“Experiencing Nirvana,” a small but compelling photography exhibition at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center, is a peek behind the rock ‘n’ roll curtain during one of the Seattle band’s embryonic European tours. The images are all from the fall and winter of 1989: This was pre-Nevermind, pre- usurping Michael Jackson on the pop charts, pre- soul crushing fame. For the most part, they find a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Kurt Cobain, whose biggest ostensible hurdle isn’t the depression, drug addiction or debilitating stomach conditions that would weigh him down in the years ahead, but the wearisome and all-too-common rigors of life on the road.
But look between the lines or, rather, at the lines themselves, scrawled by the band members and/or their road crew on a whiteboard in a nightclub’s green room in Geneva. In the foreground, Krist Novoselic noodles on his bass and Cobain coughs into his fist. On the board behind them, somebody has written esoteric puns—“My Bloody Ballantine”—as well as quotations with arguably prophetic resonance. One reads, “I prefer to hang out where the men dress as ladies,” seeming to presage Cobain’s propensity to don dresses onstage and puncture masculine mythos. Another, perhaps more chilling, says, “When I die I hope they bury me upside down so the whole world can kiss my ass.”
That message doesn’t get more punk-rock in the moment, but in hindsight it’s sobering; Cobain would be dead within five years.
I prefer to think of Cobain as the guy waving to the camera, with a gloved hand, in “Piper Club, Rome, 11/27/89.” He could be any indie rocker on tour in a place where very few of its denizens would know who was on the street, and it’s the very picture of uncorrupted innocence. The same is true of another image, taken the same night, of Cobain sitting with Sub Pop Records co-founder Jon Poneman, or staring into the camera backstage at London’s Astoria a few days later, his wide eyes beaming like a startled animal’s in the glare of headlights.
We see Kurt with a cappuccino in front of him at a train station in Rome, the rock life and jet lag likely getting the best of him, and posing in front of a weathered crucifix in front of the Collosseum, and chatting with a fan at London’s legendary Rough Trade record store—all things that would be virtually impossible two years later, when security and hordes of admirers would have filled the frames.
The photographer of the 13 images in “Experiencing Nirvana” is Bruce Pavitt, an influential Washington State DJ who co-founded Sub Pop Records with Poneman. Sub Pop signed Nirvana before the rest of the world knew who they were, and Pavitt was a key figure in advancing the group’s notoriety, but he was not a professional photographer. These photos, none of which I’ve ever seen before, have an off-the-cuff, point-and-shoot immediacy to them that feels like a visual correlative to Bleach, Nirvana’s grungiest album, which it was touring at the time. In a couple of the shots, Pavitt’s subjects are blurry, and some of the framing would earn clucks of disapproval from photography professors.
There is little indication that these images were ever meant for public consumption, which makes them all the more interesting, in their own ragged way. But don’t take it from me: On Sept. 21, the closing date of the exhibition, Pavitt himself will be flying in for a presentation, “Nirvana and the Rise of Indie Music in the ‘90s,” during which he’ll be happy to share his recollections from that whirlwind European vacation.
“Experiencing Nirvana” runs through Sept. 21 at Pompano Beach Cultural Center, 50 W. Atlantic Ave., Pompano Beach. Admission is free. For information, call 954/545-7800 or visit ccpompano.org.