Encounters With Nirvana Shirts
Sorting the fans from the other people during the current '90s revival
Between 2022 and 2023, I saw so many Nirvana shirts on so many different kinds of people that I had to start engaging with them to see what happened. Could all of these people actually be Nirvana fans? If not, who was dressing them? To suss it out, I started talking to random people in Nirvana clothes.
Here are journal entries of our encounters:
A 20-something at a Portland restaurant that makes overpriced salads was wearing a Nirvana In Utero shirt. As she rang me up, I said, “Great shirt. That’s a killer album.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I don’t know it well, but I really like how the artwork looks. It caught my eye.”
A woman seemingly in her late-30s was watching her kid bounce at a local indoor trampoline center. My daughter was bouncing in there, too. This mother was wearing a Nirvana T-shirt from the brief December 1991 tour they did with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I said, “Great shirt. That was a killer tour.”
The woman looked at me, confused. “What shirt?”
I said, “The shirt that you’re wearing. That was a great tour.”
“Tour?” She looked down to see what she was wearing and said, “What tour do you mean?” The Nirvana tour from the shirt that you’re wearing, I explained. “Oh,” she said, laughing. “Yeah. I don’t know their music. I found it at a resale store and thought it was cool.”
My friends and I had seen Nirvana play on that tour, but I didn’t mention it to her. Our kids were just a few years apart and jumped briefly together.
An elementary school kid with a streak of bleach in her bangs was jumping on trampolines at the same place six months later. She spoke with her parents in what sounded like Vietnamese. I pointed to her shirt and told her parents, “Great shirt.”
They gave me a thumbs up and nodded, “Thank you. Great band.” I smiled.
A teenager with pink hair was playing video games at a arcade in Southeast Portland. Her shirt had the cover of Nirvana’s Bleach on it—that classic black and white image from Sub Pop, featuring a live photo taken by Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend Tracy Marander in Olympia, Washington. When the girl looked up, I said, “That’s a great shirt. Such a killer album.”
Her brow furrowed as she said, “What album?”
I said, “Bleach, the one on your shirt.” It was one of the most influential guitar albums of all time.
She stared at me and said, “I never heard it. Someone got this for me, I think. Or maybe I got it. I can’t remember.” And she looked down at her phone nervously, then walked away.
A fellow middle-aged father, who looked my age, was at Disney on Ice. He was buying popcorn and had a Nirvana hoodie on. When he walked past me, I said my usual line: “That’s a great sweater, from a great band.”
He said, “What band?” I said the one on your shirt. He looked down and said, “Oh yeah! I used to like him in high school. They’re still pretty awesome, I guess. Mostly I listen to this Disney music with my kids—not the best, but you get used to it.” Then we went our separate ways and watched the same brilliant ice skaters dress as Disney characters and wow the crowd in the kind of venue Nirvana might’ve performed in back in the day.
A guy in his mid- to late-20s was pawing through produce at New Seasons, a healthy, and expensive, local market in Portland. He had on an oversized Nirvana Nevermind t-shirt and a puffy winter vest over it. As always, I said, “Great shirt, from a great band.”
He said, “Ha, it’s funny you say that. I just started listening to them and they’re really fucking sick. I think my parents used to like him, too. But yeah, loving them.”
I flashed him a peace sign and walked away.
This Halloween, a group of us parents took our kids to a pumpkin patch in a rural area outside town. It’s popular with urbanites like us. They have a corn maze. They have a petting zoo. Farm workers drive you out into the pumpkin fields on a trailer pulled by a tractor. The guy driving it had a Nirvana hoodie on, the one with the happy face and X’s for eyes. It was splattered with mud.
One summer, a kid in Chicago, where my family was visiting, had on an In Utero t-shirt. He was on the public bus, and of course I interrupted him to say, “Great shirt, from a kick ass band.” He looked at me confused, then he looked down at the shirt to see what he was wearing.
“I guess,” he said. “I don’t really know them. But they’re alright.”
I shrugged. “Sorry for interrupting you, but I do recommend the song ‘Dive.’ Just give it a try. It’s a ripper,” and he resumed staring at his phone. My five-year-old daughter and I sat there, waiting for the bus stop that would take us to the zoo.
“Do you know that guy?” my daughter asked.
“No,” I said. “He’s just wearing a shirt from a band who I used to love and saw play when I was a teenager. And I wanted to ask him what he thought about them.”
She said, “What did he say about them?”
“Not much really—well, everything and nothing, which was interesting. One day you might do that with the soundtrack of your favorite movies.”
She didn’t remember, but we’d bought her a Nirvana hoody when she was an toddler, in 2018.