Undeniable: Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago this week. Sub Pop Records co-founder Bruce Pavitt’s talks about his recent photo book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge In Europe, 1989, which offers up a “micro-history” of the band before it and its guitarist—and the Northwest scene that spawned them—conquered the world. [Above, per Bruce Pavitt: “Nirvana’s set took a tumultuous turn at the Piper Club, Rome, 11/27/89. During ‘Spank Thru,’ Kurt smashed his only guitar, then climbed a tall stack of speakers and began motioning that he planned to jump. Fortunately, the security staff talked him down.”]
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
After Nirvana’s Nevermind broke in 1991, the media was full of stories by journalists who all jumped on the grunge bandwagon. But most of those actually involved in the scene have been content to let others do the heavy lifting. Even now, the most insightful looks on the grunge phenom have been the oral histories Grunge Is Dead!, by Greg Prato (2009) and Everybody Loves Our Town, by Mark Yarm (2011).
As co-founder of Sub Pop Records, Bruce Pavitt has more stories to share than most. But there’s wanting to do a book, and having to actually write the book, and as Pavitt admits, “I enjoy writing but only in small bursts. So the idea of writing a long book was a little daunting.” But one day he stumbled across a box of photographs he hadn’t looked at in two decades, the 500-plus shots he’d taken while traveling with Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney on tour in Europe in late 1989, culminating in a show with all three bands at London’s Astoria Theatre on December 3.
Looking at the pictures “brought a lot back,” says Pavitt. “How amazing the shows were. And it brought back feelings of camaraderie. When you’re working together, when you’re running a mom and pop business, which is what Sub Pop was, it’s essentially an extended family. Half the time you can pay your bills, half the time you can’t, and the only thing that’s going to keep you together is a sense of trust and camaraderie and an underlying understanding that we value this culture and we’re all just going to do whatever it takes to make it happen. And you’re living for the live shows and seeing the audience response and people coming up to you and going, ‘My life has been transformed,’ and you can see it in their eyes.” (Below photo by Steve Double. Pavitt: “In 1989, the stage presence of British bands was typically understated, while the stage presence of the Seattle bands was insanely overstated. When people saw the energy of our bands, they were totally blown away. Nobody stood still for a minute.”)
What Pavitt had found was essentially a photo diary. He not only took pictures of Sub Pop bands onstage, but also off stage, doing the kinds of things anyone would do as they travel; passing the time at restaurants, visiting tourist sites, snapping a photo of an interesting image that catches the eye. As he went through the photos, Pavitt saw a story emerging. “And once that kind of clicked I started to piece it together, and reconstruct a narrative around the images. I call it a ‘micro history.’”
Pavitt’s micro history became the book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, first published as an e-book in 2012. “I was really intrigued by the whole idea that pretty much anybody in the world could download it instantly,” he says. “You solve a lot of your distribution problems. And we did get downloads from Hungary and Peru and Nepal. It was kind of mind blowing to see how they were coming in.”
He was then contacted by Brooklyn-based publisher Bazillion Points who were interested in putting out a hardcover edition of the book. A revamped edition was published late last year, featuring more of Pavitt’s photos, as well as black and shots by UK photographer Steve Double, and excerpts of contemporaneous media write ups, including the reproduction of Nirvana’s first cover story, in the December 1989 issue of Seattle music monthly The Rocket (which also published Pavitt’s “Sub Pop” record column).
Experiencing Nirvana captures Sub Pop’s bands at a time when they were in the process of transitioning from regional interest to international acclaim. Mudhoney had been the first Sub Pop act to tour Europe, opening for Sonic Youth in the spring of 1989. Sub Pop’s first “Lame Fest,” held in Seattle on June 9, proved that a bill of nothing but local acts could prove successful; the Mudhoney/Tad/Nirvana show “shockingly completely sold out,” Pavitt recalls. “The manager’s still recovering from that; he let most of his security staff go prior to the show, thinking that nobody would show up. And there was complete pandemonium. Google those YouTube videos kids, it’s an epic moment!”
The next logical step was to somehow generate interest outside of Seattle. “Jon [Poneman, Sub Pop’s other co-founder] and I had very little resources, but a lot of enthusiasm,” says Pavitt. “We were constantly brainstorming and trying to piece together strategies that would help convince the rest of the world that Seattle had an amazing rock scene. You had one journalist, Jerry Thackery, aka The Legend [who wrote for Melody Maker under the name Everett True], saying that Seattle rocked, and we had [BBC’s Radio 1 DJ] John Peel, but that was about it.”
Sub Pop ultimately arranged for all three of the Lame Fest bands to go overseas, Nirvana and Tad from mid-October to early December 1989, Mudhoney following from mid-November to late December, with all the bands coming together for the December 3 show. Nirvana and Tad had the most arduous time of it; from October 23 to December 3 they would play 36 shows in nine different countries, traveling together in a packed van with their sound engineer, tour manager, and all of their gear.
“The idea of sticking nine people in a van along with merch and instruments and crisscrossing Europe for six weeks was absolute insanity,” Pavitt admits. “Looking back, I can’t imagine what that was like. And a few of the guys in the van were really large; Tad [Doyle] was large, [Krist] Novoselic was large and very tall. So that must’ve been challenging. Imagine Thanksgiving dinner with your relatives and how challenging that is in a roomy house for one afternoon. Now take nine different ‘dudes’ with different personalities and squeeze them in a van for six weeks crisscrossing Europe — it’s beyond imagination.
“But the shows were a great release. And when the bands got onstage they totally rocked. All the shows I saw were pretty much universally incredible. I detail the show in Rome, and a couple shows from Switzerland, and you can see the sweat streaming down Tad’s back, which is worth the price of the book alone.” (Below: Kurt Cobain at the Piper Club in Rome 11/27/89.)
Pavitt and Poneman flew to Rome to meet up with Nirvana and Tad on November 27. Pavitt brought along an Olympus XA-series pocket camera to document the trip — which was more of an investment than it is today, with the proliferation of digital cameras and camera phones. “Being a photographer was kind of an expensive hobby,” Pavitt agrees. “You don’t have enough film, and do I really want to spend $500 printing up these snapshots? I took about 500 photos and I’m really thankful I did because I think I got some classic shots. And I don’t know, it was eerie, how I took more photos during those eight days than I ever had during the pre-digital era. And for some reason I kept taking pictures of Kurt [Cobain]. He wasn’t the rock star on the tour; that was Mark Arm, that was Mudhoney. These guys were essentially backup for Mudhoney, who was without a doubt the flagship band. (Below: “Mark Arm of Mudhoney bends over backwards for rock and roll. Kurt Cobain is the onstage spectator wearing scarf and holding aluminum beer can, LameFest UK, 12-3-89.”)
“And of course I learned all my tips from [Sub Pop’s primary photographer] Charles Peterson, who’s like, ‘Get in there.’ I’d just walk right on the stage and start taking pictures. Get in there and be sure to get the audience reaction to the band. I learned that from Charles. Whereas most professionals, like Steve Double, only take pictures of the singer because that’s the money shot, that’s the one you get in New Musical Express or Melody Maker. This book has an amazing array of audience shots, so you get to check out the personalities of the people who showed up at these shows. And I find that, from a sociology point of view, pretty fascinating.”
When the two aspiring moguls caught up with their bands in Rome, Cobain was in a particularly fraught mood. Though he seems relaxed in the photos of the bands taken when they’re having dinner, at the show that evening, he smashed his guitar during the set then climbed on a speaker stack and threatened to jump into the crowd before being talked back down. Backstage, he smashed a microphone and announced he was quitting Nirvana.
“He had kind of a meltdown, and he pissed a lot of people off,” says Pavitt. “He and Jon went for a walk and Jon came back and he goes, ‘Kurt said he looked out in the audience and he said, “I’m seeing the kind of guys who used to threaten to beat me up in high school.”’ Being a very sensitive guy in rock culture, it’s kind of a challenge. Especially in the ’80s, there’s still a lot of sexism, and there were elements of rock culture that were extremely macho. And he totally did not feel comfortable with that. And I think that is a key part to Cobain’s story, how he dealt with that.” (Below: “Kurt Cobain and Sub Pop cofounder Jon Poneman in conference. Nirvana’s future was in jeopardy, but, by morning, the band had decided to stay together.“)
The next day, while the other musicians headed off to Switzerland, Pavitt and Poneman decided Cobain needed a break, and the three men, along with Tad drummer Steve Wied, chose to stay in Rome, planning to take a train and catch up with the rest of the group the following night. They bought Cobain a new guitar, then took in the tourist sites: the Coliseum, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel.
“I really appreciated the day that we took off in Rome, walking around and chilling out,” says Pavitt. “I would say that was one of the highlights of my life, just getting to know Kurt in such a special environment. It’s one thing to spend 10 minutes with somebody at a party, or a half hour business meeting, or ten minutes after a show. It’s another thing to spend eight hours with somebody basically killing time; it’s a whole different environment. We got to talk a lot about music. And his depth of musical geekdom was very impressive.” The two had a playful debate over which album was the best punk record, Cobain choosing the Stooges’ Raw Power, while Pavitt insisted Fun House was the truer punk release.
After a day of rest, the tour continued, with Pavitt excitedly looking forward to the Astoria show. “It’s a pretty pivotal time for three Seattle bands to go to London and play a sold out music showcase in front of the British music elite and kill it,” he says. “Bringing all three of those groups together in London was definitely an epic moment. I thought the show was amazing. When I looked through the photos, you could see that every few minutes there were legs sticking out of the audience, people were going nuts. So my documentation is key in representing the enthusiasm from the fans, which is undeniable. Undeniable. Almost every live shot has people jumping off the stage. The show rocked. Everybody was ecstatic, and you can see it in the response from the audience. And I think that’s one of the beauties of this book. That show was a true turning point in the international stature of the Seattle music scene.” (Below photo by Steve Double. Tad Doyle of TAD, London Astoria 12-3-89.)
And for all the chaos on the road, and in the mosh pit, it was merely the calm before the storm; two years later, the Seattle scene would change forever. “We put out Mudhoney’s Every Good Boys Deserves Fudge in ’91,” Pavitt remembers. “It sold 100,000 copies, it cracked the Billboard chart, and we were going ‘This is huge!’ A band like the Cramps would think this was like getting a gold record in punk rock world. And then Nevermind comes out a month later and it’s all over, and your perspective changes completely. So selling 100,000 records seems like a complete failure, whereas just a few months earlier that would be considered the height of indie rock success. It was an insane time to be in Seattle I gotta say. And so insane I decided to move to a remote island for 17 years!” (Below: “Kurt Cobain signs one of his first autographs, Rough Trade Records, London, 12/4/89. We were thrilled to be at the physical center of indie rock in 1989. We were a little surprised that many of the posters championed American bands—at long last! Within two years Nirvana would be a global sensation. At this point, having a Sub Pop bin (see far left) here seemed pretty cool.”)
For Cobain, that insanity led to a much darker end. Which left Pavitt with some conflicted feelings about revisiting those years. “It was an amazing, unbelievable period of time, and to be honest, looking back on that period was pretty painful,” he says. “Because here we discovered this brilliant artist, helped nurture his career, helped launch his success. And then he achieved such a high level of success, that the stresses of being the world’s biggest rock star took its toll. It does feel weird. It’s sad and painful, and I think for a lot of people who knew Kurt it was just really hard to even listen to Nirvana [after his death]. I know that was the case with myself.
“But I think at some point time heals all wounds. And what I appreciate about this story is that you’re in there right at the beginning, focused on a crew of young musicians, including Kurt, who travel Europe in their early twenties, have an adventure, and achieve a certain level of indie rock success. And I think that’s a kind of dream that a lot of young musicians could have and go, ‘I could do that. I could form a band, put out a few records, and maybe tour Europe, see the world and rock London,’ or rock Moscow or whatever. And so I’m really hoping that this book is inspiring, especially for young people who have dreams of success. The thing is, it’s one thing to try and follow an obtainable goal like that. It’s another thing to read the Cobain story and step into that narrative where you become the world’s biggest rock star but you kill yourself. That’s a very intense story.”
All of which is captured in the book’s title, “Experiencing Nirvana,” which is meant to refer to the experience of the shows, and not one band. “Yes, absolutely,” Pavitt says. “It was kind of a play on words. Because experiencing nirvana, I think, in a sense, is a reflection of the state of let’s say that ecstatic oneness that one would feel at some of these shows, whether it was Tad, Nirvana, or Mudhoney. And as an audience member, when I was at those shows, I would tend to lose myself in kind of an ecstatic trance. And when you see all these crowd shots, no matter what city or what show, you see the crowd, you see that ecstatic look on the face of the fans.”
Photos courtesy of Bruce Pavitt and Bazillion Points. BLURT contributor and author Gillian G. Gaar has written extensively about Nirvana in the past. Her most recent book is Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Alterna-Teen Anthem of the ‘90s, an e-Book published in February by Miniver Press.