The new book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 is a collection of the personal photographs of Sub Pop Records co-founder Bruce Pavitt as he traveled with the band – as well as fellow Seattle rockers Mudhoney and Tad – on an eight-day tour abroad. The set features some of the earliest existing photos of Nirvana in action, only months after the release of their debut album Bleach, and two years before the band went on to change the course of rock history with Nevermind.
"I was going through these photos with a friend of mine, and I really wanted to share them with the general public," Pavitt told BuzzFeed. "The more I went through them, the more I realized it wasn't just a ragtag collection of photos. It actually told a story, and I thought the story was really inspiring. It's the classic story of a young, struggling artist working outside the system, facing challenges, and ultimately succeeding. It's kind of a hero's journey."
These gigs in Europe were a far cry from the band's first show in Seattle, which Pavitt witnessed along with his business partner Jonathan Poneman, a bartender, and…absolutely no one else. "They had zero stage presence, weak material, but Cobain had a great voice," Pavitt recalled. "What I witnessed was the acceleration of Cobain and Nirvana's genius, because every month they just kept getting better. And especially after that grueling European tour, they had really refined their stage presence, and Cobain had really come into his songwriting, and hitting full stride at a very crucial time in their career."
Nirvana learned a lot from Mudhoney, who at the time were the hottest band in Seattle, and were serving as the headliner for these gigs in Europe. "Mudhoney was very physically expressive, and very much influenced by Iggy Pop and The Stooges," Pavitt said. "When I first saw Nirvana, Krist and Kurt were essentially staring at their feet. They were not physically expressive at all. But two to three months after that first show, I remember seeing them at The Vogue opening up for The Flaming Lips, when Kurt just fell into the crowd and crowd surfed while playing the guitar. It was an epic moment. You could see that he'd been taking cues from Mark Arm, who would just do crazy stuff at all the Mudhoney shows."
The loud, aggressive, and highly physical trio of Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana made a huge impression on the British press, which was key to building up hype for the Seattle scene in general. "You have to realize that trends usually flowed to the U.S. from the U.K. because the United Kingdom had such powerful music media and defined the trends," Pavitt said. "At that time, you had what was known as shoegazing happening in London, and so the style that's not very physically expressive. Seeing all three of these groups together was a mind-blowing experience."
Cobain's battle with exhaustion and the temporary breakup of the band just days before that crucial gig in London is at the heart of Pavitt's book. "When Kurt broke up the band five days before the London LameFest show, we did our best to get things back on track," Pavitt said. "Kurt was suffering from nervous exhaustion after spending a month in a van with eight other people, zigzagging all over Europe. He needed some rest, so we pulled him out of the van and gave him a break in Rome where he could recuperate his energy. I think taking that time out allowed him to regain his composure. He smashed his last guitar at that Rome show, and the club microphone and the P.A. system. He had a breakdown in Rome, and getting him a new guitar, we were able to resuscitate his interest there."