Burn Baby Burn! Sub Pop’s 1989 tour of Europe

Started: Riverside, Newcastle, 23 October 1989

Finished: Astoria, London, 3 December 1989

Bands: Nirvana, Tad

Troubled by his demons and his touring partner’s bowel disorder, Kurt Cobain was not a happy man. But, as Keith Cameron discovers, the European leg of 1989’s Sub Pop tour elevated Nirvana’s fortunes – and left a trail of broken guitars and fire extinguishers in its wake.

GLANCE AT THE section of the rock seismograph relating specifically to bands which emerged from Seattle at the end of the 1980s, and the contrast between Tad and Nirvana could hardly be more stark. Although no one seriously believed they might change the face of popular music, it was actually Tad who seemed the smarter bet to transcend their underground roots and take the newly patented Seattle rock sound to a wider audience.

With twin guitars, a bludgeoning rhythm section   and   songs   which lampooned the twisted mores of American small-town life, plus their overweight front-man Tad Doyle’s comedic value, Tad were the instant hit as the groups arrived in Newcastle on 20 October 1989 to begin their six-week European tour. Nirvana, however, were a more elusive proposition. Having sacked second guitarist Jason Everman that summer, they’d reverted to a trio of Cobain, drummer Chad Channing and bassist Krist [then Chris] Novoselic, and were wrestling with the tensions that the best groups of that configuration traditionally exude.

“Tad were very consistent,” remembers Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop records, and the man who signed both groups. “With Nirvana it would vary. Sometimes it would be shambolic. They’d be doing these seemingly off-the-cuff shows, and then there’d be these other nights where they were this precision rock band that was performing in such a way that you could get more than an inkling of what lay ahead.”

By the time Poneman and his Sub Pop partner Bruce Pavitt joined the tour in Rome on 27th November it was clear that all was not well. The gruelling itinerary – 36 shows in 42 days across nine different countries – was taking its toll. Both bands were travelling together, along with crew and equipment, in a single Fiat van. There were no reclining seats, which made sleep difficult, as did Doyle’s chronic bowel complaint, manifested either by diarrhoea or vomiting. Nirvana named one of their new songs ‘Immodium’ (later re-titled ‘Breed’), in honour of the medication Doyle took to ameliorate his condition.

Such circumstantial privations, coupled with the fact that in some countries not all the fans were as receptive to the Sub Pop revolution as those in Britain, meant that at each gig Nirvana would vent their frustration on their instruments. Every night Cobain would smash his guitar. And because Nirvana had no money, he’d have to painstakingly piece it together next day.

Cobain’s deep well of unhappiness at his situation came to the boil during Nirvana’s set at the Piper Club in Rome. When his much-abused instrument finally gave up the ghost midway through, he destroyed it once and for all and climbed to the top of the speaker stack and then onto the balcony. From here he prepared to take a dive that, in the estimation of a horrified Poneman, would certainly have disabled him, if not killed him outright. Fortunately he was dragged down by the club’s security staff.

That night Cobain announced he was quitting the band. Eventually Poneman talked him into holding on until they returned to London, where things would, he promised, be better. The next day, after they had travelled together on the train to Geneva, Poneman bought the singer a new guitar.

“Kurt was profoundly miserable then,” says Poneman. “More so than I’d ever seen him, and that’s no mean feat. My feeling is he was a conflicted individual. On one hand he wanted to be true to his friends and his culture. On the other he wanted to be fucking rich and famous. He knew how good he was, how talented he was, how great his band was, and he expected great things of them.”

On the closing night of the tour, 3 December at London’s Astoria, Tad were their usual barbed-wire sharp, knuckle-sandwich heavy, crowd-stirring selves. They would go on to make one more great album for Sub Pop – the Butch Vig-produced 8-Way Santa – then proceed to dissipate their talent through a series of personality disputes and bad business decisions.

As for Nirvana, their 1989 Astoria performance remains a defining moment in the band’s life. This was the last night of a tour during which they had served notice of their intent to become overtly accessible, both in the nature of the new songs they were playing and the primacy of Cobain as the band’s focal point. As the final notes of the last song settled over the heads of an awestruck crowd, Cobain hurled his guitar at Novoselic, who with his bass held ready like a batter in the final Inning of the World Series, smashed it to pieces with one colossal blow. And so Nirvana said goodbye to the old decade and prepared to confront the new. Two years later, with triumphant Reading Festival appearance under their belt, the pop grunge of Nevermind would knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the Billboard 100 top spot and change music forever.

But at this time – sharing a squalid bus life with Tad – their perception of destiny was less prevalent. Only a month before, they had arrived in Berlin on the day the Wall came down. In its own trivial way, here too was history in the making.

© Keith CameronQ, March 2002

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