How Nirvana’s 1992 Reading Set Went From Disaster To Beauty
The Nirvana headliner, which took place on 30 August 1992 at the Reading Festival, ranks among their most famous performances. In the days leading up to it, however, many wondered if the band would even be able to hit the stage.
To say the world of Nirvana was tumultuous back then would be an understatement. Not only was the group struggling with their unexpected fame – thanks to the massive popularity of the 1991s Not serious and his hit single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – but frontman Kurt Cobain was in the midst of his battle with addiction. Add to that the first signs of a breakdown within the band members, and it’s easy to see why Dave Grohl expected the Reading gig to go horribly.
“Kurt had been in and out of rehab. Communication in the group was starting to get strained,” Grohl told the Scottish in 2009. “Kurt lived in Los Angeles; Krist and I were in Seattle. People didn’t even know if we were going to show up. I really thought, ‘It will be a disaster, it will be the end of our career for sure.’
The drama only escalated two weeks before the concert when vanity lounge published a story about Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, who alleged that she was hated by her Nirvana bandmates and used heroin during her pregnancy, among other things. The story hit newsstands around the time their daughter Francis Bean was born, stunning Cobain and his relationship with the press.
By the time they arrived in Reading, many assumed Nirvana was going to cancel.
Watch Nirvana play ‘Breed’ at Reading Festival 1992
“I remember coming to Reading ’92 and there were so many rumors that we weren’t going to play, that we called off,” Grohl said. Kerrang! “I was walking backstage and some of my best friends in the bands that were opening would see me and be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I was like, ‘We’re fucking headliners!’ And they were like, ‘Are you really going to play?!’
“I didn’t realize there were doubts that we were going to play,” Grohl added. “I knew in myself that I was wondering if we could play, but I knew we were going to try.”
At the start of the set, Nirvana decided to poke fun at the drama surrounding Nirvana. Cobain was pushed onto stage in a wheelchair while wearing a long blonde wig, as Krist Novoselic addressed the crowd, joking: “I can’t – it’s too painful, it’s too painful . You will get there, man. With the help of his friends and family, he will pull through.
As Cobain approached the microphone, he “struggled” to get up from the chair. Channeling Bette Midler’s character from The Rose, he softly sang “Some say, love is a river”, before collapsing. Moments later, Cobain was back on his feet, guitar in hand, launching into “Breed.”
Watch the introduction of Kurt Cobain’s wheelchair
Rock journalist and band friend Everett True later said Shock magazine that his entry “had been planned the night before as a burn for those who had chatted about Kurt and his wife, who had just given birth to Frances Bean: ‘Kurt is in the hospital, Kurt has been arrested, Kurt is in overdose, Courtney is OD’d, baby was born deformed.”
The theatrical entrance managed to cut any residual tension in the air. Nirvana continued rocking through a thundering set, featuring material from Not serious and their debut in 1989 Bleach. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” appeared midway through the set, and Nirvana briefly slipped into Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” during the song’s intro. It was yet another blow to critics who claimed the grunge band borrowed their famous riff from the 1976 hit.
Watch Nirvana Play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at Reading Festival 1992
After 18 songs, Nirvana briefly left the stage, returning to power through a seven-song encore before ending for good.
No one knew at the time, but it would be the band’s last gig on British soil. Less than two years later, Cobain committed suicide, bringing Nirvana to a sudden and tragic end.
Reading’s performance has consistently been ranked among the greatest ensembles in the festival’s long and storied history. A CD/DVD of the performance was released in 2009.
“The show was a really reassuring and genuinely magical moment where everything came together at just the right time,” Grohl said. Kerrang! “I think we had practiced once, the day before, and I just didn’t know if we could pull it off. It happened a bunch of times in Nirvana, where you think, “God, this is going to be a fucking disaster,” and then it would turn out to be something beautiful.
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