Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt knew he had something special in a box in his attic. For years, he just couldn’t bring himself to dig into the memorabilia from the grunge era. Now that he has, he’s unearthed an amazing collection of treasures from the dawn of the grunge era.
Among those treasures are never-before-seen pictures chronicling the groundbreaking 1989 European tour by a then relatively unknown Nirvana.
“When I started going through my photo collection, I realized there was a narrative there and it would serve as an excellent foundation for a book. An opportunity to reflect on that period of time,” says Pavitt in an interview with Seattle Sounds.
That book is “Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989”, which follows Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and then-drummer Chad Channing, along with fellow Seattle label-mates Tad as they made their way from Rome to what would become their most important early showcase in London.
“No European audience had witnessed that particular combination yet,” Pavitt says of the triple bill featuring Nirvana, Tad, and Mudhoney. “And we felt if we could get all three bands in front of a British audience, in front of the British press, it could help blow up the scene.”
Pavitt and his partner Jonathan Poneman had decided to join the tour for it’s six week run to make sure things went smoothly. It almost didn’t. Just six hours after their arrival, an exhausted Cobain freaked out on stage, smashed a guitar, climbed a speaker stack, and threatened to jump. He then declared he was breaking up the band.
“Kurt had basically said the band was over and it wasn’t worth it. And [Jon Poneman] did walk him around the block and they got some fresh air, got him settled down and the band decided to finish the tour and wind up in London.”
Along the way, Pavitt captured a rarely seen side of Cobain. Visibly happy and seemingly carefree, the photos offer a long forgotten look before the troubled musician’s demons got the best of him. The book’s signature shot is a cover photo of a smiling Cobain beneath a cross at Rome’s Colosseum.
“That was the shot that had always been in the back of my mind. I remembered that shot from the trip and I always felt that it needed to get out. That was kind of the inspiration for the book.”
But there are plenty of others Pavitt says he loves. Among his favorites is a shot of Cobain autographing a record for an early fan at London’s Rough Trade Records, arguably the most influential record store in the world.
“One of the reasons that I really appreciate these photos is (they) give you that glimpse of the intimacy of that culture. And even though there were only 50 people in there, you could see that on some level, he did see himself as a rock star and there’s some self-confidence there that I think fans will really appreciate.”
Pavitt admits that digging through the collection brought up some painful memories of Cobain’s tragic suicide. But he’s glad he finally got back to it.
“It’s one of the reasons I kept that box of memorabilia stashed away in the attic for awhile. But the deeper I went into it, the more I was able to relive the fun of being on tour with these guys,” he says.
The only drawback to “Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989” is its availability. For now, you can only get it as an eBook download from iTunes for the iPad. But it’s well worth it. Along with the photos and stories, it features a wealth of interactive maps and links to iTunes where you can listen to music from the bands as well as others Pavitt heard at shows and parties during the tour.
Even though Cobain is associated with so much sadness, Pavitt says the book is ultimately a happy story.
“It was a very inspirational time and I’m hoping other people find inspiration from this story as well.”
Just take one look at the shot of crowd-surfing British fans going crazy at that storied London show in Pavitt’s book, and you can’t help but agree.
Listen to our interview with Bruce Pavitt on Seattle Sounds Friday night at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m. on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM or here at MyNorthwest.com.