Major Nirvana show planned at Seattle's Experience Music Project
Seattle's Experience Music Project will present an exhibition, "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses," in spring of 2011.
Seattle Times arts writer
Exhibit details: Learn more at Experience Music Project's website: www.empsfm.org
Next April, Experience Music Project will open a full-scale exhibit about one of the biggest music stories ever to come out of the Pacific Northwest, "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses."
The show will run for two years, and includes previously unexhibited artwork by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, handwritten lyrics for the band's songs, and the first guitar Cobain ever destroyed onstage.
Numerous photographs and all sorts of memorabilia and oddities — even Cobain's potted-meat collection — will be on display.
More than 100 oral histories about Cobain, Nirvana and the wildly popular late 1980s-early '90s grunge scene (considered a subset of punk) have been assembled for the show.
Steve Fisk, co-producer of Nirvana's 1989 recording"Blew" is creating a musical soundtrack for the exhibit.
EMP senior curator Jacob McMurray is curating the show. In a phone interview earlier this week, McMurray noted, "I've been able to access a lot of material that no one has seen before." Much of it comes from Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic's own collection of memorabilia, including "candid photos," as McMurray describes them, from as long ago as 1986.
In a nice touch, the exhibit cases will be built from wood milled at Novoselic's farm in Southwest Washington.
"Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" will come 20 years after Nirvana's breakthrough album, "Nevermind," was released and 17 years after Cobain's suicide in his Seattle home.
McMurray confesses he saw Nirvana perform only once, in a 1992 show (McMurray was following Soundgarden and Alice in Chains more closely at the time). But for visitors to EMP, he says, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix are the main draws.
McMurray, who has curated and co-curated Hendrix exhibits, felt EMP had covered Hendrix well. Nirvana and Cobain, by comparison, were unexplored territory.
A good three-quarters of the material in "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" has never been publicly displayed. Some items come from EMP's collection of Nirvana-related material, but most of them are on loan to the museum.
While the exhibit won't skimp on the band's years of "epic grungeness" and international fame, McMurray says, it also will pay tribute to the trio as "normal hardworking guys that just wanted to be in a band."
Novoselic has been a key supporter of the exhibit. He's hands-off in his approach, McMurray says, "but extremely open with his materials."
In a statement about his old bandmate, Novoselic called Cobain "a visionary artist who touched people all over the world."
Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, who controls the Cobain estate, has also been "in the loop through the whole business," McMurray says, as has Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
Although the exhibit's focus is on Nirvana, it will provide "a wider sense of what was happening in the Northwest at the time," McMurray says. It will also place Nirvana in the context of the larger American punk and alternative rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the contributions of Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Hüsker Dü and other bands being taken into account.
McMurray hopes to counteract the innate tragedy of Cobain's story, culminating in his 1994 suicide, by putting an equal emphasis on the band's beginnings. When you look through the early archival materials, McMurray says, Nirvana's "sense of humor [and] sense of excitement" jumps out at you.
Cobain-as-doomed-rock-star, inevitably, is one aspect of the band's story. "But that's not who Nirvana was in its entirety," McMurray says. During discussions on when to open the exhibit, he argued firmly against April 5, the anniversary of Cobain's death. "I sort of indicated that that would be a bad date." The show will open April 16.
The enduring appeal of Nirvana, as McMurray sees it, stems from Cobain's songwriting, especially his lyrics, which rarely spell anything out. That allows listeners "to make the songs their own," he feels.
"Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" replaces EMP's "Northwest Passage," a general survey of the Northwest music scene that has been on display for 10 years. ("A lot of those objects really need a rest," McMurray says.) The Nirvana exhibit will be the first in a series of two-year shows that offer "specific explorations of Northwest bands or scenes."
There will be no extra charge for the Nirvana show, which is expected to bump up EMP's attendance numbers. Right now, McMurray says, EMP is getting "a pretty steady half-million visitors a year."
"Nirvana" will be the biggest exhibit about the band ever to be mounted anywhere, McMurray believes.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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