Book Review: Experiencing Nirvana

March 1, 2014
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In popular culture, Experiencing Nirvana could probably mean a few things. As a book title, perhaps our minds will first think of a transcendent state in Buddhism that bypasses a sense of self and brings peace of mind, away from suffering; away from life or death.

That was most likely not the mindset of Bruce Pavitt, founder of the legendary music label Sub Pop, when he spent 8 days documenting the grueling European tour of three of their main bands: Mudhoney, TAD and an up and coming opening act called Nirvana.

This tense 8-day period represented a turning point in what would soon become the biggest band in the world. A week might sound like a small time frame after an exhausting six weeks on the road, but enough stuff occurred to make this collection a rare document of one the biggest breakthroughs in music history.

Mudhoney was the bigger name back then, as they should have been. Nirvana was going through some rocky times and their singer and guitarist, Kurt Cobain, was drained and homesick. Pavitt managed to capture the final leg of their tour, witnessed them almost break up in Rome and get their shit back together just in time to do a historic show at Sub Pop’s LameFest Showcase in London, where the band won over everyone, even getting NME to proclaim them “Sub Pop’s answer to The Beatles”.

The grainy pictures are kind of appropriate to a period where a DIY attitude hadn’t really launched huge stars yet but, unknown to everyone, it was bound to happen very soon. Looking at this from Pavitt’s perspective gives us much more of an insider look than if this had been done by a professional photographer. It gives us the point of view of someone who’s resourceful and appreciative of imperfections, much like the bands that were part of it.

Experiencing Nirvana was released as an e-book in 2012, but at the end of last year the Brooklyn-based publisher Bazillion Points put out a much needed hardcover version, which now includes some professional black-and-white pictures from the LameFest show by photographer Steve Double. The contrast with Pavitt’s photos has a beautiful effect, reflecting how the perception of the band changed overnight. These were the same guys, but the media payed attention now and with that, their public image changed forever. It’s awesome to see them in spontaneous situations, though, before burning out and the whole phenomenon happened. This is what touring was all about in the pre-Nevermind days. It’s a look into the way a real band approached music and the lifestyle on the road without expectations, before the world chewed them up and spat them out. A real treat for all fans.

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