|Reading Festival line-up 1992|
We stand in the heaving damp crowd, steam rising from us into the dark night, gazing in anticipation towards the illuminated stage; white light against the dense black of the heavy cloud filled sky. There are thousands of us pressed together, pushing forward, jostling for position, good natured, excited, drunk, stoned, clutching plastic pint glasses of lager, hurriedly finishing the dregs, knowing that in minutes they will be dropped and crushed underfoot, or hurled high overhead, as the surging crowd behind us will swell forward when Nirvana appear on stage. We decide to get closer and edge forward through the densely packed bodies, squeezing into non-existent gaps until we stumble into space, the stage looming large above us. Figures move across the stage and guitars emit strange squeals as they are tuned. As one we become still, we watch, we wait.
It’s a powerful feeling when you find your tribe; the sense of belonging that this manifests is all encompassing, but also grounding. You’ve found your place in the world, and it now makes a little more sense. The Reading Festival in 1992 was the sixth time I’d been, and it was a regular on the calendar, but my journey to Reading and the sense of belonging I felt to those people and the friends I went with, started years before, in the late 80’s when I walked into a club called JB’s. I was on the cusp of adulthood and I was thinking how very boring I was, how conventional, predictable, and how unless I did something my life would slide into banality and I would begin my decline into a boring middle age, regretting lost opportunities. This probably sounds dramatic, but I remember it distinctly.
And then JB’s happened
As I pay my entrance fee and push into JB’s I get a weird rush of excitement; I’ve never been anywhere like this before. JB’s is a small squat building on a dishevelled car park behind an abandoned store called Pathfinders. Outside I could hear the muffled thump of the bass guitar and drums, but once inside the sounds become clearer and I can hear a deep voice singing. The corridor beyond the entrance runs alongside the main room where the DJ plays and the stage is set up for bands. It’s a wide corridor which opens into alcoves for people to stand and talk, and there’s a kiosk at the end selling chips and burgers. We have to push through groups of people, and I can smell patchouli oil as I squeeze past. I’m here with my friend Jen, she follows close behind me. The bar stretches along the back of the main room and it’s crowded at the counter. There’s a band playing, the air is smokey, and I can feel my boots sticking to the floor where beer has been spilt. Although the corridor is brightly lit showing the peeling paint and patchy floor, the main room is dark, the corners lost in shadows. Everyone looks different. There are punks, hippies, and the odd rocker in the crowd, and they all look slightly unkempt. Some Goths are standing in front of the stage wearing lots of black, paisley shirts, and chelsea boots, and the women and men have strong make-up on. They are watching the band, Fields of the Nephilim, but I watch them. Wide-eyed I look around the room at people talking and laughing as they lean against the walls, cigarettes and beers held casually in their hands. It is completely unlike any other club I’ve ever been to. I feel as if I have come home and found my future all at the same time.
I had found what was to become over the course of the next 10 years, my JB’s family, a term that all of us use for that particular special time in our lives. I was 18 or 19 at this time, and my sister’s boyfriend - who I knew from school - was forming a new band, and he asked me if I wanted to sing, a sort of backing singer, in a sort of punk band. Had I ever wanted to be in a band and sing? No. However I saw this as something I would regret not doing, so I said yes. Soon it seemed that everyone I knew was either in a band or knew someone who was, and I was surrounded by music. One of the first gigs we played was in JB’s. After 2 years, numerous gigs, and a double-life of work and touring, I felt disillusioned. We weren’t playing the type of music I wanted to, and it seems they were disillusioned with me. I left the band, feeling more liberated out of it, able to immerse myself in Grunge.
Grunge – defined by Wikipedia as a sub-genre of alternative rock which is characterized by a sludgy guitar sound, and in which the performers and fans wore second hand clothing and looked generally unkempt - had an energy that was incredible, the antithesis of other things happening at that time; birthed out of the eighties, the big shoulder pads, eighties hair, glossy make-up, Dynasty, Dallas, and all that seemed false and unnatural. In 1987 a band called Green River broke up and former members went on to form Mudhoney, and Soundgarden released the Screaming Life EP. 1988 saw the release of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff EP, and 1989 saw the release of Nirvana’s first album Bleach.
I threw myself into life, wanting to experience everything. These years are a floating mirage of images, places, and people, and they are mixed up in no particular order, layered one on top of the other -
Being awake all night and seeing the dawn rise in shades of violet and lemon in a cloudless sky over the fields of Glastonbury Festival, a few hundred people straggling across the landscape, as if survivors from an apocalyptic event. Black coffee sweetened with honey warming my hand in a plastic cup, a blanket draped over my shoulders for warmth, my friend Adele saying, “Where can we go now?” Finding a tent with tribal drummers sitting cross legged in the middle, their rhythms moving through my feet and into my heart. We follow the smoke rising on the hill. It drifts lazily from the fires which smoulder in front the Teepees in the Greenfields, the air so still, so calm, I feel I am trespassing on sacred ground.
Driving through the Black Mountains of Wales to a free festival, the sky full of cloud, mournful with mist, wind, and steady rain, sinking into the grey and green of the hills which rise menacingly on either side of the road. A man suddenly lurching onto the bonnet of my car, all dreadlocks, boots, and army jacket.
Running unleashed with my friend Jen around the streets of Ludlow, a small market town, both dressed as old blind women, with wild hair and costumes, leading a pantomime donkey, drumming up trade for our small theatre group of 9, all money raised going towards camping and beer.
Turning up at my parent’s house, my mother in despair. My hair is pink, I’m wearing stripey tights, a short skirt, very large jack boots and a fake leopard skin coat. She rages, “I haven’t brought you up in a lovely house and fed you and sent you to school to have you looking as if you had been dragged up on the streets. What will people think?!” I yell, “I don’t care what anybody else thinks, and neither should you!”
Me dancing wildly on several dance floors in many clubs, shaking my hair, my limbs, my beads and bangles, and feeling unfettered.
I marvel at my energy levels, I certainly don’t have them now, because for years I never stopped going out. I survived on sometimes three hours sleep a night, napped in the afternoon, and settled into a weird circadian rhythm in which I would sleep for a day and half every 10 days. I did so much I’ve lost track of what I did when. The only thread of normality was my job as a nurse, around which everything else fitted. My aim was to live life to the fullest, as it is meant to be lived; to be grabbed, embraced, and celebrated. Grunge was our source. We dived in and kept swimming to the energy filled vortex at the centre, and like a dark star it kept us there, entranced, for years.
I have always known what a privileged youth I had. The luck of being in the right time, at the right place, that enabled me to have these fantastic experiences. This weekend has been one of introspection, reflection, celebration, and sadness. RIP Chris Cornell, missing you already xxx.