How students brought the world's biggest band to campus 25 years ago
It’s 1993 and Kim Greenfield is sitting on her living room floor, talking on the phone with Nirvana’s attorneys.
She’s shuffling through 30 pages of paperwork for the grunge band’s upcoming UB performance when she sees an interesting detail in the band’s requests.
Nirvana wants several bags of M&Ms –– every color except green.
As director of the former University Union Activities Board, Greenfield oversaw an all-student staff and helped create campus events.
But on Nov. 5, 1993, her job was to tell her staff to handpick hundreds of green M&Ms out of Nirvana’s candy supply.
“Somebody had to sit and pull all the green ones out,” Greenfield said. “It kind of plays to that piece of artists being spoiled or being kind of big for their britches as they get more famous.”
It was one of many intricacies that went into creating one of the most memorable shows to take place on UB’s campus –– Nirvana’s 1993 In Utero Tour stop at Alumni Arena.
Twenty-five years ago and just five months before lead singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Nirvana performed in front of 7,000 attendees, many of whom were students. The show featured everything Nirvana fans would expect: crowd-surfing students, a sweaty mosh pit below the stage and Cobain arguing with security. But the difference between the concert and most –– if not all –– other shows on Nirvana’s arena tour that year lay in those who made it happen.
College students made it happen.
They booked the band after renegotiating terms. They set up the unconventional stage overnight. And on Nov. 5, they helped Alumni Arena reach Nirvana.
A concert ‘In Bloom’
Before Nirvana left its mark on UB and before Greenfield and her army of 20-somethings brought the then-biggest name in rock music to campus, someone had to get the band’s attention.
Most ’93 UUAB staff The Spectrum spoke with didn’t want to take credit for the idea of bringing Nirvana to campus, and credited Kathleen Duffy, UUAB’s music coordinator at the time. Duffy, who died in 2017, said in The Spectrum’s concert coverage that UUAB –– a former division of Sub-Board I –– “didn’t really do major stuff” until she joined the year before.
So she took it upon herself to make her first show a large one. She said she called booking agents and asked for Cypress Hill, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, among others. Whether through Duffy’s timing or pure luck as some suggested, Nirvana’s agents were the first to bite.
UUAB’s first bid for Nirvana was $45,000. Agents turned it down, but after UUAB renegotiated terms and promised a “massage therapist,” it secured a full-length tour stop on North Campus.
For what would now be $78,000 due to inflation, UUAB booked a band that holds two of Rolling Stone’s top seven albums of the ’90s.
The concert was roughly the equivalent of today’s Student Association booking modern Billboard chart-toppers like Kendrick Lamar or Drake, whose booking fees max out at roughly $1 million, for 12 percent of their booking value.
‘Something in the Way’
Joseph Schneider, UUAB’s assistant music coordinator at the time, didn’t anticipate the challenge he was presentedon Nov. 4.
Nirvana’s contract said the band’s stage had to be “as wide as the lighting was tall,” something Schneider had never seen before.
“You look at a stage and it’s usually more of a panorama: it’s really wide but the light rig is not that high off the deck,” Schneider said. “But they wanted the width of the stage to be the same as the height of the light rig.”
Schneider was also a sound engineer at the time. It was his job to climb the stage’s towers and build the light rig.
And he had to do it overnight.
The day before the show, the basketball team used Alumni to practice, which conflicted with show preparation. So Schneider and his peers started building the stage at 10 p.m. They didn’t finish until the next morning –– just hours before the concert.
“It was pretty nuts, but it looked amazing,” Schneider said. “Of all the shows that we did, one of the reasons why it was really cool is that it was a pretty well-produced tour. … It was a non-traditional setup that the towers went up really high.”
But Nirvana couldn’t appreciate Schneider’s stage at Alumni Arena just yet. Someone had to drive the band members around. That person was Anna Olson, then-graphic artist and production assistant for UUAB. She worked as a rider, or someone who shops with and transports band members for the show.
Olson said she didn't have the privilege of transporting Cobain to UB or bringing drummer Dave Grohl to the mall, and she also didn’t have the privilege of hand-picking hundreds of green M&Ms out of bags.
But Olson drove bassist Krist Novoselic and the band’s accountant to and from the Adam’s Mark Hotel, although it did take longer than she anticipated.
“I got to the Adam’s Mark. They went inside and I waited. And I waited. And I waited,” Olson said. “I was like ‘I’m on a schedule here, I have to get back.’”
So Olson went inside the hotel to find out what the delay was. She asked the front desk where Nirvana’s accountant was.
“They just looked at me, like, ‘We’re not going to tell you where Nirvana’s hotel rooms are,’” Olson said. “And I’m like, ‘Ah, crap.’ We didn’t have cell phones. I didn't have any contact information. So I had to start wandering around.”
She went up to someone in the hotel to ask again, only to find out later on that she was talking to Nirvana’s touring guitarist Pat Smear, now a member of the Grammy-winning band Foo Fighters. Smear found Olson the accountant, and Olson drove back to Alumni Arena in time for the show.
At the venue, Public Safety took extra precaution.
Officers set up metal detectors at the door and confiscated over 30 knives and four or five “hits” of LSD, according to Spectrum archives. Even during the show, security paid close attention to crowd surfers.
But the show almost went uninsured if not for William Hooley, executive director of SBI.
Just two hours before Nirvana was set to perform, SBI’s insurance broker called Hooley, and said the insurance company was withdrawing the liability insurance for the concert.
The company was concerned about “injuries in the mosh pit,” according to Hooley.
The concert was already sold out, and SBI couldn’t offer a refund to 7,000 attendees, who each paid roughly $20 for entry. The refund would have costed SBI upwards of $140,000.
“I talked to the insurance company and got that person’s supervisor and basically said, ‘If you want to have a conversation about whether or not you offer liability insurance for concerts like this, we can have that discussion,’” Hooley said. “But you can’t have the discussion with me two hours before the show.”
After a “great deal of persuasion,” Hooley convinced the insurance company to keep the liability insurance.
Alumni Arena was ready for Nirvana.
‘Nevermind’ the mosh pit
When Alumni Arena’s doors opened on Nov. 5, 1993, 7,000 students piled into the venue. But many students were turned away from seeing Nirvana and opening acts Boredoms and the Meat Puppets.
“The UB fire marshall looked at how many people were on the floor and he said, ‘This is too many people, you have to stop letting people in,’” Schneider said. “We were capped a little bit below the number that we were hoping to get to. Eventually, we stopped letting people in.”
In The Spectrum’s show coverage, editor Hakeem Oseni II wrote that Nirvana turned Alumni into a “human washing machine,” as he saw sweaty students getting tossed around the general admission floor.
But he also remembered issues between Cobain and security.
In a recording of the show, the band stops performing “In Bloom” and Cobain addresses the show’s security workers, who he thought were mishandling fans.
“Hey you guys in yellow, just get out of here,” Cobain said to security employees. “This is ridiculous. You’re completely f––––g up everybody’s enjoyment right in the front by standing up and holding everyone by their necks. There’s nothing they can do about it. It’s not their fault.”
Cobain then walked off stage and talked with public safety employee Jordan Schlansky, who was working at the front of the stage, according to Spectrum archives.
Schlansky told The Spectrum in ’93 that he explained the situation to Cobain.
“Some fans were just trying to get on stage and Nirvana kept commenting on how unfair we were to them,” Schlansky said. “When Kurt [Cobain] jumped off stage, I explained the situation to him and he apologized and made an announcement.”
“From now on, nobody gets on top of everybody’s shoulders and swings around if you’re not hurt because they think that’s a sign of distress and it’s just f––––g up the whole show,” Cobain said.
Public Safety arrested four people for marijuana possession, and two people were thrown out of the show, one for “swinging” at security, according to Spectrum archives.
But even with the security-related misunderstanding, Nirvana still played through its massive setlist.
In 90 minutes, the band ran through some of its biggest hits, like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Come As You Are,” and closed out the night with a jam session to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Joe Morgan, a ’95 alum, still remembers the show and said he wishes he paid closer attention 25 years ago.
“From a personal perspective, it's one of the cooler stories that I get to tell people … especially young people,” Morgan said. “I saw Nirvana at college. That sounds kind of cool.”
“Obviously, we didn’t know that [Cobain] would [die] a few months later, and this would all just be over that fast. We didn’t know that Dave Grohl would go on to this whole other amazing career with the Foo Fighters and everything.”
Schneider, who often reflects on his time at UUAB, said he hopes his club’s concerts had a lasting impression for alumni like Morgan.
“I did not bring Nirvana to UB,” Schneider said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time where a lot of really great things were happening with a lot of amazing people.”