Although it was October, the weather was unseasonably warm and humid. Inside Trees, the air conditioner that was set on high was having little effect. As the sold-out crowd made its way into the venue to catch Nirvana — one of the hottest bands in the country at the moment — there was a palpable sense that something bad was going to happen.
"It was very, very hot inside that building," says Jeffrey Liles, current artistic director of the Kessler Theater, who back in 1991 served in a similar position at Trees. "And there were as many people outside the building as inside."
With this week's release of the 20th anniversary, four-CD edition of Nirvana's landmark effort Nevermind, it's time to revisit Nirvana's chaotic and infamous Dallas tour stop from the original release's promotional tour. In many ways, the concert has become the most legendary show ever to take place in Dallas. Although only about a thousand people were actually in attendance, thousands more claim to have been there. But for those who were there — fans, musicians, security and management — it was an unforgettable experience.
"I was at Trees that night," says Old 97s bassist Murry Hammond. "I had heard about the band from the first record, but the new one was freaking everyone out. I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about. It was actually the last time I ever slam-danced. I lost my hat during my slam-dance swan song."
Nirvana's second album, Nevermind, had turned the scruffy trio from Seattle into superstars. Success had seemingly come overnight for the act, and their buzz was sweeping the nation.
"There was this frenetic excitement at Trees where everyone understood that this was the last time a band like this was ever going to play at a venue this size ever again," says another attendee, Lance Crayon, now an English teacher and, at the time, an employee at a local movie theater.
The tour had been booked to Trees months earlier — well before Nevermind's release — and Nirvana's rise had happened so quickly that certain venues just weren't large enough to accommodate the newfound hordes. Trees happened to be one of those clubs. Somehow, though, the show went on.
"The club was too small for the band and there was a bad vibe all night," says Gary Floyd, former singer for Sister Double Happiness, one of the two opening bands on the bill.
That bad vibe had started taking hold much earlier in the day.
"Before Nirvana even did the sound check, there were problems," Liles says. "The band's management brought about 40 posters for each member to sign. Kurt [Cobain] spent five minutes on each poster, drawing bizarre little pictures that certainly weren't autographs. It was in the afternoon. I knew from that point on, things were going to be difficult."
One of the biggest problems was security. Trees hadn't been open for very long at that point, and Nirvana's road manager was angry that there wasn't a security divide between the stage and the audience.
"They told us that, if we didn't have a moat, then we had to hire three security guards to keep people off the stage," Liles says.
Enter one Turner Van Blarcum, a union stagehand who was brought in at the last minute to complete the trio of bouncers facing a seemingly impossible task.
"I've always felt sorry for Turner," Liles says. "The guy never even liked Nirvana, and he was put in an unmanageable position."
Van Blarcum refused to comment for this article. But his story has reached mythical heights.
Early into the show, it was clear that keeping the fans off the stage was going to be troublesome. Even with security pushing the crowd back, Cobain began gesturing for fans to get onto the stage. He then stage dived into the crowd, jumping off Van Blarcum's back, Liles says. As Van Blarcum, among others, tried to pull the singer back onto the stage, Cobain popped the bouncer in the head with his guitar.
Van Blarcum then retaliated with a right cross to Cobain's jaw. After that, all hell broke loose. Van Blarcum tried to explain what happened to whomever would listen as two band members scattered off stage. Almost immediately, the crowd started chanting, "Bullshit." Watching the now-available-on-Youtube videos from the night (shot by Brad Featherstone from stage left), it's clear: The evening looked ripe for a riot.
"I vividly remember us making the decision to throw on 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' when we were trying to get the band back out after the fight," says Alex Luke, former host of "The Adventure Club" on KDGE-FM 102.1 The Edge. "It was a half-joking attempt to stir up the crowd."
The crowd hardly needed to be stirred up.
"Cobain stayed on stage and made noises with his guitar," recalls Liles. "He did this for a minute or so and then threw his guitar into the drum set and walked off. After a few minutes, I realized that I had to get these guys back together on stage or this show wasn't going to continue."
Fans knew that things could have quickly gotten ugly: "Had Nirvana not returned, I feel certain Trees would have been demolished," Crayon says.
Liles found drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic backstage. They were willing to give it a go. Finding Cobain would prove more difficult.
"He was in a broom closet," Liles says. "And there was some skinny kid trying to sell Cobain some smack or something. I literally took the stuff out of Kurt's hand and I told him he was coming with me."
Somehow, the show restarted. But Van Blarcum still had revenge on his mind. He waited out front for Cobain to come out after the show. Liles saw Van Blarcum and called a cab with instructions to meet the band in the back of the venue.
"I pushed the band out the door and into the alley and told the cab driver to get the fuck out of here," Liles says.
As the cab slowly pulled away, Nirvana's road manager came out of Trees yelling about the band not knowing what hotel everyone was staying in. When the cab stopped amidst the confusion, Van Blarcum spotted Cobain inside.
"Turner ran up and punched all the glass out of the back of that cab," Liles says. "The three guys in Nirvana were just sitting there covered in glass. I will never forget that scene."
Van Blarcum was eventually subdued and Nirvana made it to the right hotel. The band ended up paying Van Blarcum's medical bills and for damages to the venue.
"Look, I love Nirvana as much as anyone," Liles says. "But, on that night, [Cobain] was a douche."
Douche or not, Cobain and his antics still resonate with those lucky enough to honestly claim they were in attendance.
"In rock 'n' roll, you don't always realize when what you're seeing is history," Hammond says. "But that one was major. I think a lot of people in that room sensed it."