On 30 August 1992, at the height of their power, Nirvana produced one of their greatest ever performances at the Reading Festival.
Their beloved guitarist and frontman Kurt Cobain died less than two years later on 5 April 1994, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
To mark the 25th anniversary of his death, ex-manager Danny Goldberg – who took on the then little-known band in 1991 – shines new light on Cobain’s life and career in Serving The Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain.
Here, he reflects the seminal summer gig that nobody who attended will ever forget.
Nirvana had cancelled the most recently scheduled European tour and their British publicist, Anton Brookes, remembers that in the wake of a negative Vanity Fair article about Courtney, and other rumours about Kurt’s drug use, that “every phone call and everyone I bumped into was feeling Nirvana was not going to play”.
“There were rumours that the band was split up,” he recalls.
“It was just assumed that they weren’t going to play. I’d tell people that I had just been eating with them or in their dressing room and the press thought I was making it up. It was so typical of the drama that seemed to follow Nirvana.”
Given how much he cared about his wife’s reputation, and the other stresses he was under, it wouldn’t have been a shock if Kurt did indeed cancel Nirvana’s performance.
Dave Grohl told The Scotsman that before the performance: “I really thought, this will be a disaster, this will be the end of our career for sure.
“Kurt had been in and out of rehab, communication in the band was beginning to be strained. Kurt was living in LA, Krist and I were in Seattle. People weren’t even sure if we were going to show up.
“We rehearsed once, the night before, and it wasn’t good. It turned out to be a wonderful show, and it healed us for a little while.”
Indeed, Kurt led Nirvana to what is widely considered one of their greatest performances, so powerful that a film of it was released many years later.
He began with a brilliant improvised piece of theatre. To mock the rumours that he was on death’s door, Kurt had a wheelchair brought to the stage area, and sat in it wearing a long blond wig and hospital robe.
Craig Montgomery, sitting at the mixing board, was relieved.
“They hadn’t played in quite a while and were just coming out of a lot of problems and Kurt returned to the idea of doing something really funny,” he says.
“The humour was still there. Then they played a ripping show that day. It really impressed me.”
Sitting in the wheelchair, Kurt began by mournfully singing “some say love it is a river” – the first line of the song The Rose, which Bette Milder had recorded for the film in which she played a rock singer who died of a drug overdose.
He then flopped over on to the stage as if he had passed out and Krist, playing the straight man, told the crowd in a voice of mock concern: “With the help of his friends and family he’s gonna make it.”
Then with a flair reminiscent of James Brown, Kurt leapt up, strapped on his guitar, created some loud feedback and eyes blazing launched into Breed. A couple of songs later, the blond wig was dispensed with and Kurt continued to perform with full intensity and musical clarity.
Just prior to playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana played the opening chords of Boston’s classic rock hit More Than A Feeling, a f*** you to the critics who had pointed out that the song had some of the same guitar riffs that Kurt used in the recording of Nirvana’s biggest hit.
They also premiered a new song at the festival, which was introduced as The Eagle Has Landed (when it was recorded and released on In Utero, it was re-named Tourette’s).
Brookes says: “I remember looking out at the audience, almost all of whom where there to see Nirvana, and it was almost biblical. Nirvana meant more to them than just a band.
“When they came on stage and played the synergy was amazing. People were dancing and singing and enjoying themselves. It was spiritual. It was cathartic. Everything you ever wanted.
“One of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I was standing on the side of the stage with my business partner and we were just laughing and saying how incredible it was. Just grinning and laughing.”
As Dave later said, the chemistry of the band magically reasserted itself.
At one point, Kurt said half-jokingly: “This is our last show.” Krist answered: “No it’s not.”
Kurt said: “Right, we’re gonna do a November tour. Do you want to make a record before that?” And Krist replied: “Yeah, make a record.”
Kurt nodded in assent. It was as if they were actually deciding this while on stage. Later, Kurt asked Krist to “tell a joke”, and his old friend obliged: “A nurse told a doctor, ‘the invisible man is here’, and the doctor replied, ‘tell him I can’t see him now’.”
Near the end of the set, Kurt walked up to the microphone, asked the audience to quieten down for a minute, and said: “This song is dedicated to my 12-day-old daughter and my wife. There’s been some pretty extreme things written about her and she thinks everybody hates her.
“This is being recorded, so could you say, ‘Courtney we love you’ on the count of three?”
The crowd happily obliged and then Nirvana played All Apologies, which would be recorded for In Utero several months later.
:: Serving The Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain is available now on Amazon and from other booksellers.