Who was handling drums the first time the name Nirvana appeared on a show flyer?
Who was drumming the first time Nirvana played a show in Seattle?
Who was the guy on drums when Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop decided they were worth a single?
Dave Foster was drummer for Nirvana during these key moments. A tight three-four months in 1988 saw the band make the jump from the obscurity of Grays Harbor County and gigs around Tacoma and Olympia, to the biggest city in the north-west right at the moment when it entered its ‘Rock City’ moment in the spotlight.
People forget that there were a lot of talented bands circling the Sub Pop label at that time, there’s a tendency to genuflect before ‘unique genius’ rather than recognising that a constellation of circumstances have to come together in order for anyone to get a shot. In Nirvana’s case, being friends with Melvins got them elevated levels of attention; Melvins friendship with Jack Endino got them recording time; Endino’s friendship with Sub Pop got them label notice; Ryan Aigner driving the band around so they could make shows outside of their home area got them into Seattle; the U.K. music press deciding to make ‘a thing’ of Seattle brought attention and opportunity to town; Novoselic’s talent as a bassist and entertainer (as well as his height!) drew notice; Cobain’s talent as a song-writer, vocalist, guitar player and performer (and how closely he fit the long blonde hair/blue eyes mode of American idols) made a difference…
…But the other factor at work in that moment was having a really powerful, reliably heavy and accurate drummer in the form of Dave Foster present. It’s noticeable that Cobain, in his Journals, specifically acknowledged how good a drummer he thought Foster was. It’s rare, in his private notes and unsent letters, for Cobain to note someone’s qualities. He was usually too busy gently skewering people.
I’m always intrigued by the early phases of a band. Once a band is famous, their sound has usually solidified into a known quantity, the line-up becomes relatively sacrosanct, there’s maximum attention and minimum mystery. The early days, however, are where there are the crucial left turns, the doors left unopened, the possibilities abandoned. The drummers in Nirvana certainly intrigue! For starters, there’s Bob McFadden, the gentleman Novoselic and Cobain start practicing with in earnest in autumn 1986 but who leaves after a handful of practices:
Then there’s Aaron Burckhard who comes on board – likely in late ’86 – and allows the band to really solidify, get a proper set-list worked up, is with them for their first radio session (which becomes an early demo tape), works on the material that winds up becoming the January ’88 studio demo – the groundwork to becoming a full-time working band. Of course, in that spell, Nirvana still aren’t playing regularly or consistently.
Then there’s the deeply valuable guest spot from Dale Crover who vouches for them in order to get them into Reciprocal. He also gives Cobain and Novoselic a sense of what they could do if they had a dependable presence on drums. That’s where Foster’s skills really come into play. Quite a few of the songs – ‘Big Cheese’, ‘Mr. Moustache’, ‘Sifting’, ‘Blew’ – that would mark the Bleach-era of Nirvana seem to be created with Foster drumming and they definitely fit the ‘Sub Pop sound’ more than Nirvana’s more difficult early songs (‘Blandest’ also seems to arise in this period.
Of course, it’s not surprising Foster’s contributions are unacknowledged. Firstly, there’s only the one known live recording from his time on drums – a real gap not yet filled by anyone coming forward with tapes. Next, he was gone before Nirvana wound up in a studio so the majority of people have never heard his work with the band. Third, disparaging remarks, highlighting youthful indiscretions, appeared in the book Come As You Are mar the perception of his efforts. And, of course, Foster has never been willing to stand up and speak about his time in the band – in his absence it’s not really surprising little there’s little to say. By contrast, Aaron Burckhard has made a concerted effort to connect with fans, give interviews, ensure he’s acknowledged within the Nirvana story. Maybe it’s time for Foster to tell his tale in one form or another?