Founding SubPop in 1986, Bruce Pavitt would help shape what would eventually become the “grunge” scene in the 1990s with band’s like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and The Screaming Trees. Alongside his partner Jonathan Ponemon and with photographer Charles Peterson SubPop would create an instantly recognizable image for what at the time, was a small out of the way market in Seattle. Taking queues from Detroit’s Motown, Pavitt and Ponemon would create a larger than life persona for SubPop and through their limited edition 7 Inches would create instant collectibles for fans in the know. With his most recent book Experiencing Nirvana, Pavitt’s personal photos archive the tumultuous 1989 European tour with Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney. The tour would prove to be a turning point for the label ushering in a flood of support from the influential British music press, which would in turn generate excitement stateside. Read on as Bruce Pavitt gives us the story behind these photos of Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s 1989 European tour and pick up each edition individually or in a 3-print set…
1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about each of these images, each is pulled from your book Experiencing Nirvana, overall is there anything immediate you would like us to highlight about this set of prints?
Bruce Pavitt: These images were taken at the end of Nirvana’s tour of Europe in late 1989, when they were primarily playing small clubs. My Sub Pop business partner Jon Poneman and I decided to join up with Nirvana (and the TAD band) in Rome as we heard that Kurt was suffering from exhaustion. We had set up a showcase in London at the end of the tour (that also included Mudhoney) and we were concerned that the band might not be able to make it.
The first print (Kurt Cobain, Piper Club, Rome) shows Kurt expressing relief and gratitude as we first enter the club. He was the first person we saw, and he was happy to see some supportive friends.
The second print (Kurt Cobain, Outside Hotel, Rome) shows a despondent Kurt, the following day, with his head in his hands. At the previous night’s show, he suffered a breakdown on stage, and threatened to jump from the PA stack. It was a very intense night, and he wanted to break up the band immediately after the show.
The third print (Kurt Cobain, The Coliseum, Rome) shows Kurt relaxing as a tourist the day after his breakdown. The rest of the musicians had headed north to Switzerland in the van. We felt it was important that Kurt have some time to decompress. Later that night, Jon, Kurt and I took a train to meet up with the rest of the crew.
1x: What camera and film were used to create these photos originally?
Pavitt: Olympus pocket camera. Kodak 35mm film.
1x: Were you taking a lot of photos during this time period? When were these photos taken?
Pavitt: Yes. I felt this Nirvana/Tad tour was historically significant. All of these photos were taken in late November, 1989.
1x: Tell us how the idea and execution came about putting this book together.
Pavitt: In 2012, I was going through my archives, and realized that these images had significant historical value. My good friend Dan Burke encouraged me to piece together a book, and so we spent about 6 months scanning the images, writing, editing and organizing the data. After we released it as an interactive e-book in late 2012, Ian Christe from Bazillion Points contacted me with a book offer. The hardcover book also includes images by the brilliant UK photographer Steve Double, who shot images at the UK Lamefest, Sub Pop’s showcase at The Astoria.
1x: After the tour what happened with all of these photos? Were they used in any other capacity or shown?
Pavitt: After the tour, the images remained in a personal photo album until the Experiencing e/book came out in 2012, and then in a hardcover 2013 with Bazillion Points. After the book was published, I did release a super limited edition run (10) of these three key images from the book (long sold out) and I currently have a show at the Pompano Cultural Center (Pompano Beach, FL) highlighting 13 images from the book, including these.
1x: The book reads as a tour diary, were you taking notes and documenting at the time or were the recaps written after the fact? or is it a bit of both?
Pavitt: The images served as a diary (over 600 original images). The images prompted the details. Thankfully, I have an excellent memory.
1x: What is unique about these photos compared with your other work?
Pavitt: These photos documented a very special moment in rock history – early images of Kurt Cobain, a true genius.
1x: Why should people buy this one of these prints?
Pavitt: These images are unique, not only because of their historical significance, but because they are very candid.
1x: Describe these images in one gut reaction word.
1x: Tell us a bit about your earliest connections to music and some of your earliest writing documenting early 1980s independent music. When did you first start creating art?
Pavitt: I came of age during the punk scene in the late 70’s. Punk culture valued DIY self expression. I started my Subterranean Pop ‘zine in 1980, when I was 21. I handled both the writing and the graphic design.
1x: What were some specific moments you remember realizing that your Sub Pop zines were really resonating with people?
Pavitt: The ‘zine was unique at the time, as I was the only publication that specifically reviewed US independent releases exclusively (organizing the reviews by region, emphasizing more obscure locales.) By the 2nd issue, New Music Express (in the UK) started to publish my US indie charts, as I was the only publication providing that. That was a pivotal moment…when the conversation started to shift from “punk” to “indie.”
1x: This tour was in December of 1989, what was the current state of Sub Pop at the time? How important was this for the label?
Pavitt: The state of Sub Pop in ‘89: constantly broke, but releasing amazing records by Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana and so forth, generating hysteria wherever the bands played. The Lamefest showcase in London (Dec 3) was crucial, as three of our bands (Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney) were to play at a 2,000 capacity venue with influential British music writers in attendance. The showcase was sold out, with Melody Maker calling Nirvana “Sub Pop’s answer to the Beatles.” A tipping point for the Seattle scene.
1x: In the past you’ve mentioned how Motown was a big influence on Sub Pop, what were some of the things about Motown that inspired you in the way you ran the label?
Pavitt: Motown was very “hits” focused..and so were we. Although the 7” format was in decline in the late 80’s, we stayed focused on singles, and at one point, were releasing a single almost every week. We liked to think we were equally influenced by both punk and pop.
1x:: Who were some of your earliest artistic influences?
Pavitt: I see myself more as a cultural organizer than an artist. In the late 70’s, I was very inspired by the bands out of CBGB’s (Talking Heads, Ramones, Television), Wax Trax! Record store in Chicago, England’s Rough Trade record label, and San Francisco’s Search and Destroy magazine.
Of course, the photos of Charles Peterson were very inspirational, and helped me believe in the possibility that Seattle scene could capture the world’s attention.
1x: Who are some of your current favorites?
Pavitt: Currently, I think there’s a lot of creativity in television. Shows that I appreciate include Euphoria, The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror.
1x: If you could collaborate with any living artist/musician who would it be and why?
Pavitt: Interesting question, but I have a history of appreciating musicians, not collaborating with them.
1x: What was the first piece of art that you bought? Do you still have it? What was the last piece of art that you bought?
Pavitt: A large Charles Peterson print: Big Black (live at the “steam plant” in Seattle.) No longer in possession. The last was a painting by Peruvian shaman/folk artist Pablo Amaringo.
1x: Any big shows or events coming up that you’d like to share?
Pavitt: I will be presenting a multi-media lecture on Sept 21 at the Pompano Cultural Center, as part of my Experiencing Nirvana exhibit there.