Anyone remember festival rumours? If you were of gig-going age at a time before smartphones, you probably heard a few yourself. Stories that the Queen had died, missing Manic Street Preachers' guitarist Richey Edwards had been found alive and a sinkhole had swallowed up the Green Futures tent used to sweep Glastonbury on a yearly basis, and news of Cliff Richard’s death was passed around Reading Festival on a couple of occasions by bored mischief makers. Having little access to official news outlets from the outside world, it took a good while for such apocrypha to be disproved.
As punters gathered for the annual Reading festival on the August Bank Holiday in 1992, the loudest and most urgent whisper doing the rounds was that Sunday night headliners Nirvana were in fact not going to appear. And it kind of made sense. Evidence that all was not entirely rosy in the grunge giants’ garden had been gathering for the previous six months or so.
Music press stories alluding heavily to (if not explicitly revealing) Kurt Cobain’s heroin use and that of his pregnant new bride, Hole frontwoman Courtney Love provoked a steady stream of stories about collapses, emergency hospital visits (on both Kurt and Courtney’s parts) and fragile intra-band relations.
An NME cover story days before the show had revealed a major source of tension to be the new Mrs Cobain herself. Kurt was, one inside told journalist Keith Cameron “A nice guy BC (before Courtney)”, while among other members of the Nirvana camp, he wrote, “she seems almost universally disliked”.
Kurt felt bewildered by the negativity displayed towards the woman he loved, and that turned to blind rage when a profile on Courtney Love appeared in US Vanity Fair just two weeks before the Reading show. In an article by Lynn Herschberg whose intro asked if Kurt and Courtney were “the grunge John and Yoko or the next Sid and Nancy”, it quoted Courtney as casually mentioning that she used heroin at a time when she would have been several months pregnant with the couple’s daughter Frances Bean.
Meanwhile, tensions had risen further due to Kurt renegotiating the songwriting royalties for the band. According to band biographer Michael Azerrad, the previously even split was changed to a 75% share for the frontman and main songwriter, with the arrangement applied retrospectively to include royalties from Nevermind. Ouch.
So going into that Reading Show, the mood was tense. Drummer Dave Grohl later told The Scotsman, “I really thought, this will be a disaster, this will be the end of our career for sure. Kurt had been in and out of rehab, communication in the band was beginning to be strained. 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 once, the night before, and it wasn't good.”
The weather did its worst to further dampen spirits with rain, flooded tents and mudbaths throughout the site.
But when the time came for the headline act, they took a leaf out of James Brown’s showbiz manual. But whereas the Godfather of Soul had a regular trick where he would collapse and be escorted from the spotlight, seemingly exhausted, then burst free to start the next number, Kurt had something else up his sleeve.
As the lights went down, a figure in a long blond wig was pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair, clad in a hospital gown. Krist Novoselic solemnly addressed the crowd. “I can’t… it’s too painful, it’s too painful… With the help of his friends and family, he's gonna make it."
The stricken Cobain (for it, obviously, was he) reached for the mic stand and tried to haul himself up. He began to croak out the opening lines of Bette Midler’s The Rose, a movie about a rock singer who died of a drug overdose. “Some say love, it is a river,” he crooned before he flopped theatrically onto his back the stage.
And sure enough, up he leapt and calmly picked up his guitar and launched into a splenetically brilliant Breed.
The performance was somehow all the more surreal for the lone stage invader in clown make up – Antony Hodgkinson, the drummer from UK grungers Bivouac – who was dancing, Bez-like, without explanation in the middle of the stage.
Within a couple of songs the wig was dispensed of and the band played one of their best ever shows – which turned out to be their last ever in the UK.
Melody Maker journalist and friend of the band Everett True, who had been the one who wheeled Kurt onto stage that night, later recalled to Clash magazine that the wheelchair stunt “had been planned the previous night as a burn on those who’d been gossiping about Kurt and his wife [Courtney Love], 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…’”
Further ripostes to Nirvana’s perceived enemies followed. Before playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, the band picked out a few bars of Boston's More Than A Feeling, a middle finger to those who had pointed out that the song had a similarity to the riff of Nirvana’s breakout hit.
Meanwhile, before new song All Apologies, he told the Reading crowd: “This song is dedicated to my 12-day-old daughter and my wife. There's been some pretty extreme things written about her and she thinks everybody hates her. This is being recorded, so could you say, ‘Courtney, we love you’ on the count of three?”
The crowd did just that. Whether the rest of Nirvana’s crew and management joined in has, alas, gone undocumented.
“It turned out to be a wonderful show,” said Grohl, “and it healed us for a little while.” They never played in the UK again. But those who were there that night could barely imagine how they would ever have topped it.