‘Kurt was not in a good way’: backstage on Nirvana’s first – and only - Australian tour
Nirvana’s first – and only – Australian tour is the stuff of legend. But the story of how it came to be is delightfully quaint.
In 1991, music promoter Stephen “Pav” Pavlovic, then in his 20s and booking bands for Sydney’s Lansdowne hotel, had just toured US rock group Mudhoney. They told him that their friends Nirvana were keen to play shows in Australia, passing on the phone numbers of Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic.
“So I just called up Kurt and Krist and said ‘Hey, my name’s Pav, do you want to come tour here?’” Pavlovic recalls. “They said, we’d love to come, we’re just busy making this record … And as it turns out, that record was Nevermind.”
A year later, Nirvana made good on their plans. But in that time, the world had shifted dramatically for the trio. Their song Smells Like Teen Spirit propelled them from a relatively small-time Seattle band to global superstars. Every other promoter in the country tried to book them, but Nirvana stuck with the scrappy young guy who had called before anyone else.
They also stuck with the small venues they had originally locked in; at undersized spaces such as ANU Bar in Canberra, mammoth crowds loitered outside until “skaters smashed all these windows and people started piling in through the side”, Pavlovic remembers. He drove the band from show to show in his van, and took them on sightseeing excursions including a camping trip to the south coast, where they slept on the beach, drank beer, and made toasted sandwiches with jaffle irons.
Photos, footage and oral accounts of that now-fabled tour – including the camping trip – are on display at Unpopular, a new exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Pavlovic would go on to become one of Australian music’s most influential figures, later founding the label Modular Records, home of indie sleaze-defining acts such as Cut Copy, the Presets, Van She and Bag Raiders – but Unpopular charts the earlier years: the “secret society” of alternative bands in the 1990s rock scene, captured from Pavlovic’s insider vantage point. The promoter would spend weeks at a time escorting bands around the country, becoming tight friends with them along the way.
Scrapbooks and tour diaries he kept at the time are on display at the Powerhouse, as are postcards and letters sent by his musician mates, such as Superchunk’s Laura Ballance or the Lemonheads’ Jesse Peretz, after they’d left. Photos lifted from Pavlovic’s own albums feature heavily – a tender snap of Dave Grohl shivering on the sand after an ocean swim; a double-exposed photograph of Cobain sitting and smiling.
There are also gig posters, fanzines, live photos and footage of some of the shows, including video of Nirvana’s debut Australian performance at the 1,000-capacity Phoenician Club in Sydney in 1992. (A special “Nirvana room” in the museum has been covered with that quintessentially dank, patterned pub carpet, to really transport the visitor.) While most came direct from Pavlovic’s overstuffed storage unit – including unreleased demos sent by friends like Evan Dando, which can be listened to through headphones – some are on loan, such as a guitar that belonged to Cobain, and Polaroids taken by his then girlfriend.
The exhibition has taken two-and-a-half years to put together. The initial plan was to cover the entirety of Pavlovic’s career, from the early 90s to his reign at Modular Records. But when there proved to be too much stuff, a decision was made to split the exhibition in two. (The Modular-era exhibition will come at some stage in the future, as will a book from Pavlovic.)
Pavlovic says it has been cathartic to revisit and catalogue this chapter of his life. “I hoarded everything,” he says. “And who would have thought that 30 years later people would want to see it?”
More than 200 items are on display in Unpopular – but here are four of Pavlovic’s favourites.
Nirvana’s airline tickets – and the Perth fan petition
Much of the exhibition is composed of physical objects – including Kurt, Kris and Dave’s plane tickets to Australia, from the days when those were hard copy. Also part of the collection is a handwritten petition from fans protesting against the cancellation of Nirvana’s Perth show, along with passionate messages voicing their displeasure (one reads, simply, “ASSHOLE”).
“I love how tactile things were,” Pavlovic says. “The way people used to communicate stuff was so hands-on and raw. I just found it really fascinating that people would … be so upset when their favourite band didn’t come to be motivated to write a petition.”
Related: ‘Kurt Cobain was a walking paradox’: inside the opera about the star’s final days
The Perth date was cancelled because of Cobain’s ailing health, Pavlovic remembers. “Kurt was not in a good way physically – he was struggling with his addictions and travelling. He had a lot of health issues, whether they were a result of his drug use or his lifestyle, but he was not well. And it was getting to a point where we were going to have to make a decision about whether to cancel the whole tour.
“I thought, ‘What about if we just cancel this one show, take a couple of days to regroup and I’ll see if I can get you some doctors to try and help you?’ He sort of came back around and we were able to move on. But if we hadn’t cancelled that one show, then I don’t know if we would have made it through the whole [tour].”
An interview with Dave Grohl
Visitors can listen to a series of audio interviews conducted for the exhibition between Pavlovic and music greats including Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock. But Pavlovic’s favourite chat was with Grohl, of Nirvana and later Foo Fighters fame.
They spoke about the punk rock scene of Washington DC that Grohl came up in and the early days of his career, where he would stay in “squats” while touring through Europe, as well as his breakneck transition to global fame with Nirvana.
“He talks very openly. He’s a very articulate man and he’s got a super incredible memory,” Pavlovic says. “He’s such a wonderful guy and the way he talks and tells stories is pretty engaging.”
Hole’s holiday photos
Pavlovic and his then girlfriend were both keen photographers, and their personal snaps from the 1990s feature heavily in the collection. They are photos of Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and more on holiday in Australia between shows – “just hanging out on beaches and doing things you don’t normally see [artists] doing, like changing tyres on cars when the van breaks down”.
Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur has also loaned some of her personal photographs.
“She takes a lot of photos and documented every tour she’s ever done … so we can see it all from Hole’s perspective with her and Courtney [Love].”
“Not just another live photo of a band, right? Or not another photo of them on stage,” Pavlovic says. “We’ve got all that stuff [too]. But it’s nice to see a different side of it.”
Summersault festival footage
In 1995, Pavlovic staged a touring festival called Summersault – never-before-seen footage from which plays on large screens at the Powerhouse.
Summersault came about after Pavlovic fell out with the founders of the Big Day Out, whom he’d been supplying bands to.
“I found the music [at Big Day Out] was all over the place and a lot of stuff I didn’t like. So I thought, I’d rather do something that is laser-focused towards this community that we’re part of,” he says. “I reached out to the Beasties and they were into it; Mike asked Kathleen Hanna [of Bikini Kill], ‘Would you come and play?’ The bands called each other, and we decided we’ll do our own event. Fuck the Big Day Out.”
But Pavlovic “lost a bunch of money on it” and Summersault never returned. That 1995 event also marked the beginning of the end of his career as a promoter, as he began to lose interest in touring bands.
A few years later Pavlovic founded Modular, which he found “way more fulfilling creatively”. But for the photos and tchotchkes from that era of Australian music, we’ll have to wait a while longer.
Unpopular opens at the Powerhouse Museum on Thursday; entry is free.