In the room downstairs, she sat and stared.
Give or take twenty years ago, I connected with a young woman I’d first seen on television during the summer of 1993, when I was playing drums in a couple of basement bands. One was a semi-sincere Minutemen/Pavement thing, the other a sweary punk comedy act called Headless Babies, informed almost exclusively by Angry Samoans and Hate Your Friends. Just before I joined, they’d sent a cassette to SPIN magazine’s Worst Band in America contest, packaged in a shoebox full of doll parts. Although the Babies weren’t mentioned by name when the winner/loser Scraping Teeth was announced, the doll’s head featured dead center of the two page spread in the May 1993 issue.
Apart from tour-postcard replies to my fan letters (thank you Stephen Malkmus, Juliana Hatfield, Ira Kaplan), I was a hopelessly uncredentialed music obsessive to this point. I’d been to two or three record fairs at the since-demolished Bayside Expo Center, but edifying trips to Boston record stores didn’t start until 1992. Which isn’t to say I felt a burning need to find “cooler” music, because I was getting My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Cocteau Twins, the Cure and Nirvana at the mall, and New England boasted a suburban chain with 81 locations called Strawberries, where you could get recent releases from SST, Matador, Merge, Sub Pop and Homestead (bizarrely, Strawberries was a component in the Genovese crime family’s money laundering operation).
I was the sort of Judd Nelson/Cry Baby figure in my school, surrounded by cute suburban girls of the ascendant “crunchy” variety; I had a firm and varied circle of friends — preppies, stoners, goths, punks — to dart in and out of, and I could take my landscaping money one exit down the highway to buy Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches. The tenor of all these recent articles about Generation X — which anyone my age felt too young to be included in — is as alien to me now as it was when I lived through it. We hated Reality Bites, Singles, and all that shit. There’s nothing extant to explain what 1988-1992 felt like, because all mainstream efforts to make a market out of us were so comically watered-down, in order to bridge the generation gap, and secure funding from Baby Boomers.
In the suburbs, we were solely focused on MTV: Dave Kendall and Kevin Seal’s 120 Minutes/Post-Modern MTV, Liquid MTV…it would be disingenuous to omit that early seasons of The Real World were often compelling. But this was ephemeral cable programming: the notion of packaging and selling any of this as evergreen content had not dawned on anyone. The remastered Star Wars VHS box set, which launched that entire vertical, came out in 1995, and is the dividing line between disposable and immutable pop culture.
SPIN was invaluable. We mocked it mercilessly, and considered anyone on the cover a cornball sellout, but apart from the Trouser Press Record Guide, nobody was helping us put the pieces together. In retrospect, I can see that SPIN’s review section and overall vibe felt familiar because I have a dick. Whether you were into punk, metal, goth, indie or Mod, music criticism and fanaticism was lorded over by hectoring dudes. Charles Aaron and Byron Coley weren’t terrible with it, but apart from Celia Farber’s AIDS writing, SPIN published little in the way of proto-woke content.
That distinction will forever belong to Sassy, launched in the late 1980s in an effort to redress gender inequity in the youth market…market. Most guys I knew read it cover to cover. You would have paid $25 an issue to get such a wide-open window into the female mind/body. Sassy was frequently raw, infrequently cloying, but most important, unapologetic in its focus on issues facing teenage girls. Evangelicals were aghast; if memory serves Sassy was caught up in the Great 1990s Condom Panic, where for years adults couldn’t decide whether promoting safe sex was de facto promoting sex and therefore immoral. It’s hard to relay the sense of living amid three concurrent generation gaps — the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, and Generation X — and feeling distinctly younger than any of them. When twenty-something Gen-Xers clawed their way into the Boomer music industry and broke Nirvana, they were breaking them — marketing them — to kids like me. That’s not fraternal; it’s transactional, and these tiers of disconnection made the world feel very L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution. I’ll put it to you this way: read Pat Robertson’s address to the 1992 Republican National Convention. Frances Bean Cobain was born while that speech was broadcast.
Sassy’s reputation generated untold opportunities for its editor in chief Jane Pratt, who left for television, launching the chat-show Jane in mid-1992. Later that year, Newsweek ran its infamous feature on Jane, Sassy, and Riot Grrrl, titled “Revolution, Girl Style.” To this point, Riot Grrrl had been a tight if fledgling network of zines and mailing addresses, with the distinction of being socially self-policing. The big zines of the era were all post-Lampoon shock value and going-nowhere self-effacement, with no fixed aesthetics or ambitions, but Riot Grrrl was increasingly, justifiably paranoiac about misrepresentation and mistranslation as it rose to public prominence throughout 1992. With the publication of “Revolution, Girl Style,” Kathleen Hanna called for a “media blackout” in 1993, convinced the movement’s principles were being diluted and co-opted. That’s the party line, but we all know the real story: Hanna needed to exorcise her primal obsession with Evan Dando.
Kathleen Hanna’s biggest fan may have been Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, an avatar of mystery and resolve during the nerdy, nervy 1980s. Gordon’s bi-coastal, bohemian upbringing lent a worldliness missing from the younger, more urgent architects of Riot Grrrl. At the epicenter, all the iconoclastic Riot Grrrls — who were called “anti-male” more often than feminist — felt this movement they’d urged on fracture, as is so often the case with declarations of intent rooted in righteousness or purity of thought or action. Hard-line idealism inevitably spawns collaborators and traitors, real and perceived. When “Revolution, Girl Style” obliterated all sense of conceptual control over Riot Grrrl, Hanna took her phone off the hook, and Kim Gordon did something very interesting. Despite the difference in age and upbringing, Kim tried to keep the conversation going. She appeared on The Jane Pratt Show in the summer of 1993, alongside Erin Smith of Bratmobile, and the teenage girl who’d been the focus of the Newsweek article, Jessica Hopper. I recorded it to VHS, because the musical guest was Bettie Serveert, whose Palomine LP — along with Superchunk’s On the Mouth and the Stone Roses’ Turns into Stone — had been my soundtrack to that spring’s landscaping.
In 1993, Kathleen Hanna was twenty five. Jessica Hopper was sixteen. This is a universe apart, yet Hopper stood firm as a succession of ignorant males in the audience fired sexist barbs her way. She resisted classification as a “riot grrrl” per se, reiterating that she loved music and helping promote music that mattered to her. I sampled some of her commentary over a tedious Slint ripoff my “serious” high school band was working on, and forgot all about her.
On graduating college in 1997, I was out to form a real band in a real city, after four years in upstate New York opening for Letters to Cleo, Archers of Loaf, These Animal Men, and the Figgs. Yet the music scene I came back to wasn’t full of musty J Mascis types or the foggy, antisocial Mission of Burma clones I’d come up with. Increasingly, it was stocked with unapologetic, narcissistic poseurs. It wasn’t about music or music knowledge anymore, it was about presentation. It was about “killing it.”
I mean granted: there were faceless post-rock and schlubby rhythm guitar bands who were never going anywhere; that dynamic persists today, but the bands that were pulling crowds and doing singles and getting reviewed in the national print zines seemed to be mining really obvious territory like the Stooges. The naive zeal for originality and novelty that had driven every band I’d been in since 1991 — and resulted in no lasting or good music, to be fair — had given way to a regressive denim catwalk, and I hated it. When a guy I was in a band with put on the “holy shit dude you gotta fucking hear this” CD-R of the Strokes’ Modern Age EP around the turn of the millennium, I threw a shitfaced tantrum that cleared an entire triple-decker in Mission Hill. Which was the moment I realized I was better at talking about music than playing it.
Having been online since 1993, I’d been on various show lists and alt.music circulars, but I can’t remember an “e-zine” before 1998, when suddenly there were fifty of them. Factsheet Five shut down around this time, and we all bounced from Yahtzeen to Drawer B to Brainwashed to Western Homes to Pillowfight to Buddyhead, which was arguably the first independent internet sensation as regards music. By this point major print zines like Chunklet, Badaboom Gramophone and Punk Planet were publishing perfect-bound digests with accompanying compilation CDs of commissioned material. Web zines carved a new lane, somewhere between the timeworn folded 8x11 Kinko’s-core stuff, and the professional sheen of those nationally-distributed titles. And honestly, there wasn’t so much music coming out that Punk Planet et al were missing anything. The only middle ground I saw was a still-paper zine called Hit it or Quit It, which was hilarious. They published a scatological lexicon of made-up slang (think Megan Jasper) that made me laugh in a way I hadn’t since I drummed for Headless Babies.
CAPE: Refers to any excess clothing on yer body; very couture. (ex. “That scarf tied around your wrist makes a nice hand cape.”)
EXTENDED REMIX: Way too much chaos, can also mean bad relationship.
HEY KOOLAID: when someone or something is super boring or whiny and you wish someone would bust down the walls and make everything rad. (ex. After three hours of hearing him talk about his ex, I was totally, “Hey Koolaid”)
TRIANGULAR, BLACK-HAIRED: Another reference to the Ladies’ Y, except used in front of anything that is extremely not pussy. (ex. “I cleaned out the triangular, black-haired pantry for my mother today.”)
Hit it or Quit It had all the snide of a Buddyhead sans the proto-VICE drug chic and scenester backbiting. Well, no…there was shitloads of backbiting, but it was justifiably clever and aggrieved. I emailed them some record reviews I’d written for a zine called Thumb in college, and Jessica Hopper wrote back. I had no idea who she was.
My memory of this period is poor, because I was also sending loads of stuff to Henry Owings (Chunklet) and The Baffler, and once I connected with Ryan Schreiber in 1999, Pitchfork consumed the next five years of my life. I think I sent Jessica three reviews and some tearaway Top X of X lists before I started an email argument with the entire masthead about whether or not Mary Timony was complicit in the unsubtle marketing of her sex appeal. At some point I realized Jessica was the girl I’d seen on Jane Pratt and asked how that had impacted her, being so young. She said she was lynched in effigy at her high school.
Jessica spent the years I was at Pitchfork promoting bands and establishing herself as a major feminist voice in the increasingly juvenile, male-dominated underground. She found a city that felt like home and treated it accordingly. I’m not sure we can say the same for Pitchfork, which dominated the musical landscape from its headquarters in Jessica’s stomping grounds. Big as I helped make the site, its founder never compensated me, and I decided to turn heel in 2005. Ten years later, he sold Pitchfork to Condé Nast for millions.
There are no ups and downs for me in this story, because apart from a fifteen minute stint at the Village Voice in 2006, I’ve never tried to get paid to write, which means I’ve never had anything at stake. And I’ve never been a big participant in the music scene itself, except as a commentator. I’ve been in a dozen bands, played dozens of shows, gone to hundreds of gigs, donated gear to bands I’m rooting for…but apart from two brief periods in late-90s Boston and early 2000s New York City, I’ve never really socialized with anyone likely to be quoted in some fan’s oral history of the music they listened to in their twenties. The dividing line keeping me away from that circuit tended to be class A drug use, as I’d gotten that out of my system quite young. By the time I was in a position to trade on my name and play those games I’d gotten engaged, and was beginning the ongoing process of becoming an adult. Most of that progress happened in my real life, and the internet became a blow-off valve for all the bad behavior I was trying to beat back.
Which is part of the reason I’ve done everything possible to erode and obfuscate my online presence. I’ve compelled Pitchfork to delete the 150+ reviews I wrote between 1999 and 2005, I’ve run hot and cold blogs, and produced a run of videos and later podcasts…but I need these things to die as much as I needed to bring them to life, and the internet doesn’t allow for that. In my case this is merely annoying and occasionally embarrassing; I’m not writing all of this because of anything that’s happened to me. I’m writing it because of a frightening incident Jessica Hopper endured in 2015, and how it affected me.
Jessica started Hit it or Quit It as a teenager in Minneapolis, and was fortuitously noticed by Courtney Love, who spent the late 1980s palling around the Twin Cities with Babes in Toyland. I know only what Jessica has stated publicly: that Love read her article in praise of Babes in Toyland, got in touch, and threw her a couple of bucks, encouraging her to keep going with her zine. Tiny lucky genius. Later, Hopper met and dated the guitar tech for Love’s new band Hole, and flew out to see him while he was house-sitting Kurt and Courtney’s Lake Washington manor. Cobain was nearing the end of his suicide spiral, and showed up early one morning, rousing Jessica but not her boyfriend. In 2001’s Heavier than Heaven, Charles R. Cross — who is my age — states that Kurt played a few bars of a song for her, singing “Hey Skinhead Girl.” I know of no song called this, or that features those lyrics. Clearly it was either “Yes She is My Skinhead Girl,” by Unrest, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” by Camper Van Beethoven, or “Punk Rock Girl” by the Dead Milkmen (my money’s on the latter). Jessica implored him to get in touch with Courtney — he did or he didn’t — and she flew home. She was seventeen.
While promoting her memoir Night Moves in 2015, Jessica was accosted by a woman whose experience of Kurt Cobain’s suicide had been warped by twenty years of conspiratorial bullshit made possible by the internet. In the old world, this would have been the sort of person who saved the pack of matches they lit Cobain’s cigarette with in 1991, for a chance to pretend they had some part in his story. Today, desperate fantasists like this concoct “documentaries” like Kurt and Courtney, the vile Soaked in Bleach, and the laughable Montage of Heck, all carefully pruned, ultra-biased narratives designed to afford audiences a sense of uncovering secret, suppressed knowledge. This impulse is nothing new, but the affordability of digital film levels the playing field for rational and irrational actors alike, which is why people you work with every day, who seem to lead comparable lives, can simultaneously believe the earth is flat, that humans have never been to the moon, and that Courtney Love orchestrated the murder of Kurt Cobain.
Jessica is increasingly named in frighteningly ignorant, hysterical screeds that suggest she “knows something,” or with her then-boyfriend is literally a participant in this vast, constantly mutating conspiracy. Events portrayed in the pitiable Gus Van Sant film Last Days are inserted into some chronologies. Seeing this bleed out across the internet chilled me, and made me appreciate that my generation is no longer talking among ourselves online. Being that first generation to really use the internet, it felt proprietary, familiar, under control — an adjunct to real life. We helped build it as regards our common interests, and brought up a subsequent generation to do the same.
Yet as it grew, those connections, like the zine lists that grew Riot Grrrl, were overwhelmed by rubbernecking window shoppers. New communities sprung up, with their own contentions, echo chambers, biases, and quests for new sources of authority. Suddenly, events we understood and had moved on from were being twisted into new narratives a new generation could shape and own. This isn’t something that happens in the real world — in a scene — because truth is demanded and easily divined, else there can be no trust, which matters a lot more when you’re talking about housemates, rides, and making rent. Without consequences or the need to maintain personal integrity, the most tantalizing, spectacular things are believable online, and mutual subscription to these points affords a sense of belonging.
The denial of Cobain’s suicide is a repudiation of our childhood, and the lessons we learned from it. His death, like most suicides, occurred in slow motion, over the span of about six months. All stories suggesting otherwise are conjecture without substantive corroboration, and largely originate from either tangential acquaintances, or the singular conman Love brought into the situation, Tom Grant. What these people tell you is what they want you to believe, not what they can prove. They want to have a part in this story — the biggest celebrity death since John Lennon — because their lives are inconsequential, and it elevates them to believe they are substantive participants, not mere observers. The truth is simpler: everyone who knew and worked with Kurt Cobain knew he was a suicide, and very few of them have told their stories from the first half of 1994.
I still don’t know Jessica Hopper. We’ve never spoken. But hearing the audio of her being harangued by this delusional, internet-fed flake really upset me. It was everything I feared come to life: the unerring conviction of a person who thinks only in terms of reinforcing a singular delusion, an empty lie sustaining an empty life.
May yours become fuller.