BY THE LAST day of the Reading Festival, the physical conditions have reverted to type. Soggy survivors cluster on little islands dotted between enormous mud lakes, the comedy marquee has blown away, the second stage tent threatens to collapse, and everywhere the effects of over-priced beer and cheap drugs are kicking in. But the miserable surroundings cannot divert attention from the great issues of the hour: will Nirvana turn up; and, if they do, will they be any good?
The bill – from the cerebral mischief of Pavement to the Abba revivalist stylings of Bjorn Again – has been designed around them. Friends and former Sub Pop label mates Mudhoney live up to the “grunge” ideal (Cranked-up ‘60s garage fuzz, mixed with ‘70s metal power and punk attitude, and belted out through a deceptive mask of ‘80s apathy); but unlike Nirvana, they don’t quite transcend it. They lack the spark of charisma that makes Cobain and Co – currently backstage trying to hide from Radio 1’s Jakki Brambles – special.
The suggestion that Nirvana’s career may have been hijacked by Kurt’s wife Courtney Love – the scheming, Nancy Spungen-fixated lead singer with visceral shock-rockers Hole – has sent the dust-devil of speculation which perpetually surrounds them spiralling off in all sorts of new directions. Did Courtney got Kurt hooked on heroin in the early stages of her pregnancy? Was she, as she claimed, smoking a lot to guarantee herself a small baby?
When Nirvana finally come on, bassist Chris Novoselic says something about how he can hardly bear to see such suffering, and Kurt is wheeled out in a hospital chair, wearing a white house-coat and a big, blond Courtney wig. With agonising slowness he pulls himself out of his seat, reaches for the microphone, sings a line from U2’s ‘One’, then dramatically falls to the ground. This may not seem all that funny in retrospect, but the effect on 40,000 rumour-lashed, rain-sodden souls when Kurt bounces back up again and launches into ‘Title to Follow’ is a delight to behold.
The set which follows confounds carpers and crushes curmudgeons. Kurt dedicates a song to his healthy 12-day-old daughter, Frances Bean, and no-one lucky enough to have seen Nirvana do ‘All Apologies’ on this magical night will ever forget it.
© Ben Thompson, Independent on Sunday, August 1992