On June 5, 1988, Nirvana, an obscure grunge band from Aberdeen, plays a set at the Central Tavern in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Among the handful of people in attendance are Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop Records. The men will be impressed enough to formalize a relationship with Nirvana, and on November 1, 1988, Sup Pop will release the band's debut single, kick-starting Nirvana on its path to rock and roll immortality.
A Quiet Night at the Central
Central Tavern booking agent Jan Gregor had scheduled two unproven Northwest groups to play for what was expected to be a small crowd on June 5, 1988, a Sunday evening. The scheduled lineup was Zoomorphics opening for Doll Squad. The Zoomorphics were a Portland quartet that would cut one single for Tsunami Records in 1989 before slipping into obscurity. Doll Squad was an all-female Seattle band that had formed the year prior and was comprised of Mara Dralle (vocals), Cathy Watson (lead guitar), Helen Halloran (rhythm guitar), Annette Billesbach (bass), and Patty Schemel (drums), who would go on to success with Courtney Love’s band, Hole. Later, a third band, Nirvana, was added to the bill.
Nirvana -- Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) [vocals / guitar], Krist Novoselic (b. 1965) [bass], Chad Channing (b. 1967) [drums] -- had already recorded some songs with audio engineer Jack Endino at the Reciprocal Recording studio in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Impressed by the young band’s sound, Endino passed along cassette tapes to three local music insiders. One was Jonathan Poneman, who along with Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt had been pushing their increasingly influential label -- and the marketing concept of "grunge" – by releasing records by exciting new Seattle bands including Green River, Soundgarden, Swallow, and Blood Circus.
Poneman was intrigued enough by Nirvana’s nascent talents to get them booked to play one of the label’s "Sub Pop Sunday" showcase nights (along with Blood Circus) on April 24, 1988, at The Vogue in Belltown. However, Nirvana was reportedly so shambolic that Pavitt wasn’t convinced that Sub Pop could work with them. After pondering the matter for several weeks, Poneman phoned Gregor at the Central to ask a favor. "Jonathon Poneman called me up and said he had heard a band ... and he wanted his partner Bruce to hear them. 'Can you stick them on a night coming up?' 'Sure, how about Sunday, June 5? They can play second between Zoomorphics and Doll Squad'" (Gregor interview with author).
Poneman asked for a second favor the day before the show. "Jonathon calls me back a week later: 'Hey, it's a Sunday night, so Bruce and I don’t want to stay out too late. Can you have them play first?' 'Sure, Jonathon, whatever you like. We’ll put Nirvana on first'" (Gregor interview). Gregor proceeded to mark up his booking calendar for June 5, inserting a two-ended arrow showing that he was switching the opening bands’ performance sequence.
As with so many facets of the Nirvana backstory, details about certain incidents – as recollected by differing witnesses – diverge wildly. In the case of the band’s earliest Seattle gigs, this is most certainly true. Some people have maintained that Nirvana played a Central Tavern gig prior to June – but no evidence of that has yet surfaced. In another telling, no audience showed up for a Central gig and the band loaded its gear back up and went and drank beer under the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Yet another story asserts that with no audience present, the headlining band, Doll Squad, bailed out before performing. That final type of scenario, Gregor explained, was not unprecedented on a slow Sunday night in Pioneer Square.
But what seems well established about June 5, 1988, is that the Central was open for business that evening, and perhaps a half-dozen witnesses were present when Nirvana took the stage. Besides Poneman, Pavitt, Central owner Mike Downing, the bartender, and soundman Jim Anderson, one additional attendee was Chris Knab, manager at the University of Washington’s radio station KCMU-FM. Knab would recall Nirvana’s performance, saying, "Bruce and Jon were at the front of the stage, shaking their heads up and down. They must have seen something no one else could, because I thought they sucked" (Cross).
Nirvana hadn't played many gigs yet (and those included slapdash beer-bash house parties in Raymond and Olympia). But the Central show convinced Pavitt of the band’s merit. Discussions followed, and a few days later, on June 11, Nirvana was back in the studio recording with Endino. The end result was the November 1 inauguration of Sub Pop’s limited edition Singles Club subscription series with Nirvana’s debut single, "Love Buzz/"Big Cheese" (No. SP23). And with that, Nirvana had embarked on its path to rock and roll immortality.