Nirvana at Henrys – a view from Caroline Barry

Caroline Barry put out a call a number of years ago on PROC seeking interviewees for an article that she was writing on Nirvana playing Henrys. Here is that article in full. For further blog posts from Caroline you can check out http://www.misspennydreadful.blogspot.com

Twenty five years ago, on August 20th 1991, Cork city played host to an unknown grunge band. Three hundred and fifty people crowded into Sir Henry’s nightclub to hear one of the biggest alternative bands play.

This band was Sonic Youth and while most people had attended hoping to hear the band play tracks from their new album, no one attending the gig could predict that the support act would end up outselling Sonic Youth and becoming the defining acts of the 90s music scene.

That band, was Nirvana.

Growing up in Cork city, I missed the Sir Henry’s era. However being an alternative creative teenager in Cork, we heard the stories, the legends and the myths of the venue. The Nirvana gig tales didn’t seem real to us, as Nirvana in our teenage years of the early noughties, were a massive influence and commemorated on our T-shirts and in our CD collections.

It is difficult for those of us used to today’s gig prices of seventy or eighty euro for one performer to imagine being charged £7.50 to see two of the world’s best grunge acts perform in such a venue. Those in attendance at the gig were some of the first to hear Nirvana’s new single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ A song which later became an anthem to a new generation of music loving alternative teenagers which keeps appealing to generation after generation, passed down through time as a song that captures the grunge and alternative mood. Which given fashion’s current obsession with capturing the style of the 1990s – is now iconic given the raw power executed on the single. It remains as relevant today as it was then.

Sean O’ Neill, then manager of the nightclub remembers the gig, ‘Nirvana had a huge stage presence and were really powerful, you could see they could go huge. I did meet all members of both bands and Kurt was pretty quiet, shy even. Nice guy, they were all pretty cool.” He adds, “They did play Smells like Teen Spirit, last song if I remember correctly. The reaction of the crowd was great. I did go to ‘Bill and Bobs’, the chipper down the road to get burgers and chips for Nirvana and Sonic youth after the gig.’ Cork was lucky and Sir Henry’s was the perfect venue to play host to such an event as the venue had become legendary in its own right for being one of the best nightclubs in Cork. Less than six months in December 1991, the band released their album, Nevermind. Which went on to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the US billboard charts No.1 spot by selling 400,000 copies per week and resulting in several weeks at the top of the charts. This wasn’t Nirvana’s first album, but their second as ‘Bleach’ had been released in 1989 debuting at No.33 in the UK charts. In fact, most attending the gig had gone to hear Sonic Youth and not Nirvana, who were still relatively unknown with many choosing to skip the support act.

Nirvana were part of a major new music scene born in America, which originated in Seattle. Grunge had become the rebellious teenagers music of choice as bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had done for their parent’s generation. It gave disillusioned youth a means through which to rebel and provided a soundtrack to their angst. Bands such as the Melvins, Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill had already begun to make an impact on English and Irish charts and with Sonic Youth booked to play a venue in Cork, Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth’s lead singer and friend of Kurt Cobain, suggested the band support them on their tour. Sir Henry’s in 1991 had become legendary as one of Cork’s best known and best loved live music venues. Situated on Grand Parade in the heart of the city, it had been gathering a reputation for some of the biggest names in music since 1978. Providing a generation of Cork’s music lovers with the perfect venue to discover new music. There are websites, forums dedicated to keeping the Sir Henry’s legend alive by sharing photos, stories and DJ remixes. Many of the DJs who played there going on to fame as a result of club nights such as Sweat and Fish Go Deep.

While the building, which was demolished in 2002, is gone – the memories and feelings for the place still run deep in Cork’s nightclub history. While the club is known for its move into the dance scene of the 1990s which earned two ‘club of the month’ awards from MTV. It was also a rock venue originally. While managing the club, Sean O’ Neil remembers the increasing interest in dance music within the club. The dance music that came along in the early ‘90’s was a huge new movement and we happened to be doing a dance night since 1988 and it kind of evolved. There was no great plan but we were ahead of the game. By luck and things just happened. In 1988 it was widely regarded as a dance club.”

The subsequent popularity of Nirvana in Ireland meant that many were shocked when on April 8th 1994, just three years after the legendary gig and deep into the height of their worldwide fame, singer Kurt Cobain took his own life aged just 27. A reluctant poster boy for the grunge and alternative movement, Cobain struggled with his own fame before becoming addicted to heroin. He shot himself in his hotel room. Martin Leahy, a Sir Henry’s regular, who attended the gig remembers his shock at the announcement. . ‘His death was a real shock –I turned on Dave Fanning on the radio in my old red VW Golf Mk2. Fanning played 6 Nirvana tracks in a row so we knew something was up. Fanning came on and spoke about Cobain in the past tense – he didn’t give the details. We were pretty sad and held hands for a few seconds in the car.” He also remembers meeting Cobain at the gig. “I High-fived him after the set. He said “Thanks man, we had a blast”. Jesus Kurt boy, so did we.”

Although it’s been thirty two years since Sir Henry’s first opened its door, the decision to close the bar in 2002 meant that Sir Henry’s has achieved almost cult status amongst my generation in Cork. Fans talk of discovering dance music, the sweat of the dance floor, the legends that took to the stage launching careers. It provides a series of powerful memories of a city that begun to be known for great live music and it has become part of Cork’s social history. Those in my generation, myself included, wished we were of an age where it had still been alive as turning eighteen in 2003 meant that I missed the era of Sir Henry’s.

Sean O Neill comments that “The site is now still derelict. Kind of an apt testament in a twisted way to how things have gone in this country. Yes, it was falling down but Cork has really missed it, you can’t just go out and buy history off the shelf. I remember it as an oasis, different and welcoming the different, putting on shows, taking risks, and the people who went there were just incredible. The reaction to the club closing was a bit muted as it had lost its sheen and it was quite a slow, drawn out death. Over the years more and more are saddened by its demise. ”

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