Originally published in Forbes.
Back in the late 1980s, when the independent record label Sub Pop took on an unknown band from Olympia Washington named Nirvana, they were part of a countercultural movement offering an alternative to the major record label machine behind the hits of the day.
“Jon [Poneman] and I were convinced that the way to break the “Seattle sound” to the U.S. and the rest of the globe was to win the support of the British music press, the most influential music media at the time,” writes Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt in the new book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, which comes out this week. To help create the brand that became Seattle grunge, Pavitt and Poneman produced “Lamefest UK,” a showcase of their three most promising bands – Nirvana, Tad, and Mudhoney – in England. They then took the bands on an 8-day tour throughout the rest of Europe. In Experiencing Nirvana, Pavitt shares intimate photographs and journal entries from that tour.
The book reveals a side of these bands that most fans have not seen: unknown, homesick, silly, and brimming with the unpolluted exhilaration of impending success. Readers get to see the bands wearing each others’ t-shirts, chatting casually with fans, and digging each other’s shows. Not yet famous, these young men had no idea anybody would some day care about their sleepy early morning coffee breaks and backstage temple-rubbing. The result is a raw portrait that is free of the rock star mythologizing that kicked into gear as soon as Nirvana signed to Geffen Records.
“Getting a more intimate feel for Kurt Cobain and his personality is going to be very meaningful for fans,” Pavitt told me. “And you’re not just seeing him backstage, you’re seeing Cobain in a variety of contexts, in a variety of moods, and a variety of times during the day and during a period of time when he was not lauded as the world’s biggest rock star. So it’s a different period of time than most Nirvana fans are familiar with.”
One of the book’s strengths is unveiling the extent to which the Sub Pop bands were a family. In the diary entries that accompany the photographs, Pavitt talks about giving emotional support to Cobain, who was homesick. “It’s a family business,” Pavitt said. “You do business with friends and family foremost, and that’s what gets you through the hard times. There was a larger vision at stake, which was simply sharing music. There weren’t a lot of resources so the only way you would survive as a group is to be cooperative.”
The Sub Pop ethic of doing business was rooted in a more equal artist-label relationship than offered by the major labels at the time. Label owners, band members, and audiences were all part of a community of people who valued self-expression rather than consumerism. “By championing low-budget recordings and the format of the seven-inch single which was a very affordable format, we helped musicians that didn’t necessarily have access to a lot of financial resources get started in the music business,” said Pavitt. “We championed a less polished esthetic and used that to our advantage. Nirvana’s album Bleach only cost about $680 to record.”
The culture of the Sub Pop scene gave both bands and fans a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded individuals. The driving ethic was frugality, resourcefulness, and mutual support. When the Seattle sound became popular and Nirvana ascended to the apex of rock stardom, that sense of community dissipated. As Cobain told Rolling Stone magazine in 1994, “For a few years in Seattle, it was the Summer of Love, and it was so great. To be able to just jump out on top of the crowd with my guitar and be held up and pushed to the back of the room, and then brought back with no harm done to me – it was a celebration of something that no one could put their finger on. But once it got into the mainstream, it was over.”
For Pavitt, who is also working on a book of his fanzine writings, the period captured in the book represents a special era in rock n’ roll history. “The Nirvana story was epic,” he said. “When I first moved to Seattle in 1983, most people in the world wouldn’t be able to find Seattle on a map. Post 1991, that all changed. Nirvana did for Seattle what the Beatles did for Liverpool. It put Seattle on the map and was a huge inspiration for a lot of young people. The music really brought in a level of emotional depth that had been missing from pop radio and is missing from pop radio now.”