Can you remember 1992? I certainly can, and what I remember is that trash TV — and to some extent, even the mainstream media — was filled with stories about Kurt Cobain and his bride, Courtney Love. They had been married in Hawaii in February of that year, and already there were lurid tales of addiction, arrest, and marital discord. In the midst of it all a daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, was born in August.
A lot of the stories questioned Cobain’s “health,” by which they meant drug addiction, but there were also rumors that Nirvana might be breaking up. It didn’t help things when the band decided not to undertake another U.S. tour to promote their major label debut, Nevermind, instead opting for select dates here and there. The reason given at the time was “exhaustion,” and everyone knew, or thought they knew, what that meant.
The band’s answer to all the rumors came at England’s legendary Reading Festival on August 30, 1992. Nirvana had played Reading the previous year, but at that time, they were halfway down the bill. When they returned in 1992, it was as the headliners. That night Nirvana played what Kerrang magazine called one #1 of the “100 Gigs That Shook the World,” and Nirvana fans voted the show “Nirvana’s #1 Greatest Moment” in a NME poll.
To put the health rumors to rest, Cobain had himself pushed onstage in a wheelchair guided by bassist Krist Novoselic. Cobain had a hospital gown on over his street clothes, and he kept it on for the entire set. But the real answer came as Nirvana fired back at their critics and doubters in the only way they could, by playing an absolutely torrid set that blended both old and new material. They not only played nearly every song on Nevermind, they included three songs that wouldn’t appear until In Utero was released two years later. They also went back to their Sub Pop debut Bleach for five songs, and included a couple of fairly obscure, but influential covers. In a nicely subversive moment, the band showed utter disdain for their huge hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by morphing its introduction into an ugly version of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” before returning to a rather desultory version of their own song.
The evening’s most poignant moment came when Cobain stepped up to defend his wife. He began by saying that his daughter Frances Bean had just turned 12 days old. He told the vast crowd that there had been some pretty nasty things said about Courtney of late, and asked them, on the count of three, to say “we love you, Courtney.” The audience happily complied, and Kobain led Nirvana through an as yet unrecorded song called “All Apologies.” No matter what you might think of Cobain, or Love, or Nirvana, this is a man doing the right thing by publicly standing up for his family. Less than two years later, he ended his own life.
Nirvana at Reading is nicely shot and recorded. Only two of the 25 performances from this set have ever been released previously. This one is a no-brainer if you’re a Nirvana fan, a fan of grunge in general, or simply someone who is interested in seeing one of rock and roll’s epochal moments as it happened. Nirvana at Reading can be purchased as a DVD+CD Deluxe Edition, a single DVD, or audio CD.