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Updated Friday, November 16, 2012 at 12:01 PM

Long-stored Nirvana photos chronicle legendary 1989 tour

By Charles R. Cross
Special to The Seattle Times

Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt witnessed music history-in-the-making during the years the record label was home to a handful of bands who would become superstars.

In his book, "Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989" (available now as an eBook, through iTunes, and in a few months as a physical book), Pavitt tells the story of a six-week concert tour many historians cite as one of popular music's most legendary — the winter 1989 tour of Europe by the Seattle bands Tad and Nirvana.

Those bands, along with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, put Seattle on the music map in the early '90s, when grunge exploded into the mainstream. Sub Pop was the home of many of those bands, and it became one of the most important independent labels in history.

The tour was nicknamed "Heavier Than Heaven," both for Nirvana's heavy rock sound, and, in a catty nod, Tad Doyle's weight. It was an important breakthrough, because the tour helped propel Sub Pop into a larger world stage, particularly with the UK music papers.

Pavitt's book chronicles his inside view on the eight days he was on the tour. It includes a number of never-before-seen photographs of Nirvana, then composed of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Chad Channing.

It was those photos that ultimately moved Pavitt to write "Experiencing Nirvana."

"After Kurt's passing (in 1994), I boxed away a lot of my grunge memorabilia," Pavitt said in a recent interview. "I was pretty traumatized, and I had a hard time listening for a while, but I knew I had those photographs, and they drew me back."

One particular photo, of Kurt Cobain next to a cross in front of Rome's Colosseum, kept coming back to Pavitt. "I thought that photo really needed to get out," he said. When Pavitt eventually decided to publish an eBook, he selected that photograph for the cover.

Pavitt formed Sub Pop in 1986 with Jonathan Poneman. The photos in "Experiencing Nirvana" show Poneman and Pavitt, along with members of bands like Tad and Mudhoney, as tourists in Europe.

"(Sub Pop) didn't have much to work with," Pavitt writes in his introduction. "We knew Seattle was developing a distinctive brand of heavy, soulful, grungy rock, but we weren't sure who our next bands were going to be. Then, everything unfolded."

"Everything" came in the form of Nirvana, who became Sub Pop's first commercial success. And though Cobain cited the LameFest Show at London's Astoria venue, chronicled in this book, as a disaster, to Pavitt it was transcendent.

"Nirvana got onstage in front of the hipsters and the scenesters of London, and they totally rocked it," Pavitt recalled. "I know that show has gotten mixed reviews — and Krist Novoselic rates it a zero out of 10. But to me, it was epic."

Pavitt's photographs of that night show fans crowd-surfing while Nirvana plays. Pavitt wasn't a professional photographer, and he warns readers in his introduction that he chose to publish some photos that were blurry, but his shots are surprisingly intimate.

"At first I wasn't too impressed with my photos," Pavitt said. "But then I realized there was a story there that ended on a joyful note. This is a Nirvana story with a joyful ending."

Even before Pavitt started Sub Pop, he was editing a fanzine under the same title, which later became a column in Seattle's Rocket magazine. "Experiencing Nirvana," complete with hyperlinks and an interactive iPad version, may seem a long away from a Xeroxed-fanzine, but to Bruce Pavitt, it's just one more expression of his passion for music.

"I'm a historian by nature," he said. "And to me this book, is micro-history."

It is a history that still feels vibrant.

Charles R. Cross is the author of "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain." Reach him at

Bruce Pavitt's cover shot.

Kurt Cobain from the 1989 Nirvana tour of Europe.


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