Photos by Bruce Pavitt and Steve Double.
In mid-October of 1989, Kurt Cobain was in Europe holding a plastic basin full of vomit. The puke belonged to Tad Doyle, the 300-pound former butcher from Idaho who, at the time, had found mild success with his grunge band, Tad. Nirvana and Tad were out on a 42-day, 37-show European tour together, and dealing with Doyle’s gastrointestinal malfunctions had somehow become one of Kurt’s daily responsibilities—he would go on to name the song “Imodium,” later retitled “Breed” on Nevermind, after Doyle’s antidiarrhea medicine.
Sub Pop co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman joined the tour in Rome the following month. They traveled with the bands for eight days, and Bruce snapped hundreds of photos along the way. The tour culminated at LameFest UK, at London’s Astoria Theatre (now the Rainbow Theatre), which was shot by Steve Double for the British music mag Sounds. For some strange and inexplicable reason, none of these photos from the tour have been published in print until now. We’re delighted to present them here for the first time, along with snippets of Pavitt’s tour diaries from the road. They are excerpts from the new book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, out November 14 from Bazillion Points Books. We encourage you to put on your pit-stained smiley-face shirt with the X’ed-out eyes, crank up Bleach, and enjoy.
Monday, November 27
Piper Club, Rome
Jon and I arrived in Rome to connect with two of the new Seattle groups we were working with: Nirvana and Tad. Our mission was to assist in any way possible prior to their big Sub Pop showcase in London (LameFest UK), where they were to perform with their headlining labelmates Mudhoney. The British media was notorious for launching music careers, and we hoped that this event would be a defining moment for the artists.
In particular, we were concerned about Kurt Cobain, singer for Nirvana, as we had heard that he was feeling resigned and homesick, and was suffering from exhaustion. Jon and I were hoping to help raise his spirits with a show of support. Everyone knew that it was crucial for the bands to arrive in London in good shape, as the three-band LameFest UK was by far the biggest show of the tour, with the potential to have a huge impact via the influential British press…
The Tad band got onstage and started their aggressive, lumbering set, showcasing tracks from their debut album, God’s Balls. Taunting the crowd, bass player Kurt Danielson fell into the audience, yelling, “Fuck the Pope!” while drummer Steve Wied kept the beat. After 40 minutes of provoking the Rome citizenry, the world’s heaviest band then retired upstairs to recuperate.
Nirvana’s turn was next… Ten songs into their set, Kurt, frustrated with his guitar, smashed it completely and climbed a tall stack of speakers. The crowd looked on, with many drunk spectators yelling “Jump!” It was a dramatic moment, potentially harmful. I witnessed the event from the club floor, stunned, while Jon and Tad looked down from the artists’ area on the second floor. Everyone was holding their breath, not sure if Kurt would actually jump. We were panicked, and extremely concerned for Kurt’s well-being.
Sunday, December 3
Astoria Theatre, London
“Hello, we’re one of the three official representatives of the Seattle Sub Pop scene from Washington State!” Kurt Cobain screeched into the microphone. Nirvana then tore into their typical opener, the riff-heavy “School.” Rocking hard, Kurt immediately broke a string. Frustrated, he hustled off stage to replace it while Krist and Chad starting pounding out a Stooges cover, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” In the confusion, some of the crowd climbed onstage and began diving off.
“This is our last show of the tour, so we can do whatever the fuck we want!” yelled Krist.
Kurt rejoined the band, and Nirvana leaned into “Scoff,” soon finding their momentum. Kurt’s voice was soulful and intense. Kurt then leaped high and fell to his knees, beginning the guitar lines of their first single, “Love Buzz.” The crowd went off and the tension mounted. Nirvana had energy and presence.
Seven more songs into the set, as they played their cover of “Molly’s Lips,” Kurt screamed out his enthusiasm for his favorite UK indie act. “This song was written by a band called the Vaselines! They’re the best band in the world!”
More stage diving… Mark Arm from Mudhoney looked on, speechless, at the band that was about to dethrone his own.
Kurt then pitched his guitar to Krist, who used his bass as a bat. Taking a big swing, Krist destroyed the recently purchased guitar. Thank God they were going home.