Nirvana played a total of 18 shows in the UK before they disbanded in 1994, and the last one, their 1992 set at the Reading Festival is one of the most memorable of their entire career. Shortly after the birth of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain, there was a lot of speculation about his health, so, he got on the stage in a wheelchair and a hospital gown, and played what music critics believe may be the best show of his career.
21 years later, folk-punk singer Frank Turner did the same thing at the Reading Festival, and, quite frankly, I think he actually topped Kurt Cobain, as he had a better reason to use the wheelchair. Since June, Frank’s been having trouble with his back. On his blog, he explained he’s been having trouble keeping it under control, and lamented that he had to cancel three festival dates so he could have an epidural. He went on to say: “Anyone who knows me even vaguely will know that, as well as being in a fair amount of pain, I’m filled with rage at my puny weakling back for letting me down, not to mention all the people at the shows. I can only humbly apologise. Hopefully I can sort this issue now and going forward I’ll be fine to keep touring til I’m old and gray. Speaking of the future, people coming to Hatfield, Reading and Leeds need not worry – the shows will go ahead, we are working on a plan, and if I have to do them in a goddamn wheelchair I will.”
And do them in a goddamn wheelchair he did. He went onstage at Reading in a wheelchair, but didn’t do the whole show in the chair. Unfortunately, he didn’t do the same thing when he played twin festival Leeds, standing the whole time. Hopefully, the wheelchair was on standby.
Quoth Frank: “I did it partly because I’m not supposed to be doing these shows because my doctor told me to cancel them and there was a moment last week when I couldn’t stand up. I turned up and my tour manager had [a wheelchair] in her house and so it was there. And then finally, yes, it’s a nod to Kurt Cobain in ’92. Nirvana are one of my favourite bands of all time.”
When asked about people who were offended what people perceived to be mocking the disabled, he explained: “I’m obviously not mocking disabled people. For the record, the charity I do the most work with is Able2UK, which works on disabled access for shows in the UK. I personally organise disabled seating for people at all of my shows. People email me and I sort them out. I’m obviously not mocking the disabled. I think it’s a real stretch actually to think that’s what I’m doing. I think that you have to be somebody whose finding reasons to be angry in life and just relax or take that energy and use it do something constructive to help the world instead of posting crappy little things.”
On the disabled side, Martyn Sibley of Disability Horizons had his two cents: “Both Kurt Cobain and Frank Turner are intelligent, clever artists so I don’t see a negative meaning. Controversial, maybe, but I can’t see what capital Frank would gain.” When asked if he thought Turner was trying to be offensive, he said “Hand on my heart, I don’t think that was in intention.”
Quite frankly, I think Frank’s been handling the back problems quite well. I may question the wisdom of going onstage in the wheelchair at Reading, but not Leeds, but given what I’ve learned about his health problems, it would be a huge stretch to think he had any bad intentions. I can’t help but admire any person who, in the face of major trials, is able to treat it with defiance. I remember when Johnny Cash was in his last days. He was confined to a wheelchair and had lost most of his sight, but said he looked forward to the day he could toss his wheelchair in the river. Frank, you’ve shown you’ve mastered the fabled Stiff Upper Lip without the stuffiness that so often accompanies it. Maybe I’ll start to actually listen to your music soon.