This is the first part of an extract from Nirvana: The True Story by Everett True, published by Omnibus in 2006. Famously, in 1992 the author pushed Kurt Cobain on to the stage at the Reading Festival in a wheelchair, a prelude to one of Nirvana’s most memorable performances, perhaps even their best ever in the UK. This is Everett’s account of a spectacularly unforgettable night, for him and everyone else who was lucky enough to be there. Continued tomorrow.
The mud. That's all anyone can remember of that Reading. The mud. There were great seeping pools of it, making areas of the site unpassable to all but the most foolhardy. When inspirational political rap outfit Public Enemy headlined the Saturday night, the skies opened and drenched the entire crowd in with the contents of a minor-sized ocean. Kids slithered the grounds, body and faces and legs and trousers and New Model Army T-shirts absolutely saturated by mud, the few desultory fires flickering in sheltered spots, fuelled by plastic cups and Kurt Cobain posters not helping the cold one jot. During the Sunday, bands got pelted by reams of the stuff. Artists reacted in different ways. Mudhoney downed their instruments and started pelting the audience back. "You guys can't throw," taunted Mark Arm. "You're used to kicking balls with your feet." Just then a sizeable chuck of Berkshire hit him full in the face. "That'll learn me," he remarked afterwards. "Never taunt an armed audience." Baggy Labour cheerleaders The Farm tried to chin offenders. L7's singer Donita Sparks topped everyone, however, by reaching into her shorts and lobbing her tampon at the worst offenders. You could have heard a used tampon drop.
Backstage, it seemed unreal. The rain and mud had managed to keep the usual teeming array of liggers down to a bare dedicated minimum, certainly early on – plus there was a ban on any non-personal friends of Nirvana wandering around backstage proper. This suited me fine. It meant I was one of the very few with access to decent toilet facilities that day – mega-important at any festival – and upped the availability of alcohol.
Nick Cave was on shortly before Nirvana, and I can remember a handful of us – Fannies (Teenage Fanclub), roadies, the odd tour manager – all stepping outside Nirvana’s Portacabin to listen to the Aussie singer serenade the battered, splattered crowd with ‘The Weeping Song’ and ‘Deanna’, and thinking how hugely inappropriate it was. This was Grunge Day – Nirvana had cherry-picked the artists (ace Abba tribute band Bjorn Again, L7, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Melvins, Pavement, Beastie Boys and Teenage Fanclub), and Cave seemed so out-of-place, so cerebral. Up went the cry: where’s the Mud, honey?
Nirvana showed up late: maybe they’d just flown in from another festival in Europe. I can’t recall. I don’t think they’d been hanging around the Ramada, though – notorious hotel haunt of bands, post-festival time. Suddenly, the tiny dressing room was all hustle and bustle and managers and promoters running every other way: in one corner, Tony, the band’s personal idiot savant dancer, was slapping on layers of makeup, checking his reflection in the mirror. Plates of curling cheese and ham lay untouched on the side among the peanuts and Smarties, the bottles of beer under the tables in their coolers. It was hard to know what was going on. Kurt came over and made sure I had enough to drink: checked the name of my girlfriend. Someone was shouting something about a wheelchair: “Where did you put that fucking wheelchair?” they roared. Someone – Nirvana’s tour manager, Alex MacLeod probably – poured me whiskey as someone else started to unfold the seat. Hey, what gives? My confusion turned to befuddlement.
“They’re going to wheel me on stage in that,” Kurt explained. “It’s like a joke on all the people who’ve been having a go at us, saying that I’m in hospital, OD’d. Do you like my smock?”
“Oh, I see,” I said, not understanding one bit. “Well, why don’t you wear this wig my sister sent me as well, it will make you look a little bit more like Courtney and confuse everyone further.” Kurt tried the wig on (he already had hair extensions) and approved. Alex fed me more whiskey in a futile attempt to make me unconscious. Fat chance. It was almost time to go on stage: someone dimly asked someone else whether Kurt should wheel himself on stage or…“Hey!” I shouted, pissed off my head. “Let me push that! I can push that! Let me push Kurt onto the stage. It’d be way funnier.”
No one could think of a good enough excuse to stop me.
Thus we found ourselves hurried along up the side of the stage while in the distance a mighty crowd clapped and cheered. I have little memory of what happened next. There was a drunken wheelchair chase where I pushed Kurt round in ever-increasing circles in hot pursuit of the L7 girls on the side of the stage, while 20-foot drops waited invitingly and managerial types muttered among themselves about how they were going to, “Kill this fucking drunken English asshole journalist”. Neither of us knew where the stage’s edge was: we could easily have gone over. Charles Peterson, the photographer who defined the look of Seattle grunge, snapped us while we spun around laughing, framed in the spotlight. We waited a few minutes in the wings while Krist did his whole introduction thing – and then came the moment…