During the last few years before his death, the life of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain was plagued with rumours of drug abuse. Perhaps why all hell broke loose, when he made it to the Reading and Leeds festival stage on a wheelchair!
It was 1992, and one of UK’s most loved festivals, Reading and Leeds had announced a smasher of a lineup. With names like Nirvana, Public Enemy, The Wonderstuff, Nick Cave, The Charlatans, Smashing Pumpkins, The Milltown Brothers and The Melvins, the festival was all set to score a winner of an edition.
Of course, as is with most festivals, one band or artist always walks away being the point of every conversation. In this case, it was Nirvana, who were widely discussed not just due to the height of the band’s popularity at the time, but the growing interest in its principle member Kurt Cobain’s life. Kurt had by then become the quintessential rock figure making his way into rock-lifestyle dialogues, and his then recent marriage to fellow unstable rocker Courtney Love warranted great amounts of attention.
And how did the band choose to address the various rumours? By taking a massive dig on media speculations, that’s how. Led on to the stage by his friend, journalist Everett True, on a wheelchair, Nirvana’s entry sure raised a few shocking eyebrows. Except, it was all one massive stunt!
Everett True speaks of the time in an interview with Clash Music –
The whole stunt had been planned the previous night as a burn on those who’d been gossiping about Kurt and his wife, who’d just given birth to Frances Bean: Kurt’s in hospital, Kurt’s been arrested, Kurt’s OD’d, Courtney’s OD’d, the baby’s been born deformed… Admittedly, the rumours had been fuelled by the weird-ass paranoia that had lingered around the eerily quiet backstage all day, the fact Nirvana were late to show up – despite the fact Sunday at Reading 1992 was ‘Grunge Day’, bands that played included Mudhoney, L7, ABBA tribute band Bjorn Again and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.
But, from where I sat, slumped against a wall in Nirvana’s tiny backstage trailer, swigging from a bottle of vodka and fervently wishing there was something else to eat aside from M&Ms and the curling, stiffening slices of processed ham and cheese, it all seemed like a grand jape. “Where’s the wheelchair? Where’s the wheelchair?” came the cries. What wheelchair? “Oh, it’s meant to be a joke on the stuff journalists have been writing about me,” Kurt explained patiently to his drunken English buddy. “The idea is I’m going to pretend to be ill, straight from hospital. Look, I’ve got some overalls somewhere and some hair extensions so I look more like Courtney…”
Oh, in that case, why don’t I push the wheelchair on stage? It’ll be way funnier. You can’t do it if you’re supposed to be ill. And you can wear this blonde wig that my sister sent me. It’ll be much funnier. No one could think of a good enough reason to stop me.
While the idea was to always dis on the constant media attention, especially in the wake of the birth of Kurt Cobain’s daughter, what followed the stunt was something that remains a treat for any Nirvana fan in attendance. Kurt not only mocked rumours by pretending to collapse, but he got up soon after to take to the mic.
And the performance that followed is counted among many as one of the best headlining performances at Reading festival ever, not to mention a highlight among Nirvana’s live shows. The Reading Festival is often looked back as the time the band was at its absolute best.
But it was the band’s performance of their euphonious anthem, Lithium, that led a ferocious crowd of 50,000 people to sing along, thereby bringing in one of the biggest nights in Reading Festival history. As Nirvana drummer and now Foo Fighters front-man Dave Grohl called it, ‘it was one of their biggest moments’.
Dave Grohl spoke about that historic moment to NME magazine –
Kurt had been in and out of rehab, communication in the band was beginning to be strained,” Grohl told The Scotsman. Kurt was living in LA, Krist [Novoselic] and I were in Seattle. People weren’t even sure if we were going to show up.
We rehearsed [for Reading] once, the night before, and it wasn’t good. I really thought, ‘This will be a disaster, this will be the end of our career for sure.’ And then it turned out to be a wonderful show, and it healed us for a little while.
That performance, unfortunately turned out to be one of the last great straws in Nirvana’s career. Not only was the Reading Festival show Nirvana’s last stage performance in the UK, but the aftermath of the brilliance saw Kurt descend into mental agony and drug usage, before succumbing to his death two years later.