Experience Nirvana with Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt

"I think so much of our society is geared towards mainstream media and pop culture and so forth. And there's a huge divide between the artist and the fan. And with indie culture that wall is removed. You actually do see the musicians walking around enjoying the show. It's a distinctly different culture and for the 99% of Nirvana fans that caught up with them with Nevermind, my book is gonna give them a whole different take on Kurt [Cobain] and the band."

-Bruce Pavitt, author of Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, and founder of Sub Pop Records

We all know the Nirvana story. It has been told many times. And it does not end well. So why check out Bruce Pavitt's photo journal, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989?

Because we really don't know the whole Nirvana story.

We don't know about the band's life on an independent label, and about the musical and cultural triumphs that can only be experienced at that level. We don't know about the intense bonds created among indie musicians, between the musicians and their fans, and among the fans themselves. We can't appreciate the symbolism of Nirvana playing West Germany as the Berlin Wall crumbled, offering East Germans their first taste of freedom in nearly three decades. Nirvana was not just about Kurt and Courtney, Kurt and heroin, and Kurt's suicide. The band's story has a much richer cultural meaning, one that can be examined more deeply in Pavitt's book.

That's why you should read Experiencing Nirvana.

Pavitt founded Sub Pop Records, the label that created and hyped the term "grunge" and gave the world Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and (indirectly) Pearl Jam. He chatted with me about his book, set for release on November 15. Experiencing Nirvana covers the final eight days of the band's 1989 European tour with fellow Sub Pop mates TAD, culminating in a climactic show at London's iconic Astoria. Mudhoney joined TAD and Nirvana at the Astoria to make that final performance a Sub Pop showcase. The book includes tour narratives and photos taken by Pavitt and British photographer Steve Double.
Stephen Tow (Songfacts): Let's talk about that whole sort of weird coincidence of Nirvana's West German performance just as the Wall is coming down.

Bruce Pavitt: The fact that the Berlin Wall went down pretty much right as they were in Germany - for me, personally - kind of foreshadows Nirvana knocking Michael Jackson out of the number one spot on the charts in 1992. It's not toppling just any act, but the most popular act in the world. The odds against that are a million-to-one. It's kind of like the Berlin Wall. Like, everybody wanted it to come down, but chances were it wasn't going to, so I enjoyed just emphasizing that a little bit, and I do think it underscores some of Nirvana's later success on a more metaphorical level.

Songfacts: What led you to put this book together?

Pavitt: Well, I went through the photos and there were a couple of exceptional shots - in particular, Kurt standing in front of the cross at the Coliseum [in Rome]. It just seemed rather iconic and epic in scope and I thought, "I really need to share this." So that was kind of the seed of the situation. The more I flipped through the images, the more I realized it wasn't just a random collection of photos. It actually did tell a dramatic little story and as I laid it out, the book kind of wrote itself.

The whole going from Rome to London, Kurt really was in meltdown phase: smashing his last guitar, not finishing a set, climbing the PA stacks, security begging him to come down, breaking up the band that night (and then, just a week later, playing the biggest showcase of Nirvana's career), winning over the British press, being referred to by NME as "Sub Pop's answer to the Beatles." That all unfolded over eight days and it seemed like there was enough dramatic narrative there to make a cool book.

Formed in 1987 in Aberdeen, Washington, Nirvana first attained some recognition in January 1988 when the band cut a demo tape with legendary Seattle grunge producer Jack Endino. (Says Endino: "Before Nirvana even had a name, they came and did literally their very first demo with me.") Impressed with the band's raw energy, Endino forwarded the tape to Sub Pop Records co-owner Jonathan Poneman. Poneman and a then-skeptical Bruce Pavitt signed the band to Sub Pop, and put out its debut album, Bleach, the following year. In 1991, Nirvana inked a deal with DGC Records, a subsidiary of major label Geffen. The band then recorded Nevermind, released that September, and promptly launched the '90s grunge revolution. DGC initially pressed 50,000 copies, a respectable sales figure for an independent band. At last count, Nevermind has sold 30 million worldwide.
Bruce Pavitt, 1987
Songfacts: Nirvana essentially had two lives. First, they were an independent band on an independent label [Sub Pop] and they're touring and they've got an independent record. And then, a couple years later, they're enormous, subject to all of the bullshit of the major labels — that whole world and media. So, you're capturing this moment when there was still an innocence there.

Pavitt: Yes. Absolutely. What's kind of interesting to me, it's kind of microcosm/macrocosm. Both stories are similar in that the band - especially as filtered through Cobain's aesthetic - in both stages of their career, you essentially have outsiders who are challenging the system and succeeding on their own terms. Even when they became huge pop stars, they were breaking rules left and right, and they were doing the same thing as being part of the Sub Pop crew and doing the whole indie circuit. So, one of the reasons I'm drawn to this story is a classic story of outsiders challenging the system and succeeding on their own terms.

Songfacts: I think that Kurt actually mentioned later, he talked about how he could connect with people who were writing or reading the fanzines as opposed to - his words - the "frat boys" that were becoming Nirvana fans when it became the thing to be.

Pavitt: Definitely. I'm sure you observed this, but classically speaking, the way society works is the majority of people just feel comfortable tapping into what's already socially acceptable or which is ordained to be good, or ordained to be cool. And it's those independent thinkers who are creating their own culture and recognizing creativity and beauty for what it is. It's a different type of personality and certainly the scenes that I've always been a part of have attracted more critically-minded, independent thinkers, who aren't just being told, "this is the next big thing," at least not by mainstream media.

What was the first grunge band? Varying opinions have been offered, but one thing's for certain: it's not Nirvana. In 1984, seven years before Nevermind, a band called Green River combined elements of punk, metal, and '70s riff rock to create a sloppy alloy... what we now call grunge. The band broke up in 1987 over artistic differences. Half of Green River desired a more underground garage/punk sound. That became Mudhoney. The other half aspired to rock stardom. That became Pearl Jam. Perhaps ironically, Green River's two bastard children remain the only continuously surviving acts from Seattle's grunge era.
Songfacts: Looking at the photographs, what strikes me - and you talk about it in your book - is this confidence. Not just Nirvana, but TAD and Mudhoney, all of these bands and also you and Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman had this incredible confidence. What's driving that? I mean, you're going to Europe, especially England!

Pavitt: Well, I gotta say that the roots of that would have to be in watching [Mudhoney's] Mark Arm get on stage, initially with Green River and then with Mudhoney, And he was the one who was really channeling Iggy Pop. His stage presence was just absolutely phenomenal. I'd rarely ever seen anything like it.

I think he was a huge influence on Cobain and TAD as well. He kind of defined the vibe. Like, "we're gonna just go out there and even if we trip over our shoelaces, it doesn't matter. We're going to completely and totally rock out. And consequently the crowd's gonna go insane." So after seeing some of these Mudhoney shows, you couldn't help but go, "Oh my God, this is amazing."

Songfacts: In your book and in other books and in documentaries, you see photographs of Seattle bands of that era wearing shirts of other Seattle bands.

Pavitt: Absolutely. I always looked at the indie underground scene as a federation of tribes networking and supporting each other. It was all about supporting each other and then supporting bands from other tribes. You'd see [TAD's] Kurt Danielson wearing a Sonic Youth T-shirt or Mark Arm wearing a Fluid shirt or Matt [Lukin from Mudhoney] wearing a Big Chief shirt. And there's a real deep sense of camaraderie you see when bands are working the indie circuit, that you don't necessarily see in the big leagues. I think the book kind of captures that vibe pretty well.

By 1989, Sub Pop's bands began to gain some notoriety in Europe (although not yet in the States) - particularly Mudhoney, who were then more popular in Seattle than Nirvana. In October of that year, Nirvana and TAD embarked on a European tour (dubbed "Heavier Than Heaven") to promote their debut records. The trip concluded in December at London's Astoria Theater, where Mudhoney joined them and headlined. After Nirvana's passionate performance dazzled the crowd and the British music media, the band began an upward trajectory. Within a year-and-a-half of the Astoria gig, Nirvana had its pick of major labels to sign with.
Songfacts: One instance of this culture that you talk about in the book is at the Astoria show where you have Nirvana just blowing people away and you show a photo of Mark Arm in the audience and he's looking at them and thinking, "What is going on here?" But he's not pissed off. He's happy about it.

Pavitt: That was exactly my take as well. It's as if Mark's thinking, "My brother, my friend is completely rocking these people. Isn't this awesome? And isn't this why we do this? Because we're certainly not doing it for the money. We're doing it for those explosive moments where we and our friends can blow minds for a living. It's the big payoff."

Songfacts: When I interviewed [prominent grunge producer] Jack Endino, he talked about the famous session where Nirvana came in and they did that demo in January of '88 and he gave the tape to Jonathan. At that point, Endino had said early on you weren't necessarily a fan of the band. Is that how you felt, and what changed your mind?

Pavitt: Yeah, that's true. I think I got the demo in early '88. The demo came in and I remember Mark [Arm] and I both looked at each other. We thought the arrangements over a lot of tracks were a little too busy. Like the track "Spank Thru" that eventually made it to Sub Pop 200 has a lot of different changes. And the band, as they evolved, became more minimalist and hypnotic and that's where a lot of their power came from. So their songwriting really kept getting better and their stage performances kept getting better. They were really a diamond in the rough at that time. What was obvious to everybody even early on is that Cobain had an awesome voice.

Songfacts: And you mentioned, going along with that, you're picking up on certain songs that Nirvana is starting to perform in Europe: "Immodium," which later became "Breed," "Been a Son," these songs that are definitely more accessible than the band's earlier output.

Pavitt: Absolutely. "Breed"/"Immodium," perfect. Both "Breed" and "Been a Son" were very hypnotic and repetitive and trance-inducing. One of the underlying motifs of the book is that our audiences would become ecstatic. They were experiencing Nirvana. And when you're experiencing really good, primal rock n roll, you break into a trance.

And the arrangements, the minimalism of both "Breed" and "Dive" and "Been a Son" are very, very hypnotic. Also, if you listen to their arrangement of "Polly" at that time, and you can hear that on the Muddy Banks live LP — it's actually from the Astoria show — it's completely raging and hypnotic. You would go into a trance during those tracks in particular. It's one of the things that made their live shows so incredible. But that took a while. That took about a year, from like early '88 to early '89, took about a year for them to really step into that. By the time they played the London show, they had it nailed. They were really stepping into their power at that time. I'm gettin' goosebumps. It was a pretty awesome time.

Songfacts: I was on the train the other day, and I had my iPod on random, and "Love Buzz" just popped up. I'm in the quiet car. This guy next to me touches my shoulder, he says, "People are looking at you, dude, because you're tapping your feet too hard."

Pavitt: Kind of a little-known fact about the band is their first appearance in Seattle was actually at the Central Tavern — at this little showcase that they did for us in April of '88 that nobody really showed up for. In listening to their whole set, that song was the only one that really jumped out, and it was a cover. But, the hypnotic feel of that was kind of an indicator of some of their direction in songwriting. And it's just an incredible recording. They totally nailed it.

Songfacts: Another thing that you mention in your book, you talk about "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," the Leadbelly cover that Nirvana does in Geneva for the first time. Then I was thinking about the Unplugged show Nirvana did later, where they did that as well as a couple Meat Puppets songs and David Bowie. You highlight that in your book. Tell me more about that.

Pavitt: Nirvana were famous for doing covers. They had good taste. They actively helped educate their crowd as well as promote cool music, or undiscovered classics like the Bowie track. It is kind of a key part to the book where, here Kurt is in London, he's in front of the intelligentsia of sorts. There are writers, My Bloody Valentine is in the audience. There are scenesters and photographers. And he takes that opportunity to basically say The Vaselines are the greatest band in the world. And consequently his support of The Vaselines and other acts, like let's say for example Daniel Johnston, or Shonen Knife or Beat Happening. It was instrumental in helping to promote a lot of really cool stuff, which made his story all the more interesting when he became extremely popular, and still supported these raggedy, outsider artists that were working on the fringes of culture.

Arizona's Meat Puppets symbolize the vibrant creativity inherent in '80s underground music. They were one of the first punk bands to add country music to the mix, most notably on the seminal Meat Puppets II. Beat Happening, from Olympia, Washington, championed minimalist punk rock, with nominally skilled musicians switching instruments while jettisoning the bass guitar. Cobain lived in Olympia prior to Nevermind's release, and became enormously influenced by the simple pop aesthetic emanating from Beat Happening and other acts on their K Records label. Of all the bands Cobain advocated for, however, Scotland's Vaselines seemed closest to his heart. Offering a pop sensibility similar to Beat Happening (albeit with better vocals), the Vaselines' combination of innocence and depravity greatly influenced him. Nirvana recorded three Vaselines songs: "Molly's Lips," "Son of a Gun," (both on Incesticide) and "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" (on MTV Unplugged).

The Unplugged performance illustrates Pavitt's point about Nirvana promoting quirky independent artists. At one point during the MTV set, Nirvana mentioned they had special guests, causing network executives to wet themselves about the prospect of a surprise visit from Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, and thus creating a Seattle grunge super-show. Instead, Cobain introduced two members of the Meat Puppets, drawing a collective sigh from the network.
Songfacts: I want to talk a little bit about the Nirvana performance at the Astoria - the climax of this tour and of your book. I remember talking to [Nirvana biographer] Everett True about that. And he just said that the band, they had had it. They were exhausted. And they just wanted to go on first and get it over with. But despite that, they blew everybody away.

Pavitt: Definitely. You know, it's interesting, because I've read a few of the books out there and there's been some critique of the show, that it wasn't very good. And I was like, "Wait a second, I was there." And I think what my photos really show is the crowd reaction. I mean, every five seconds somebody was flying through the air. You cannot tell me that show did not go off. The proof is there. And then, some of Steve Double's shots in particular, too, where Kurt is three feet up in the air... just incredible stuff.

Songfacts: One of my top three favorite Nirvana songs is "School," and you mention in your book that they opened shows with that in Europe. So simple - such a great riff.

Pavitt: That's one of their more primal and direct tracks. Also, I thought there was some resonance with Kurt's comment after he walked around Rome with Poneman, deciding to kind of throw in the towel because he was just completely and totally fried. And I remember this very, very clearly: Poneman came back and he goes, "Kurt said he looked out in the audience and all he could see were the kind of people who used to beat him up at school." And I thought, they open up their show with this whole indictment of high school and the whole energy there. And so I thought that was kind of interesting.

Songfacts: You make a comment in your book, about the Astoria, you're talking about how everything kind of shifted for Nirvana that night. Did you really feel these guys were gonna go nuts at that point?

Pavitt: Yeah, I did. When you think about it, the London audience, the London scene - they were the most influential tastemakers in the world, because of all the weeklies and John Peel and so forth and their history and their own culture of creating just incredible bands. So to win over the British crowd right there was like, "OK!"

You have to remember that Seattle - and a lot of people don't remember this - but Seattle was pretty much the middle of nowhere at the time. Now, it's such an entrenched music city, kind of like New Orleans or Austin or Memphis or something like that. If an artist comes from Seattle, they actually have an advantage. People will pay attention. But at that time, going to London from the middle of nowhere, the odds of really winning over the most jaded audience in the world was formidable. And to see the bands do it, I think gave us even more confidence and allowed us to move the scene forward. It was very empowering.

Songfacts: Your book actually has a positive ending. It's nice, kind of refreshing to see that, rather than the typical negative drama surrounding Nirvana's story.

Pavitt: I think that legacy and that story is so potent. It's such an inspiring story, but it's been a hard one to go back to because of all the drama and the problems and heroin and Courtney Love and suicide. It's pretty depressing, you know? By focusing on these eight days in Europe, it just gives people an opportunity to tap into the deep feelings of inspiration.

I'm imagining an 18-year-old who's just starting a band reading the story going, "Wow. This guy [Kurt] grew up in Aberdeen. A year-and-a-half after he recorded his first demo, he's on the front of Sounds magazine and he's rocking London. Wow! If he can do it, I can do it."

And so I was really thinking in terms of younger readers checking that out and being able to fully open to that story without spiraling into, "Oh yeah, then once you become famous you become addicted to drugs and you kill yourself," which sadly is part of the story. And other books have dealt with that.

Songfacts: So your book's coming out, you said mid-November, in print form, right? Because it was out last year as an e-book.

Pavitt: It was released last year as an e-book and in that time we've added more material. Steve Double, kind of London's answer to [iconic Sub Pop photographer] Charles Peterson, essentially licensed us 30 amazing shots from the Astoria show. We've licensed an article from [Seattle's] Rocket magazine, December 1989 - it's the first magazine to put Nirvana on the cover. They talk about what it was like to be over in Germany, and I think it's a substantial piece of archival Nirvana history there. You get to hear Cobain in his own words talk about Europe and where they are at that period.

The hardcover version has additional material. I think as a whole the book is unique in that you can see the story from a number of different angles. It's my writing, but there's also my photos, Steve's photos, quotes from Cobain, also a variety of different British writers and what they were thinking. So, I've never quite seen any book like this, and I'm really proud of it.

Songfacts: You're donating some book proceeds to charity. Please elaborate on that.

Pavitt: Yes. The Vera Project. It's a youth-oriented music and art space that's located in the Seattle Center. It's partially subsidized by the city, but it does need to generate its own source of revenue through shows and so forth. And partial proceeds from the book are going to be funneled towards the Vera Project, which I just think is an amazing space for youth in Seattle.

Experiencing Nirvana, Grunge in Europe, 1989, set for a mid-November hardcover release, can be pre-ordered from Bazillion Points publishing, from Amazon, and at other national retailers.

November 1, 2013

Stephen Tow, a professor of history at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, specializes in American popular music and culture. He is the author of The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. He also contributes to national music blogs, when he finds cool bands or music books to write about.
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Comments: 2

  • Patricia Todd from Margate, NjThe Astoria show and Amsterdam Paradiso are 2 of the best shows of all Nirvana live. Although I especially loved the Blind Pig show from 1989?. , the Garage in Denver also 1989!!
  • Bethany from Blacksburg, VirginiaI love that book a lot I wanted all those books you got......
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