Most of the narratives associated with legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain are steeped in tragedy: He was painfully self-conscious about selling out, suffered from a debilitating undiagnosed stomach ailment, struggled with drugs, and ultimately took his own life, leaving an infant daughter behind.
But all those tales came after Nirvana became the biggest band in the world following the overwhelming success of 1991’s Nevermind. There are plenty of stories to be told about the band prior to its ascendence, when they were just another loud bunch of punk kids from Seattle making noise because it was fun.
One of those narratives arises in Experiencing Nirvana, a new ebook (available Tuesday, November 13) featuring photos and recollections by Bruce Pavitt, who co-founded Sub Pop Records, Nirvana’s original label. The book centers around a series of pictures taken by Pavitt over the course of an eight-day run across Europe in the fall of 1989.
Nirvana was on the road with fellow Sub Poppers Tad, both of whom were on a collision course with Mudhoney as part of the label-curated Lamefest UK at London’s Astoria Theatre. The show ended up being a definitive moment for Nirvana; they managed to capture the attention of the taste-making British music press, an accomplishment that built buzz exponentially and started a domino effect that eventually led to the hugeness of Nevermind.
Pavitt’s photos, taken on the fly with a pocket-sized Olympus, reveal a would-be superstar still in development.
Though the tour was brief, there was still plenty of time for intrigue. “Within the first six hours of my arrival to meet them in Rome, the band was going to break up,” Pavitt tells EW. “Two days later Kurt’s passport got stolen, and we had to find him a new guitar because he kept breaking them. It’s an epic micro-history.”
Most importantly, Experiencing Nirvana finds Cobain free of the burden of fame that would plague him only a few years later. “I think Kurt’s death is very traumatizing for a lot of people, and it was hard for me to even listen to the music for a long time,” admits Pavitt. “When I went through the pictures I realized they told a story, and it was a Nirvana story with a happy ending. I thought the world could use a Nirvana story with a happy ending.”
Cast in point is the photo above, which was taken during an off day in Rome and features Cobain standing at the Coliseum. During the show the night before, Cobain climbed up on a speaker stack and threatened to jump. A few hours later, he decided to break up the band, only to be talked out of it by Pavitt and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman. “There was definitely a sense of brotherhood and community,” Pavitt said. “There was such an energy of support. You’re with your friends, and you’re not making any money, so there’s no parasites coming after you for your cash. You’re just with your brothers, making music, schooling people and getting schooled, and having fun for the most part. Touring is grueling, but you’re also 22 years old and in Europe.”