The collective infatuation with Kurt Cobain is as ubiquitous as it is poignant. It’s dramatic, too, and incredibly mutable, lending itself well to all kinds of media: consider Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, or the media’s recent interest in Frances Bean Cobain, the beautiful and paparazzi-shy daughter of Cobain and Courtney Love, or the unfortunate couture-specific revival of ’90s grunge on the runways. It isn’t so different than a fascination with any young genius who died too early and left an impact bigger than he or she could’ve imagined. Cobain is part of the infamous 27 Club, after all.
It’s just that Cobain really was incredible and earnest, and really did mark a significant change, and his death really did come roughly a decade before the entire music industry was inverted in both the best and worst way possible. His legendary status has become bigger than the man himself, but only practically speaking — Cobain’s a legend not just because we made him one, but because he truly deserved it while living. Because of the understanding of both Cobain’s and Thurston Moore’s impact, the tribute to him at the Gusman Center, “KURT” — a multidisciplinary exhibition — felt like a tribute to the effect art and music has on all of us, collectively and personally.
Adarsha Benjamin’s short film, KURT, was, like much of her work, a purely visual, evocative experience. Benjamin shows that films can work like paintings, that they can function in decontextualized settings just as well as those with a given framework. KURT was clearly about Cobain, the way Cobain made her and so many of us feel — in one scene, Benjamin is dressed like him, smoking and dazed — but it was also about how the mythology of any place, time, and person can move you.
KURT created a haze necessary for choreographer Ryan Heffington’s reinterpretation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It felt like the film’s second half, another kind of physical channeling of Cobain’s legend, but felt reverent of myth and of art. The piece was mournful, sometimes, even during the dancers’ — all in flannel with long, messy hair — frenetic moments. Though fluid, they seemed pained, which makes sense considering the work’s inspiration. It took music to subdue them, put them in the same dreamy haze as the audience. Guy Blakeslee, of Los Angeles band the Entrance, worked as a guitar-wielding magician to entrance (“Entrance,” “entrance”) them before they slowly slipped away; the lyrics of his long, meditative performance included an exclamatory diss to fear.
Thurston Moore, though, waited before hypnotizing us. He talked, candidly, for a long while about his childhood in Coral Gables, sparking this humorous camaraderie among locals in the audience. His mention of Rat Bastard got much applause; he discussed hanging out at a record store owned by “a guy named Malcom,” to which an audience member excitedly responded: “Malcom Tent!” He described his parents as Coral Gables society people, and they became relevant story characters — his mother saw Gone With The Wind at the Gusman Center decades before; his father held, at some point, the Venetian Pool’s record for holding his breath underwater. Moore told us about inadvertently saying “fuck” at his Catholic school and getting his mouth washed out, violently, with holy soap. (The school’s name, Epiphany, was “actually really black metal,” he said.) It felt embarrassingly relatable when he mentioned momentarily considering becoming part of the music scene in Miami, as opposed to New York, because there’d be no competition.
It was a sentimental and funny conversation, but all of it served as a precursor to his poetry and following freakout. His first poem, “Olympia” — interesting considering the name of the city in Washington where Cobain traveled for concerts, as well as Gusman Center’s theater — featured the line, “The obscene strut of your exit is where I choose to drift,” which might not have been about Cobain, but probably was. He performed with local musician Steve Bristol on drums, and during the second song, their final one, with a bowed guitar and his characteristic exquisite, noisy, maniacal frenzy, tons of people went up to the stage, kneeling below it to snap photos of him on their cameras and iPhones. They appeared to be praying at an altar to Moore, mirroring this much more massive ceremony to Cobain that was happening throughout the night. Moore transitioned from his musical convulsion to his next poem as if nothing had happened, and its last line, which closed the show, was heartbreaking: “Be a warrior/love life.”