Reading and Leeds Festivals: Nirvana dancer Tony reflects on their 'gig of the decade'
By Paul Glynn
Thirty years ago, when Nirvana played their now historic headline set at the Reading Festival, one man from Nottingham had the best view on the site.
Antony Hodgkinson, aka Tony the interpretive dancer, joined Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic on stage for roughly half of the gig, expressing their grunge rock sound - best exemplified by the thunderous Smells Like Teen Spirit - through the medium of freestyle dance.
Like Bez from the Happy Mondays (in spirit if not in style), he had headbanged and pogoed along with the Seattle band when they were in the UK before, including at Leeds Festival in 1990 and halfway up the bill at Reading in 1991, just before the release of their classic album Nevermind.
Then came Reading 1992, which would prove to be the last time anyone ever saw Nirvana play live on British shores.
Tony, 55, tells the BBC it was "an exhilarating moment" for the group - one that "connected with so many people at the time" following months of press reports about them breaking up or cancelling amid tensions around Cobain's heroin addiction.
The cathartic performance, which saw Cobain enter the stage in a wheelchair wearing a hospital gown and wig - mocking the premature reports of his demise - was described by journalist Keith Cameron as "wonderful rock 'n' roll theatre".
A live recording of the largely unrehearsed performance, which ended in smashed instruments, was released in 2009 in all its ramshackle, screeching and in-parts wilfully out-of-tune rock 'n' roll glory.
"I was absolutely shattered at the end of it. It was a brutal punk rock show," recalls Tony, who required a neck collar himself after the concert, having given himself whiplash.
"I'd have to take breathers, but also there were certain songs like On a Plain that I used to love listening to and I just thought, it's not my show - I'm part of it, but it ain't my show.
"There were certain songs they were insistent that I was dancing for, like right at the end, when they played [Wipers cover] D7 and Territorial Pissings."
He continues: "Any good director gets the best performance out of his actors."
Tony first met Nirvana in 1989 when he was asked by their UK booking agent, his friend Russell Warby, to pick up the relatively unknown young Americans from the airport.
Their friendship flourished, and one night before a gig at Leeds Polytechnic, the provocative three-piece dared him to get up on stage in Warby's girlfriend's dress. Tony obliged to great effect, with added tribal body paint, and subsequently become a semi-regular fixture - when he wasn't on tour himself as the drummer in Derby alternative rock band Bivouac.
"He just wound up coming up on stage one night," recalled fellow drummer Grohl in the 2021 BBC documentary When Nirvana Came to Britain.
"I'm not sure how he wound up backstage with make-up and paint all over him, but he became a dear friend. Kurt loved him, we all loved him."
The feeling was mutual for Tony, who describes himself as having been a bit a of a "damaged" character around that period, noting: "Kurt took me under his wing.
"Maybe he'd been through a similar thing psychologically and whatnot. And it was very good, he always listened and was a lovely guy - very shy, funny, and we used to have a right old laugh."
Initially, he says, Cobain just wanted him to sweep the floor between songs, but soon found his dancing "added another bit of a groove on stage".
His memories of that famous final night in Berkshire - which Grohl revealed had "a huge significance" on the band emotionally - remain "bittersweet".
While it let a little light into some dark days for them all, darker ones were to come, and it was the final time Tony ever spoke to his friend in person. Almost two years later, Cobain took his own life at the age of 27 - weeks before Nirvana's planned return to the UK for a string of shows at London's Brixton Academy.
"I lost my mind quite a bit after that," says Tony, who quit his band soon after and didn't pick up his drumsticks again until 2000. "It left me in a very odd place."
Nowadays, the computer software tester and semi-pro musician is very much back in the groove. After backing Julian Cope in various projects for a decade, he is now playing in three bands - Dogntank , Island Apes and Great Raven, the latter with his partner Lucy.
His dancing days are over, though, due to too many surfing injuries. However he is encouraging festival-goers at Reading and Leeds this weekend to truly let go of themselves, as he did in the same fields all those years ago, and similarly feed off the energy of modern headliners such as the Arctic Monkeys, Dave, The 1975 and Megan Thee Stallion.
"You don't need any drugs," he says. "You get dancing to music, you react to that sound and you're away - it's pure escapism. If you can project that to other people in the audience and get them riled up and going, just the same as Bez would've done, all the better for it.
"I'd get a lot of criticism from people going, 'Mate that's rubbish, why are you doing that? I could do that'. And it's like, yeah that's the whole point... I was a fan and it hopefully gives the fans that contact and [gets them] thinking, anybody can do anything, really."
Although he won't be heading back to Reading, Tony is hoping to recover from Covid in time to attend the remembrance gig for another drummer, Grohl's late Foo Fighters bandmate Taylor Hawkins, at Wembley Stadium next weekend.
His enforced isolation has at least given him a chance to catch up on some more films chronicling other legendary nights from the annals of British music history.
"One brilliant one that I saw this week was one of Oasis at Knebworth," he says. "Now, I was never an Oasis fan, but I'm always fascinated by the rock documentary and it was quite funny because I was watching and Noel was on about making history, [saying] 'This is going to be the the gig of the decade'.
"And I thought, hold on a minute... we did that four years previous!"