Nirvana playing Reading in 1992 is the festival set that has gone down in legend. But that’s possibly more due to the hype and availability of the full show as a deluxe DVD which was released in 2009. As Kevan Roberts rightly says, their set at the previous year’s Reading was more chaotic and enjoyable. So was their UK and European Sub Pop label package club tour in 1989 with Mudhoney and Tad (the three bands democratically took nightly turns to headline).
Four weeks before Nevermind was released, at Reading 1991, Nirvana appeared sixth from the top of the bill – even playing before the likes of forgotten indie shoegazers Chapterhouse. Just 12 months later, they were headlining. The entire festival. That sudden and dramatic rise to superstardom for Nirvana as Saviours of 90s Guitar Rock goes some way to explaining what happened next.
Throughout 1992, rumours were circulating about Kurt Cobain’s state of mind, his heroin use and internal band strife. Although partly rooted in truth, the facts were blown out of all proportion by the gossiping feeding frenzy of the music and tabloid press. For Kurt and his bandmates, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, the adjustment to that level of scrutiny must have been near untenable. Even A-list American celebs are shocked by the behaviour of the British tabloids, so for a band who came from the solidarity and brotherhood of a punk rock scene, the rapid ascent to fame and having their lives studied in detail proved brain-frying.
The band’s only press ally was their friend, Melody Maker journalist Jerry Thackray. Writing under the pen name of Everett True, he’d been instrumental in reporting on the Seattle scene and bringing the bands to a wider audience. A close pal of Mr and Mrs Cobain, Thackray introduced Kurt and Courtney to each other at a Butthole Surfers/L7 gig in 1991.
By the time Reading Festival came around at the end of August in 1992, the rumour mill was out of control. As he recounted in a 2018 interview with with Kerrang!, Dave Grohl didn’t realise the extent of the chatter until he arrived on site. “I remember showing up and there being so many rumours that we weren’t going to play, that we had cancelled. I walked backstage and some of my best friends in bands that were opening would see me and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’d go, ‘We’re fucking headlining!’ And they’d be like, ‘You’re actually going to play?!’ I didn’t realise there was any question that we were going to play.”
A plan was hatched to make light of the gossip and rumours. ET (as he was known) pushed Kurt on to the stage in a wheelchair. It was intended as a parody, a satirical comment on Kurt’s oft-reported deteriorating mental state. Krist welcomed him onto the stage: “It’s too painful… you’re gonna make it, man. With the support of his friends and family, he’s gonna make it.”
Pretending to be infirm and dressed in a long wig and a hospital gown, Cobain effected frailty getting up out of the wheelchair by clutching at the microphone stand. He sings ‘Some say love/Is a river…’ a line from the song The Rose – performed by Bette Midler and taken from the soundtrack of a film by the same name. Chillingly, it’s a movie loosely based on Janis Joplin (another member of the morbid ‘27 Club’) about a self-destructive rock star who struggles with the pressure and demands of her career. Kurt then pretends to collapse and die. He lays still for a moment before getting to his feet and opening the band’s set with Breed. It was the last time Nirvana played in the UK.
At the time, the gag was hilarious. It was a righteous middle finger to the excesses of irresponsible journalism. In 2020, with the importance of mental health thankfully now at the top of the agenda, it makes for uncomfortable viewing. It shows Cobain at the beginning of the end and looks like a questionable prank of bravado that hasn’t aged well considering what happened in the following two years. It’s easy to criticise with the benefit of hindsight, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.