After 23 years of sitting in a cardboard box in his attic, photos of Nirvana's first European tour were unearthed by Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt for a new photo book, the just-released Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989 (buy it!). "I was flipping through the pictures and realized there was a little story here," Pavitt tells Fuse. "And once you piece together the photos, there’s a great story."
The book hones in on eight dates of the trek, starting in Rome, where Pavitt and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman flew to provide support for their exhausted bands (including Mudhoney and Tad), and lead them to the final and most important tour stop: London's LameFest.
In London, British journalists--then an important catalyst in launching a band's careers--were waiting to stoke the grunge hype coming out of Seattle, including Nirvana's Sub Pop debut, Bleach.
"If the London press goes off on you guys, it’s a career-changer," he said. "And they did."
He adds, "This was a magical and innocent time in their careers that a lot of people haven’t seen," Pavitt explains of the tour, before grunge's big explosion in the early-'90s. "It’s healing to tap into the Cobain story at this point. There’s drama and obstacles, sure, but there's a happy ending. You can close the book and feel good, rather than end with him killing himself, which is depressing. It’s a sad story and a lot of people are still processing that."
Here, Pavitt explains the stories behind four of his favorite photos from Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989.
This picture was taken in Rome, the morning after Nirvana's raging in which Kurt destroyed his last guitar. "He was bummed out and he had a lot on his mind," says Pavitt. "I feel like I really captured that moment. Later that day, we bought him a guitar, some food, did some sightseeing and his spirits kicked back in."
He adds, "It’s a foreshadowing of his moodiness, introspective and potentially depressed behavior.
"It’s epic," Pavitt says of this pic, taken at Rome's Coliseum the morning after Nirvana's destructive gig. "He’s standing in front of a 50,000-capacity stadium, essentially projecting himself as a Christ figure. Christ as a rock star. I cannot believe I took this photo. Some divine force was guiding me that day."
"Some people refer to Kurt as like a martyr, he was a messiah. It’s a loaded photo. But I do feel that kurt’s music was very transformational. I’ve had so many people and say that his music changed my life. So this picture really rings true. There aren’t many rock personalities that could pull that off, other than Marley or Lennon."
"This is in Rome right after Kurt trashed his guitar. He's backstage talking to his friend Tad, and he’s super pumped up, eyes bugging like, 'What the f-ck!' Tad is like, 'Dude you’re really stirring up some sh-t. Do you know what you just did? That’s some crazy sh-t. People that you were going to kill yourself!'"
"It’s a super candid moment, very powerful shot," Pavitt adds. "Playing shows night after night is taxing and he literally just had a nervous breakdown, and this shot shows what helped Kurt through that: friends. He’s traveling with his friends, not parasites because he’s a millionaire. What’s keeping his sanity is that he has trusted friends and a support system, and you can see it in that photo."
The tour also featured Nirvana's fellow Sub Pop acts Mudhoney, another explosive Seattle grunge band on the rise: "I always joke about how taking pictures of Mudhoney is like shooting fish in a barrel, because every time I pulled up the camera someone was flying through the air. But this shot with [frontman] Mark Arm bent over with somebody was flying over his head is one of greatest rock photos I’ve ever seen. I’m really proud of myself for nailing that."
Pavitt adds, "I know a lot of people are going to buy the book for Nirvana. But it’s pre-fame Nirvana and they’re part of a scene, a community with Mudhoney and Tad."