Nirvana’s headlining set on Aug. 30, 1992, at the Reading Festival, ranks among their most famous performances. In the days leading up to it, however, many questioned whether the band would even be able to take the stage.
To say that Nirvana’s world was tumultuous at the time would be an understatement. Not only was the band grappling with their unexpected stardom – thanks to the massive popularity of 1991’s Nevermind and its hit single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – but frontman Kurt Cobain was in the midst of his battle with addiction. Couple that with the first signs of splintering within the band’s members, and it’s easy to understand why Dave Grohl expected the Reading gig to go horribly.
“Kurt had been in and out of rehab. Communication in the band was beginning to be strained,” Grohl told the Scotsman in 2009. “Kurt was living in L.A.; Krist and I were in Seattle. People weren’t even sure if we were going to show up. I really thought, ‘This will be a disaster, this will be the end of our career for sure.’”
Drama only intensified just two weeks before the gig when Vanity Fair ran a story about Cobain’s wife Courtney Love which alleged that she was hated by his Nirvana bandmates and used heroin while pregnant, among other things. The story hit newsstands right around the date their daughter Francis Bean was born, frazzling Cobain and his relationship with the press.
By the time they arrived at Reading, many assumed that Nirvana was going to cancel.
Watch Nirvana Play ‘Breed’ at Reading Festival 1992
“I remember showing up to Reading ’92 and there being so many rumors that we weren’t going to play, that we had canceled,” Grohl told Kerrang! “I walked backstage and some of my best friends in bands that were opening would see me and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’d go, ‘We’re fucking headlining!’ And they’d be like, ‘You’re actually going to play?!’
“I didn’t realize there was any question that we were going to play,” Grohl added. “I knew within myself I was questioning if we could play, but I knew we were going to try.”
At the start of the set, Nirvana decided to poke fun at the drama surrounding Nirvana. Cobain was pushed out on stage in a wheelchair while wearing a long blonde wig, as Krist Novoselic jokingly addressed the crowd: “I can’t – it’s too painful, it’s too painful. You’re gonna make it, man. With the help of his friends and family, he’s gonna make it.”
As Cobain got close to the mic, he “struggled” to pull himself up out of the chair. Channeling Bette Midler’s character from The Rose, he softly sang, “Some say, love, it is a river,” before collapsing. Moments later, Cobain was back on his feet, guitar in hand, launching into “Breed.”
Watch Kurt Cobain’s Wheelchair Introduction
Rock journalist and friend of the band Everett True later told Clash magazine that his entrance “had been planned the previous night as a burn on those who’d been gossiping about Kurt and his wife, 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.’”
The theatrical entrance managed to cut any residual tension in the air. Nirvana proceeded to rock through a thunderous set, featuring material from Nevermind and their 1989 debut Bleach. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” popped up halfway through the set, and Nirvana briefly slipped into Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” during the song’s intro. This again was a swipe at critics who claimed the grunge group borrowed their famous riff from the 1976 hit.
Watch Nirvana Play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at Reading Festival 1992
After 18 songs, Nirvana briefly left the stage, returning to power through a seven-song encore before finishing for good.
Little did anyone know at the time, but this would be the band’s final show on U.K. soil. Less than two years later, Cobain died by suicide, bringing Nirvana to a sudden and tragic end.
The Reading performance has regularly been ranked among the greatest sets in the festival’s long and storied history. A CD/DVD of the performance was released in 2009.
“The show was a really reassuring, genuinely magical moment of everything coming together at the right time,” Grohl told Kerrang! “I think we had practiced once, the day before, and I just didn’t know if we could pull it off. That happened a bunch of times in Nirvana, where you’d think, ‘God, this is going to be a fucking disaster,’ and then it would turn out to be something beautiful.”
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