In the fall of 1989, Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman flew to Rome to meet up with two of their bands. Beyond the usual distributor and promoter meet-and-greets, the label heads had another reason to hop on a plane and head east: they had heard rumors that the young, charismatic frontman from one of their bands was struggling, and they wanted to check in on him.
That eight-day trip is documented in the new e-book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989, which features photos, set lists and recollections by Pavitt, who snapped pictures on the journey with his pocket Olympus camera. The previously unpublished photographs show a young Kurt Cobain, wild-eyed and volatile in some photos, shyly happy in others. The candid shots follow the group as they made their way from Rome to London.
"Initially we were planning on just going to London," Pavitt told Rolling Stone. "But we had heard that Kurt was suffering from exhaustion and that the bands were really fried, so we thought, why don't we fly to Rome, which cost a few extra hundred dollars – how scandalous!"
They arrived in time to see Nirvana hit the stage, and they watched as Cobain smashed his guitar and climbed atop a perilously high amp stack, threatening to jump and seemingly having a nervous breakdown in front of the audience. He was coaxed down, only to announce he was breaking up the band.
Nirvana was in the middle of their first European tour in support of their debut album, Bleach. They were on the road with fellow Sub Pop band Tad, and the two bands were supposed to meet up with Mudhoney in London to play Lamefest U.K. at London's Astoria Theatre. The groups had been zigzagging through Europe for weeks already, in a dizzying maze of tour dates. It was clear that Cobain needed a break.
The next day Pavitt and Poneman sent bass player Krist Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing from Nirvana to their next tour stop, but decided to give Cobain a day's furlough from the grueling schedule. They spent the day as tourists in Rome, wandering the streets of the Eternal City, drinking cappuccino, buying a new guitar and snapping photographs in front of the Coliseum and inside St. Peter's Basilica.
After Cobain's meltdown, their sightseeing excursion "was extremely magical," Pavitt said. "We were all equally dazzled by the beauty of the city. These were epic experiences, and there's no doubt in my mind that they inspired Kurt. They inspired me. It was also an awesome opportunity to get to know Kurt better. He was a super deep thinker. He was generally a shy and reclusive personality who liked to sleep in really late and stay up late and watch infomercials. He was not a very social person, so having a whole day to spend with him and talk about music was a beautiful experience."
The mental break, Pavitt recalled, "was frankly kind of crucial to Kurt's emotional well-being. And a few days later they ended up performing the show in London in front of about 2,000 people, essentially winning over the British press and the most jaded audience in the world. Six months later Iggy Pop is going to their shows in New York, they get signed to DGC. . . . They really took off from there."
The e-book, he said, "has for the most part a very positive feel to it, even though there was a little drama in the beginning. You see Kurt with his friends, you see him going to London as a 22-, 23-year -old. You see him playing, just raging it in front of people, and you see the crowd's reaction. You see the legs in the air. You see the crowd going crazy. What young musician wouldn't want to tap into that fantasy?"
Pavitt also hopes that seeing a young, triumphant Cobain could encourage a few up-and-coming musicians. "It's a story that can really inspire people. As opposed to Chapter Two, where, yes, you have fame and success, but it's also incredibly tense and incredibly tragic. And that's the story that most people are familiar with."
Due to the tragic ending to Cobain's career, the photos included in the e-book have been sitting in a box in Pavitt's attic for years. "After Kurt's death, I just wasn't that interested in leafing through it," he said. "It stayed in the attic for a long time. It's only been in the last couple of years that I've come back to listening to Nirvana's music and going through the box and thinking about that time. It's human nature to box stuff away. . . . The music was so inspiring for a lot of people, and his death was so intense and traumatic that it was kind of scarring. Once I opened the box and flipped through the photos, I realized there was a real narrative there."
Pavitt admits that in retrospect, Cobain's behavior at the show in Rome was a symptom of emotional instability, but also something that he could be coaxed out of. "Absolutely, climbing up on those speakers was a cry for help. But at the same time, when you look at this story, you see him come to grips with that. Chill out. Get back with his crew. Play his shows, play some Captain Beefheart and B-52s covers, joyfully. Get on stage in London, announce to the world that the Vaselines are the world's greatest band. . . . He was a real indie music geek. That really comes through in the story and his performance in London. It feels good. That's the culture I remember."