"Sometimes when you're scared and your adrenaline's pumping, you just start beating the shit out of your instrument": revisiting Nirvana's electrifying 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live

Kurt Cobain on Saturday Night Live
(Image credit: NBC)

On the day that Nevermind hit the top of the US charts, Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live for the first time. It was a cause for celebration. But it was also the beginning of the end.

The second week of January 1992 was a period of frantic activity for the band. On the day before the SNL broadcast, they'd recorded a set for 120 Minutes at MTV Studios in New York, where Kurt Cobain's mother Wendy and Dave Grohl's mum Virginia met for the first time. Later, Kurt and Courtney Love were interviewed for a cover story for Sassy, a magazine aimed at teenage girls. 

Then it was on to the SNL studios to rehearse the two tracks they'd perform on the show, Smells Like Teen Spirit and the frantic Territorial Pissings. Both the show's producers and the Nirvana's management wanted the more sedate, radio-friendly Come As You Are to be the second song, but the band were having none of it. Neither would they rehearse the show's climactic, instrument-smashing finale, much to the chagrin of the show's director, who wanted every last shot perfectly choreographed.

On the day of the show, things began to get messy. The band attended a photo shoot at the apartment of Michael Lavine, whose photographs of bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Monster Magnet, Sonic Youth, The Flaming Lips and many more were compiled in the book Noise From the Underground, and whose portrait of Nirvana adorned the inner sleeve of Nevermind.

"They hung out at my house the whole day," Lavine recalled. "Kurt was so fucked up he could barely keep his eyes open or stand up. The tension in that room was so thick you could cut it with a knife."

Kurt also borrowed a marker pen from Lavine so that he could scrawl the crudely-drawn fish logo of post-hardcore punks Flipper onto his t-shirt, a garment he was still wearing when the band hit the SNL stage that evening (Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic were both sporting Melvins shirts). But if Kurt was fucked up, it didn't affect Nirvana's performance. 

“I had been waiting for this moment my entire life, to actually play on Saturday Night Live,” Dave Grohl revealed in an SNL video in 2018. “And sometimes when you’re scared and your adrenaline’s pumping, you just start beating the shit out of your instrument. We started into Smells Like Teen Spirit, and my left stick broke. I broke my stick on my snare drum.”

The momentum accelerated during a frenzied Territorial Pissings, with the equipment well and truly trashed. Krist Novoselic (now wearing an L7 shirt) then enlivened the show's closing credits by smooching Grohl and Cobain, in order to "piss off the rednecks and homophobes", as the latter later revealed. 

It was a moment of delirious, unfettered triumph. Saturday Night Live. Michael Jackson's Dangerous knocked off the top of the chart. A generation of young Americans as enthused by what they'd seen as their parents had been watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan

For Dave Grohl, the night was bitter-sweet. The moment he'd dreamt of had finally arrived. But after the show, he finally realised that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were abusing heroin, and the band would never been the same again. The mountain had been climbed. Now the dangerous descent began.    

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.