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Nirvana, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys Cross the Pond for Reading Fest

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Spewing bilious garage rock, Mudhoney exceeded its prefestival hype, delivering a beery but brutal kick to "Who You Drivin' Now" and "Into the Drink." But the mudslingers returned; after enduring endless salvos of crud, the band stopped midway through "If I Think" and gleefully returned fire for five minutes, then picked up right where it left off. Thousands of blotto Brits punched the air and hollered the title line of the Seattle quartet's signature tune, "Touch Me I'm Sick."

Fittingly, darkness fell as Nick Cave took the stage. Nobody dared throw anything at the forbidding Australian bard and his five henchmen. Cave enacted howling nightmare visions of blues and Brecht, flailing his arms and testifying like some demented preacher. The audience was riveted, even as Cave sang some dirgey numbers seated on a stool.

But nobody's appearance was as cloaked in drama as the headliner's. Publicity over heroin use fueled rumors about the health of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain; the English press hinted that internal frictions would soon split the band.

When the lights went down, a roar went up. Behind bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl came Cobain in a hospital gown, pushed in a wheelchair. "Kurt got up from his hospital bed just to play for you," Novoselic cracked. Cobain leaped up and slapped on a guitar, and the trio exploded into "Breed," as a dancer in Beetlejuice-style makeup flailed between Cobain and Novoselic.

The staggering energy and intensity radiating from the stage never let up during the ninety-minute, eighteen-song set, Cobain's ravaged pop songs coming off like some dream marriage of the Sex Pistols and the Beatles, borne on bracing waves of distorted guitar noise. The madly pogoing crowd was so tightly packed that its body heat generated huge billows of steam, like a human forest fire.

Cobain broke the tension by declaring, "This isn't our last show," adding that the band would begin recording a new album in November, then followed with supercharged takes on "Come as You Are" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit," inspiring gigantic sing-alongs. Noting some hostile press about his controversial wife, Cobain told the crowd, "Courtney is beginning to think everybody hates her," then got the multitudes to shout in unison, "Courtney, we love you." He dedicated a new song, "All Apologies," to his wife and twelve-day-old daughter, Frances.

The energy level throttled even higher on the six-song encore; "Territorial Pissings" preceded a ten-minute instrument-smashing orgy, as Novoselic drummed on whatever Grohl didn't trash. Above it all, Cobain – still in his hospital gown – played a tortured "Star-Spangled Banner," not just saluting Hendrix but also proving the tune still provides an ironic soundtrack for generational pain; at last he jumped off the stage and handed his squalling guitar into the audience, where it emitted a tortured little swan song – and then they were off.

This story is from the October 29th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »
 
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