

Sources:

Special thanks to Charles Futh and livenirvana.com for allowing me to use  their vast collection of original photos, posters, dates, and more. This article would not have been possible without them.

Quinten Stewart wrote this article as his final project for Musical History of Tacoma, a class taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington Tacoma.

3 thoughts on “Nirvana’s Forgotten Tacoma Connection

  1. World theater had a few faces that I know of before the world theater it was a xxx theater for a long time I know some one that him and his wife seen deep throat there lol when I was in grade school it was a family theater and I do remember when bands played there too I live 4 blocks from it

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  2. I heard somewhere that kurt first used heroin that he bought at the tacoma rescue mission. I would like to know when because I was going there to buy heroin daily around that time and I think I talked to him and novaselic there once. I’m 11 years older than kurt so I probably didn’t know the crowd he hung with.

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