Most of the narratives associated with legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain are steeped in tragedy: He was painfully self-conscious about selling out, suffered from a debilitating undiagnosed stomach ailment, struggled with drugs, and ultimately took his own life, leaving an infant daughter behind.
But all those tales came after Nirvana became the biggest band in the world following the overwhelming success of 1991’s Nevermind. There are plenty of stories to be told about the band prior to its ascendence, when they were just another loud bunch of punk kids from Seattle making noise because it was fun.
One of those narratives arises in Experiencing Nirvana, a new ebook (available Tuesday, November 13) featuring photos and recollections by Bruce Pavitt, who co-founded Sub Pop Records, Nirvana’s original label. The book centers around a series of pictures taken by Pavitt over the course of an eight-day run across Europe in the fall of 1989.
Nirvana was on the road with fellow Sub Poppers Tad, both of whom were on a collision course with Mudhoney as part of the label-curated Lamefest UK at London’s Astoria Theatre. The show ended up being a definitive moment for Nirvana; they managed to capture the attention of the taste-making British music press, an accomplishment that built buzz exponentially and started a domino effect that eventually led to the hugeness of Nevermind.
Pavitt’s photos, taken on the fly with a pocket-sized Olympus, reveal a would-be superstar still in development. Though the tour was brief, there was still plenty of time for intrigue. “Within the first six hours of my arrival to meet them in Rome, the band was going to break up,” Pavitt tells EW. “Two days later Kurt’s passport got stolen, and we had to find him a new guitar because he kept breaking them. It’s an epic micro-history.”
Most importantly, Experiencing Nirvana finds Cobain free of the burden of fame that would plague him only a few years later. “I think Kurt’s death is very traumatizing for a lot of people, and it was hard for me to even listen to the music for a long time,” admits Pavitt. “When I went through the pictures I realized they told a story, and it was a Nirvana story with a happy ending. I thought the world could use a Nirvana story with a happy ending.”
Cast in point is the photo above, which was taken during an off day in Rome and features Cobain standing at the Coliseum. During the show the night before, Cobain climbed up on a speaker stack and threatened to jump. A few hours later, he decided to break up the band, only to be talked out of it by Pavitt and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman. “There was definitely a sense of brotherhood and community,” Pavitt said. “There was such an energy of support. You’re with your friends, and you’re not making any money, so there’s no parasites coming after you for your cash. You’re just with your brothers, making music, schooling people and getting schooled, and having fun for the most part. Touring is grueling, but you’re also 22 years old and in Europe.”
Even though chaos often reigned at Nirvana shows, they were often technically proficient. “Kurt was a great musician and a great guitar player, and because he had such an excellent voice, that tends to overshadow his guitar playing,” Pavitt explains. The opening night of the tour was cut short thanks to Kurt’s gear problems and his near-leap from a speaker stack, but like the rest of the shows on this run, it was a strong showing for them. “It’s interesting to note that at almost every show, they would break down and do some cover, whether it was Captain Beefheart, the B-52s, the Stooges. So not only were they well rehearsed, but they were well versed in alternative music history, and they could bust out a wide variety of covers. Kurt was as versed in alternative music as anybody, and I take great pride in the fact that he was a good student.”
Cobain, seen here with Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, was often quiet and subdued, though all you had to do to get him going was mention one of his favorite artists. “It was really interesting to see these different personalities on the tour. It was like a little soap opera of sorts. They all had their little quirks, and Kurt was the shy sensitive one,” Pavitt notes. “But Kurt loved talking about music. The musicians involved in the indie culture were music geeks who got together to perform music as a hobby, not as a career option. Even after Nevermind, Kurt kept talking about people like Daniel Johnston and Shonen Knife—the true outsiders, the fringe of the fringe. That’s part of what made Nirvana so revolutionary.”
The ringleader on tour, and Cobain’s best friend outside of his band, was Tad frontman Tad Doyle (seen here in the striped shirt). “Tad never achieved much fame or notoriety in mainstream culture,” says Pavitt. “But that guy commanded the room everywhere we went. He had the physical presence, and he had an amazing sense of humor, and he would just light up a room. Kurt was shy, but he always felt better when he walked into a room with his massive buddy. I would say Tad Doyle was the unwritten hero of that era. It’s sad that so few people actually know of his history. I’m hoping this book recalibrates history a bit.”
Following the Lamefest UK show at London’s Astoria Theatre, the three bands on the bill—Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana—went to an in-store signing event at Rough Trade Records, perhaps the most influential independent record store in the world. “I thought that was such a powerful image,” says Pavitt of the picture of Cobain signing albums and chatting with fans. “You’ve got one of the world’s most famous rock stars ever, and here is this innocent period where he’s just talking about music. It’s a very sweet image, and to go back in time to see people just relating to each other as bands, as friends, as community, it’s really powerful. This is the big rock-star moment of the whole book, and it’s him signing an autograph in a tiny story to a handful of customers. He wasn’t cleaning toilets in Aberdeen, he was signing his record. That’s a big lifestyle shift in six months.”
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