When the Edge Moved to the Middle
By THURSTON MOORE
Published: April 8, 2004
The boy looked just like Kurt Cobain. He was no more than 19. Same yellow
hanging hair, fallow blue eyes, the sad square jaw, innocent and adult.
We were in a Brooklyn basement full of artists and sound-poets gathered to
watch musicians throw down extreme noise improvisation. One performer
played records with two customized tone arms on his turntable; the discs
broke and scratched, creating shards of hyperfractured beat play. He was
followed by a quartet of young women scraping metal files across amplified
coils mixed through junk electronics. I was to perform a spontaneous
guitar/amp feedback piece with a stand-up bass player on loan from his
teaching post at Berklee College of Music and a free jazz percussionist who
had traversed through New York's downtown underground in the 60's. Not your
typical night of alternative rock.
And I had a feeling this kid was looking for alternative rock. It was the
year 2000. Kurt had died six years earlier, and through whatever fleeting
friendship I had with him, this ethereal look-alike saw me as some
Before being labeled alternative rock, Sonic Youth, the band I started in
1980 (and continue in still!), was called "post-punk." By the early 90's,
we existed as a sort of big brother (and big sister) group to Kurt's
generation of underground America. When Nirvana became popular, we were all
called alternative rock ? a less threatening term than anything with punk
in the title (though with Green Day and Blink 182 in the late 90's, punk
ultimately became accessible and extremely profitable ? at least for the
new MTV punks). The original alternative rock bands ? Nirvana and Sonic
Youth included ? never had any allegiance to alternative rock. We all had
come too far and through too much for any professional advice toward
Kurt was not enamored with new traditionalism. He was more attached to the
avant-garde rock of his hometown pals, the Melvins, who continue to stretch
the parameters of what rock music can be. The traditional aspects of
Nirvana's music ? aspects that lent it accessibility ? were expressed
through Kurt as if they were experimental gestures. (The Beatles, also
grand pop experimentalists, were loudly whispered by Nirvana as a primary
influence, something unusual for punk devotees.) These elements were an
important part of Nirvana's appeal. But what is transcendent about Kurt's
art ? what today, 10 years after his death, gives him rock immortality ?
was his voice and performance ability, both of which exuded otherworldly
The initial popularity of alternative rock was in conflict with punk
culture, which has a history of denouncing commercial success. Nirvana's
second album, "Nevermind," along with the success of the Lollapalooza
tours, changed the game. Both announced the discovery of an unaccounted-for
demographic, cynical and amused by the pop rebellion displayed by new wave
(Duran Duran) and hair-metal (Guns N' Roses). This newly discovered
audience, one that surged well beyond the punk elite to the greater
population of alienated and dislocated youth, was all at once represented
Kurt was aware of his sudden high profile and how it could be perceived as
uncool in the punk scene. He made snotty comments about the fresh-minted
alternative rock acts being touted by MTV. We all did. At the request of
The New York Times, Nirvana's first record label, Seattle's Sub Pop,
created a mock lexicon of "grunge" culture. Remarkably, the news media ran
with it ? to our disbelief and delight.
In the face of success, Kurt seemed to feel the need to maintain this stump
position of punk rock credibility. Save the mainstream acceptance of the
relatively straight-ahead pop of R.E.M. ? which Kurt loved as much as
hard-core thrash ? there really was no model for such success from our
community. He told Flipside, the iconic Los Angeles punk rock fanzine, that
he hoped the next Nirvana album would vanquish their affiliation with the
"lamestream." He recounted being taken aback by an audience member who
grabbed him and advised him to, "Just go for it, man." I remember smiling
at this, as it was how most of us felt. We didn't perceive Nirvana's status
as lame. It was cool.
After all, the kids chose "Nevermind." Geffen Records, the band's label at
the time, had no real plans for it, hoping for modest sales. Rolling Stone
gave it a lukewarm review. Its subsequent off-the-map success was
wonderful, fantastic and completely genuine. What was disingenuous and
annoyingly misrepresentative was the reaction of the corporate music
industry. The alternative rock phenomenon was a youth culture hit and it
made stars out of select artists but, for the most part, it was a bunch of
corn to the creative scene where Kurt came from.
Nirvana made a point of touring with challenging groups like the Boredoms,
the Butthole Surfers and the Meat Puppets and presenting them to a huge
audience ? one that was largely unaware of those bands' influence. But only
the Meat Puppets would click a little bit. Without MTV or radio support, no
one was likely to reach Nirvana's peak.
When Kurt died, a lot of the capitalized froth of alternative rock fizzled.
Mainstream rock lost its kingpin group, an unlikely one imbued with
avant-garde genius, and contemporary rock became harder and meaner, more
aggressive and dumbed down and sexist. Rage and aggression were elements
for Kurt to play with as an artist, but he was profoundly gentle and
intelligent. He was sincere in his distaste for bullyboy music ? always
pronouncing his love for queer culture, feminism and the punk rock
do-it-yourself ideal. Most people who adapt punk as a lifestyle represent
these ideals, but with one of the finest rock voices ever heard, Kurt got
to represent them to an attentive world. Whatever contact he made was
really his most valued success.
You wouldn't know it now by looking at MTV, with its scorn-metal buffoons
and Disney-damaged pop idols, but the underground scene Kurt came from is
more creative and exciting than it's ever been. From radical pop to
sensorial noise-action to the subterranean forays in
drone-folk-psyche-improv, all the music Kurt adored is very much alive and
being played by amazing artists he didn't live to see, artists who
recognize Kurt as a significant and honorable muse.
The kid who looked like him sat next to me in the basement where we were
playing and I knew he was going to ask me about Kurt. This happens a lot.
What was Kurt like? Was he a good guy? Simple things. He asked me if I
thought Kurt would've liked this total outsider music we were hearing. I
laughed, realizing the kid was slightly bewildered by it all, and I
answered emphatically, "Yeah, Kurt would have loved this."
Thurston Moore is a member of the band Sonic Youth.