The beginning of the end?
A band in turmoil, disinterested in playing, a singer whose entire life had become consumed by his increasingly debilitating Heroin addiction, in such personal turmoil that just 2 months after the tour started and a month after it's premature end took his own life. These are what most observers would comment on the European In Utero Tour, most have probably only seen the band once on this tour and some never saw them at all. Almost all chose to use this tour to illustrate Kurt's tragic death.
Was it as bad as people say it was?
Well we in the Nirvana community are very fortunate that this is one of the most documented of Nirvana's tours, almost all of the shows, have been recorded in either audio or video and often both. This puts us in a position to judge for ourselves how good or bad the tour was.
Like the American In Utero tour, it began with the band guesting on a TV show, Nulle Part Ailleurs. After the pedestrian performance on Saturday Night Live the previous year, the omens did not look good for this performance, Kurt was known to be less than enthusiastic about the European tour, in fact he was desperate not to go. The record company though needed the band on the road to support the band's most recent output, no doubt eager to repeat the success of Nevermind and anxious to dispel the months of bad press both about the album and Kurt's private life. Kurt was in no position to argue, Nirvana was no longer the most popular band from Seattle. Pearl Jam had stolen a march on the band, with astonishing first week sales of their second album VS and after a lengthy period of inactivity the band could simply not afford to be off the road any longer.
Their performance though initially at least appeared to belie these problems; the bands displayed an energy that had not been seen by European TV audiences since their incendiary performances on British TV over 2 years previously. The band on this occasion played with energy and passion, which produced strong performances of both Rape Me and Pennyroyal Tea. However, it is the performance of Drain You that will remain in the memory. The sight of Kurt beset by guitar problems, disdainfully discarding his guitar and taking out his frustration by screaming blue murder into the microphone is undoubtedly one of the high points of the tour.
After this promising start the tour then began in earnest with a low-key date in Lisbon, Portugal which features one of the longest sets the band would play. Sadly the recording we have is probably the worst recording of the In Utero tour, which makes judgement prohibitive.
The strong performances seem with hindsight, perhaps to belie the turmoil going on behind the scenes. By the Madrid dates Kurt is already considering cancelling. It would seem that the rumours of Kurt's drug use had reached such a level that Kurt was now seen as a junkie icon by Heroin users. Something sadly that would continue long after his death, as morbid junkies broke into the room where Kurt had committed suicide and taken Heroin supposedly in 'honour' towards him. Courtney Love's later recollections of the phone call received from Kurt at the time would illustrate Kurt's feelings towards this, he was according to Love "in tears" and desperate not to be the junkie icon he would later become. It sadly perhaps gave Kurt another reason to feel the world was better off without him. Indeed one would expect most people to feel not entirely dissimilar when faced with the prospect of becoming an advocate for one of the most insidious and lethal of narcotics.
The next show that can be reviewed was Nirvana's show in Toulon. It is the first opportunity for us to see Nirvana in person (bar the pro clips of Lisbon) due to a very good private video. The show itself is reasonable, albeit patchy, but the main thing of note is Kurt's dishevelled appearance, which as Melora notes proves to be a source of humour amongst the band members. "I don't remember where it was, but one of the funniest things that happened was after a show, Kurt's skin was really messed up, he was picking at it and stuff, and after the show, he asked this girl for foundation or base, and he took her make up and applied it really, really well and made his skin look perfect and then went to the bus. Pat Smear is like, 'A little late you just played for thousands of people with a pizza face.' He just laughed."
The tour then rolls into Paris with a superb performance, the band plays as good as I have heard them. Tearing through the setlist with reckless abandon they round the night off as they did their unplugged performance with a haunting rendition of Where Did You Sleep Last Night.
This quality is carried over to the next show that takes place in Rennes. This show is probably most remembered by most for the moment that the band shifts from Radio Friendly Unit Shifter to of all things the Knack's My Sharona. The show though is a quality performance from start to finish. After a somewhat shaky start it would appear that the band was finally starting to produce the performances that played a large part in their assent to super-stardom. The question though was the band able to sustain this momentum for their forthcoming shows?
The answer upon hearing the start of the bands final French show in Grenoble, which features an awesome Radio Friendly Unit Shifter that featured on the Home Alive compilation would be an emphatic yes. The overall performance though would prove a let down, a considerable disappointment given the band's most recent performances.
After the completion of the French tour the band moved briefly to Switzerland for one date. It was a rare chance for the band to have some fun "All the shows were in these arenas. This one had a (ice) hockey arena connected to it, and the players or whoever said it was ok to go in and take skates and go skating. I think it was Krist and Shelli, Dave and Jennifer, I don't think Pat did it, and Kurt didn't go, he was, you know, kind of depressed. It was really fun and then we went straight to the show."
Sadly, Nirvana's show in Neuchatel, Switzerland is another of the performances that have not yet surfaced. There is though a newspaper review of the show transcribed and translated by Live Nirvana's co-owner Charles Furth, which should somewhat make up for this.
After this performance Nirvana understandably took a day off for what would prove to be Kurt's last birthday, but any respite was small as the band began their Italian tour on the very next day on Modena. Melora remembers that the band chose to set up camp in Bologna, where Kurt got a rare chance to do a little sightseeing. "We stayed in Bologna, a really, really amazing medieval kind of city. I know Pat and Kurt went to an ancient church and the square and I think had a decent time looking around at stuff. We all went out to dinner somewhere in Italy together, the label would sometimes take us out, other than that we didn't hang out much. Everything was always tense."
Melora remembers that these excursions were, albeit briefly an opportunity for the band to relax and let their guard down. A good example of this was Kurt, Pat and Melora's visit to the Vatican. "That was the closest thing I had to a nice time with them. The sun was setting on the Vatican and we were running around, there was a sign that, I guess, means 'no short skirts' and Kurt was like 'no mini-skirts allowed in the Vatican?!' He's like, 'No little girls allowed in the Vatican?!' It was funny."
The Italian tour though despite these light-hearted moments, is perhaps where the tiredness and problems seem to catch up with the band. The videos of the tour show a band that looks tired, and at times completely uninterested and are in stark contrast to the previous French shows.
The Italian shows saw an escalation in the band's problems behind the scenes. It is by now clear if it was in doubt before that the Cobains' marriage is in trouble. Cross (2001) carries recollections presumably from Courtney of the couple's many fights over the phone, fights which culminated in Kurt phoning their lawyer Rosemary Carroll before the Munich show and demanding a divorce.
It was clear from this point in that if Kurt had been reluctant initially to tour he was now intransigent in his desire to end the tour. He even went to Krist on the eve of the bands second Milan show to tell him that he wanted to call off the tour, though Krist later managed to talk him around.
Rather than face the problems square on, Melora Creager believes that behind the scenes there was a culture of secrecy to hide the true extent of Kurt's problems. "What I thought was weird, was that people acted like nothing's wrong. They talked around him, or through him. I didn't know what the details were, but I felt like 'excuse me this guy is miserable.' Pat would tell me what's going on but it was all very secretive. He'd tell me cryptic things and I'd hear other bits and pieces from Jennifer, and I was just trying to put it all together. They didn't talk much. I felt like Krist cared a lot about Kurt, but whatever happened over the years that I wasn't privy to... he just seemed sad about Kurt's state. Kurt seemed like a really depressed guy, and I thought so much of his music and he seemed a really nice guy too, so I just thought of him as this tortured genius."
If Kurt got little support from his band members, he had none from his manager either as Melora notes. "John Silva gave Kurt a carton of cigarettes for his birthday "Kurt said something like 'Oh he's trying to kill me' They just seemed not to like each other and it wasn't a secret." This matter was further complicated as while Kurt and Silva did not get on, the rest of the band did and sought Silva for advice. Kurt though preferred to defer judgement to Danny Goldberg the band's ex A&R man whom the band had kept in an advisory capacity, a fact which Goldberg himself notes. "I ended up being the person that Kurt talked to specifically. John certainly was in charge of all the logistics and the touring and would talk to Krist and Dave more than I did, but there came a time when Kurt mainly wanted to talk to me."
The show that followed the troubled Italian shows was perhaps the most important date of the tour. It was to take place in Ljubjana, Slovenia. It was an important date for many reasons. It was important personally for Krist who had many family members attending the show and also for the Slovenian people, as at the time of the show much of the former Yugoslavia was still immersed in a bloody civil war. Despite an enthusiastic crowd, the performance is only a marginal improvement on the poor performances of the Italian tour and has little to merit it.
Although it could never be envisaged at the time, Nirvana's final show was to be in Munich, Germany. This show and the reasons for the abrupt end to the tour have been shrouded in mystery. Several different accounts of this show exist. One version was that show was absolutely awful with Kurt's voice only making it as far as Dumb before disintegrating completely. Other accounts ran along similar lines, only differing in the length of the performance. Another account this time given by a fan who claims to have attended the show said that the show was simply of a normal length.
Perhaps the most reliable account is given by Cross (2001) who said that the show was brought to an abrupt end by Kurt after only 70 minutes. The last song the band was to have performed would be rather surreally enough, the second Cars cover of the night Moving In Stereo. The only firm evidence we currently have of the quality of this show comes from the first 3 songs, which were broadcast on a German TV special. They give a different impression to the reported accounts and show a marked improvement in the quality of performance over their recent abject displays. A performance which, were it to be continued would make this one of the shows of the tour.
After that show Nirvana cancelled the remaining 2 dates of what was ostensibly the first leg of their European tour, the second leg of course never took place. The remaining dates were rescheduled and then finally cancelled as Kurt's death put an end to any lingering hopes that the band may continue.
The tour has undoubtedly been clouded by Kurt's subsequent death. The search for answers as to why someone who had so much could possibly see no future in his life, has often distorted many of the facts of Kurt's life and this is no exception. We through the recordings that fans have made, can see a different picture, we can hear the great shows in Paris and Rennes and we can also see the poorer performances and general lack of interest that marred the Italian tour. We may never know what Nirvana would have become in the passing years, but at least in this authors humble opinion, this tour proves that despite, the Heroin addiction, the internal band unrest; Nirvana on their day could still be a truly great band.
Matt Seward's personal Best Performance List from this tour: (note this may not correspond exactly with the stated ratings of the concerts because his criteria are weighted slightly differently)