The night before Nevermind: Bullet LaVolta's drummer on opening for Nirvana in Boston on September 23, 1991

Nirvana, Live at WFNX's 8th Birthday Party, September 23, 1991, at Axis, Boston

EDITOR'S NOTE: It was no accident that, the night before Nevermind came out -- September 23, 1991 -- Nirvana chose to play Boston. (It ranks second only to James Brown at the Garden in our list of the 40 Greatest Concerts in Boston History.) WFNX had been among the band's earliest supporters at radio and had world-premiered "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; now, Nirvana were the guests of honor at FNX's birthday party. Also on the bill that night? Only the best Boston band of its era: Bullet LaVolta, whose major-label debut, Swandive, came out the same day as Nevermind. This week, we asked BLV drummer Todd Philips for his recollections of that night. You can also read more on that night from Nirvana biographer Everett True and Mary Lou Lord -- including her answer to the question, "Did Kurt really smell like Teen Spirit?" -- in our archives.

I'll never forget the day that I received an advanced cassette (yes, cassette) of Nirvana's Nevermind. I was having drinks at my place with Joey Santiago of the Pixies. We popped the tape in and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was unleashed. Unleashed. That's what if felt like. I looked at Joey and he stared back at me with that "ho-ly-shit" type of stare.

"We're dead," he exclaimed.

I laughed, and then exclaimed soberly, "It sounds like you guys, but better..."

He was referring to the fact that Nirvana's Nevermind, the Pixies' Trompe Le Monde, and my band Bullet LaVolta's major label debut Swandive were all coming out within the same two week period. (Pearl Jam's Ten, RHCP's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger dropped that same month.)

Fast forward three months: Kurt St. Thomas at WFNX had jumped on both Nevermind and Swandive early, so when FNX was setting up a block party on Lansdowne Street the third Monday of September in 1991, it only made sense to book the two bands together -- in Axis, the smaller club of the evening's festivities. Smashing Pumpkins, whose Caroline debut Gish had done well that year, would open the show.

I shaved my head that day in some misguided response to the "grunge" phenomenon (Damaged was making way more sense to me than Pearl Jam's debut), and walked from my apartment on Beacon Street to Axis for sound check. Nirvana was there already, careening through a blistering version of  "Aneurysm." The volume was loud -- uncomfortably loud. I gave their sound man, Craig Montgomery, the stink-eye and told Cobain after the check that his Univox Mosrite copy sounded too thin. He laughed and said, "Girls always tell me that it's too thin."

Hand it to Kurt, way ahead of the "That's what she said" curve.

LaVolta did our check. All was sounding good. MTV approached all three bands about doing some kind of impromptu video interview at Bill's Bar. We walked over and were met by an MTV producer, armed with a bucket of Crisco and the game Twister. Her vision, "Naked greasy Twister with interview," seemed funny at the time, but the taping ended up being a bust. I sat out and tried to hit on D'arcy.

Smashing Pumpkins hit the stage at about 9. They were only allotted 35 minutes as they were considered the "warm up" band. After opening with "I Am One," Billy Corgan exclaimed to the crowd, "It's gonna be a quick fuck!" He was right. They cranked through 80 percent of Gish with machine gun precision and were done. The crowd smoked a collective post-coital cigarette as we set up our gear.

Bullet LaVolta were known for being one of the better live bands in the country back in the day (it was a downright work ethic of ours), and I've been told that we didn't disappoint that night. We played a strong set that night consisting of mostly new material. Yukki Gipe was in top Iggy-meets-an-F-15-bomber persona, and the packed house was circulating our frenetic energy back at us. Duke's amp blew a fuse one third of the way in, crushing our momentum for an instant until James Iha saved the day by lending us his Marshall. We launched into "Baggage," and all was right with the world again. In retrospect, it didn't really matter if were on or off that night (it was a 6 out of 10 in my opinion), this was Nirvana's night.

If Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth had all gotten base hits to load the bases, Nirvana had just crushed the pitch and hit the grand slam with Nevermind. This was their moment in history. The Geffen execs at the show knew it. The radio programmers knew it. The fans knew it. Nirvana knew it, but didn't give a fuck. That attitude was exactly what made them special and was exactly what made the show that much more important. They played a raucus 60-minute set, probably no better or no worse then the hundreds of shows they had played leading up to that moment, but the excitement in the room of the impending rock revolution was downright palpable. "Sliver", the Sub Pop 7-inch that showed off Cobain's ridiculous pop sensibilities for the first time, was my personal highlight of the evening. Sometime around "Drain You," I looked around the room and noticed that everyone had this dough-eyed yet-wide-awake look on their faces; that they were really seeing something important, or really being a part of something important. It was hot, sweaty, loud and reckless. And quite literally the precise moment in musical history when that weird glitch in the cassette tape took place; when good music became popular . . . if only for an instant.

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