Nirvana: Reading Festival, England

“FUCK WOODSTOCK,” read one popular T-shirt here, although this twentieth annual jamboree also began with lots of wasted folks frolicking in the mud and ended with a counterculture icon playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.

Forty-five thousand kids, nose rings protruding from scraggly curtains of hair, descended on this bland commuter town, draining oceans of beer and mind-rotting hard cider from morning till night. Mounds of garbage accumulated as pasty English faces reddened in the scant sunshine, and it was all too evident that the grounds were usually a cow pasture.

Reading first inspired Lollapalooza. But with much lower testosterone levels than its American cousin, this year’s model was a truer survey of alternative music. Both gatherings did agree on one thing: Pop’s pendulum has clearly swung to the to the western side of the Atlantic. At Reading, a galaxy of American bands, with Nirvana at its center, outshined its U.K. counterparts.

The American Invasion began on Friday and Saturday. The Rollins Band raged with hardcore psychodrama; Smashing Pumpkins played turbulent but mesmerizing guitar rock; and the passionate and tuneful Buffalo Tom won new fans. Public Enemy closed Saturday with a mighty blast of agit-hop, Chuck D almost playfully exhorting the crowd “to forget about Fergie and think about homelessness, AIDS and racial injustice.” Trendy U.K. fluff such as the Farm, the Charlatans and Ride suffered by comparison.

With seven of Sunday’s ten bands from the States, the day was a Super Bowl of American alternative rock — make that mud bowl, as intermittent rain turned the already sloshy field into sludge.

Northwest grunge’s godparents the Melvins opened with a bruising set of ultra-heavy punk metal, like Black Sabbath at 16 rpm. Screaming Trees followed with some Doorsy psychedelic grunge, as singer Mark Lanegan bellowed between the Scylla and Charybdis of the beefy Conner brothers. Cult favourite Pavement made for some definitive slacker rock.

A product of the Abba revival currently gripping Britain, Bjorn Again — not the mega-selling Swedish quartet but a very droll simulation — followed. An initially dubious crowd was soon overwhelmed by Masterpieces of Western Art such as ‘Waterloo’ and ‘SOS.’ “I feel something in the air,” announced “Bjorn” wondrously, a stiff wind ruffling his vintage shag haircut. “It’s the love,” explained “Agnetha.”

Alas, the love did not visit the Beastie Boys, who seemingly spent most of their set airborne. Despite powerful grooves, boundless energy and sure shots such as ‘Rhymin & Stealin’ and ‘Shake Your Rump,’ the crowd was cool; the English have not yet taken to the Beasties, who cut their set short.

L7 got a much warmer reception, but guitarist Suzi Gardner made a fateful mistake by asking, “How’s the mud?” The reply: a set-long barrage of Reading’s manure-fortified mud balls. Sporting black-stripe body makeup, face paint and plenty of attitude, the L.A. quartet rocked out on ‘Shitlist’ and ‘Pretend We’re Dead,’ but the mortar attack had them clearly rattled. Singer Donita Sparks retaliated by flinging her used tampon into the crowd, which remained unimpressed. Teenage Fanclub enjoyed a cease-fire, playing its raffish guitar pop tighter and larger than ever, and even let its Glasgow homeboys in Eugenius play a number.

Spewing bilious garage rock, Mudhoney exceeded its prefestival hype, delivering a beery but brutal kick to ‘Who You Drivin’ Now’ and ‘Into the Drink.’ But the mudslingers returned; after enduring endless salvos of crud, the band stopped midway through ‘If I Think’ and gleefully returned fire for five minutes, then picked up right where it left off. Thousands of blotto Brits punched the air and hollered the title line of the Seattle quartet’s signature tune, ‘Touch Me I’m Sick.’

Fittingly, darkness fell as Nick Cave took the stage. Nobody dared throw anything at the forbidding Australian bard and his five henchmen. Cave enacted howling nightmare visions of blues and Brecht, flailing his arms and testifying like some demented preacher. The audience was riveted, even as Cave sang some dirgey numbers seated on a stool.

But nobody’s appearance was as cloaked in drama as the headliner’s. Publicity over heroin use fuelled rumours about the health of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain; the English press hinted that internal frictions would soon split the band. When the lights went down, a roar went up. Behind bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl came Cobain in a hospital gown, pushed in a wheelchair. “Kurt got up from his hospital bed just to play for you,” Novoselic cracked. Cobain leaped up and slapped on a guitar, and the trio exploded into ‘Breed’, as a dancer in Beetlejuice-style makeup flailed between Cobain and Novoselic.

The staggering energy and intensity radiating from the stage never let up during the 90-minute, 18-song set, Cobain’s ravaged pop songs coming off like some dream marriage of the Sex Pistols and the Beatles, borne on bracing waves of distorted guitar noise. The madly pogo’ing crowd was so tightly packed that its body heat generated huge billows of steam, like a human forest fire.

Cobain broke the tension by declaring, “This isn’t our last show,” adding that the band would begin recording a new album in November, then followed with supercharged takes on ‘Come as You Are’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ inspiring gigantic sing-alongs. Noting some hostile press about his controversial wife, Cobain told the crowd, “Courtney is beginning to think everybody hates her,” then got the multitudes to shout in unison, “Courtney, we love you.” He dedicated a new song, ‘All Apologies’, to his wife and twelve-day-old daughter, Frances.

The energy level throttled even higher on the six-song encore; ‘Territorial Pissings’ preceded a ten-minute instrument-smashing orgy, as Novoselic drummed on whatever Grohl didn’t trash. Above it all, Cobain — still in his hospital gown — played a tortured ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ not just saluting Hendrix but also proving the tune still provides an ironic soundtrack for generational pain; at last he jumped off the stage and handed his squalling guitar into the audience, where it emitted a tortured little swan song — and then they were off.

© Michael AzerradRolling Stone, 29 October 1992

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