Experiencing Nirvana: Bruce Pavitt’s New Photo Book Chronicles Groundbreaking ’89 Tour

by (@BHSmithNYC)
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As he is quick to point out, Bruce Pavitt had a front row seat to one of rock’s most exciting periods. In 1986 the Chicago native formed the influential indie label Sub Pop Records to chronicle the louder than love sounds of his adopted hometown of Seattle, Washington. Along with partner Jonathan Poneman they released seminal recordings from such groups as Soundgarden (whose lead guitarist Kim Thayil is a childhood friend), Mudhoney and most famously Nirvana, whom Pavitt is said to have personally signed. The latter two bands are the subjects of Pavitt’s new book, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, available now from Bazillion Points Books. The book chronicles in photos and text Nirvana’s 1989 tour of Europe with label mates Tad, leading up to their career making appearance at the Lame Fest Sub Pop UK Showcase in London with headliners Mudhoney. Bruce Pavitt spoke to us about grunge’s golden era and the groundbreaking record label he left in 1996 but still maintains close ties to.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain at the Piper Club, Rome, 11/27/89.

VH1: How did the idea of this book come about and come together?

Bruce Pavitt: First of all, I should preface by saying that I’m highly aware of the fact that I had a front row seat to one of the most exciting periods in music history and I really felt it was about time to share some stories. I went through a box of memorabilia and the more I went through the photos of this particular trip to Europe, the more I realized that there was a narrative, a mini-drama, that kind of unfolded and that the whole collection of images served as a storyboard for a film. As I pieced it together, I said, I should put this together as a book. Initially it came out as an eBook last fall and then (indie publisher) Bazillion Points picked it up and now we’ve got a hard cover edition coming out this week with some additional images by photographer Steve Double and also licensed a (Seattle music magazine) Rocket article from 1989 where they interview Kurt and Nirvana when they’re over in Germany.

What was that storyline that you saw being told?

It was essentially the kind of classic hero’s journey. A young artist working outside the system, experiences challenges, overcomes them, and ends with a triumphant finale. This all happened over an eight-day period. When (fellow Sub Pop founder) Jonathan Poneman and I originally arrived in Rome Kurt was suffering from nervous exhaustion. He eventually had a nervous breakdown in Rome. We pulled him out of the van for a day to allow him to chill out. He had stated that night in Rome that he was over being in Nirvana. The band did literally break up in that moment and he did not want to finish the tour. Jon and I knew that the upcoming Lame Fest UK Sub Pop Showcase in London was going to be the biggest show of their career. They would be performing with Mudhoney and Tad in front of a variety of photographers and music writers. It was the biggest opportunity in their career and we knew that we had to get Kurt from point A to point B. After playing that show they were referred to as Sub Pop’s answer to The Beatles by New Music Express. That’s a pretty fat quote for a young band from Aberdeen, Washington who had just barely played their first show a year and a half ago.