In 1989 Sub Pop released Nirvana’s first album Bleach, and word of the (at the time) startlingly heavy and catchy masterpiece recorded with a tiny budget got around the indie underground rather quickly. I was late to that game—I remember I spent the summer of 1990 playing the shit out of Soundgarden’s Ultramega OK and Mudhoney’s first album and it wasn’t until September that a friend gave me this album I absolutely had to listen to: Bleach. Then that dominated my CD player for the next year or so.
A few months before that, on March 20, 1990, Nirvana took advantage of a relatively empty Evergreen State College campus (the institution is lovingly known as “TESC”) during Spring Break to “sneak into”—not sure how literally to take that—the campus TV studio and record some footage. What that session produced was experimental, heavy as shit, and generally quite interesting.
According to Jon Snyder, the director of the session, Cobain’s intention at that moment was to put together a VHS tape for fans to buy: “The original concept was to do stuff in the studio, then go to Aberdeen and shoot a bunch of other stuff and turn it into some hour-long thing they would sell to fans.”
Knowing that the studio was equipped with a green screen for chromakey work, Cobain brought along some videotapes with amusing and/or scary footage to project over/behind the band playing. Such a simple idea, but the execution was unexpectedly effective. For “School,” the footage was a montage featuring ‘70s heartthrobs Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett as well as a random assemblage of informercial-type clips and footage of high school students. For “Big Cheese,” Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages provided the doomy backdrop.
For the second rendition of “Floyd the Barber,” which pops up around the 20-minute mark, the backdrop was primarily footage of Cobain’s own art projects and dioramas. Camera operator Alex Kostelnik recalls: “He had broken dolls, dolls on fire, or stuff like in Toy Story where the dolls are all put together wrong.”
Dave Grohl wouldn’t play his first show with Nirvana until October of 1990, after his band Scream had disbanded. At the time of the TESC session they were still using the original drummer from Bleach, Chad Channing. There’s a famous picture of Cobain splayed out on top of Channing’s drum kit—it was used in the CD art for Bleach. Again showing no respect towards percussion instruments, at the end of one take Cobain climbs onto Channing’s drum kit and knocks everything over.
Nirvana also played an early version of “Lithium” that day.