Kurt's day in the Eternal City is a small, happy story of Nirvana
REVOLVER: BRIAN BOYDon music
At last, a Nirvana story with a happy ending. And there’s one helluva of a film in this if it’s handled correctly.
It’s late November 1989, and Nirvana are trudging around Europe trying to find an audience and build a fanbase. The band are weary and wrecked, there’s no money, not much by way of tour support, and Kurt Cobain is not in a good place.
The following seven days change everything, and it is this micro-history that is looked at in the fascinating ebook Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989, by Sub Pop owner Bruce Pavitt. The label had the idea of throwing three of their bands over to Europe – Tad, Mudhoney and Nirvana – to see if any of them would stick.
Pavitt’s idea was to end the European tour with a big media showcase at London’s Astoria, but it didn’t look like Nirvana would make it that far. Hearing all sorts of unsettling news about Cobain’s behaviour, Pavitt flew to Rome to try to persuade the troubled star-in-waiting to reconsider the imminent split.
Pavitt arrived in Rome to find a “fried” band. At the gig that night he looked on anxiously as Cobain smashed his guitar violently, then climbed atop a scarily high amp stack and threatened to jump. When eventually coaxed down, Cobain told his label boss the band were over. (At the time, Nirvana were promoting their Bleach album and were worlds away from being “corporate rock whores”, as Cobain always referred to post-Nevermind Nirvana.)
The next day, Pavitt sent the rest of Nirvana directly onto the next city for the next gig, but kept Cobain in Rome for 24 hours. It’s the events of this “magical” day – as Pavitt has it – that are the most interesting.
Pavitt, Cobain and Sub Pop business partner, Jon Poneman, walked around the beguiling city, sipped cappuccinos, visited a music shop and bought a new guitar, and took typical touristy photographs of St Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum.
“We were all equally dazzled by the beauty of the city; these were epic experiences and there’s no doubt in my mind they inspired Kurt,” says Pavitt. “That day was an opportunity to get to know Kurt better. He was a super deep thinker. He was not a very social person, so to have a whole day with him and talk about music was a beautiful experience.”
Although it was just a brief respite from the tour, clearly that day gave Cobain some perspective and a rare sense of normality.
“It was kind of crucial to Kurt’s emotional well-being,” says Pavitt. “A few days later, Nirvana were performing in front of 2,000 people in London and winning over the most jaded audience in the world – the British press. (“Sub Pop’s answer to The Beatles” read the headlines the next day). Six months later, Iggy Pop is going to their shows in New York and they get signed to Geffen . . . ”
Rock music portraits are usually painted in big, primary colours. But here we get a small story extracted from a much larger picture. It’s the tale of a confused young man on the cusp, and it’s superbly written.
Experiencing Nirvana by Bruce Pavitt is available online
LOVE:David Bowie back in Berlin for Where Are We Now?.
HATE: Before celebrating the news that cassette sales tripled in 2012, consider that total sales were just 604.