Thurston Moore and KURT During Art Basel Miami Beach 2012

Photo by Ian Witlen
Thurston Moore reading a poem "with Kurt in mind."
No one wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the wall.

Still, the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts reeked, ever-so-slightly and not-so-literally, of sweaty punk armpits, greasy faded flannel, and the sweet stink of grunge.

Last night, KURT, "a multi-discipline exhibition and study of the late Kurt Cobain," crept into the 86-year-old ex-movie palace for a short intense evening of film, dance, talk, poetry, and music from multidisciplinary contemporary artist Adarsha Benjamin, bad boy choreographer Ryan Heffington, and L.A. musician Guy Blakeslee, as well as actual friend-of-Cobain and indie icon Thurston Moore.

Courtesy of Adarsha Benjamin
A still from Adarsha Benjamin's short film KURT.

Like some kind of dream of a dream, KURT began with KURT, a beautifully elegiac 12-minute movie by Benjamin starring a Cobain look-alike who stumbles through a grainy Super-8 world, tearing up musical instruments in a musty basement while the cold, grey Pacific Ocean relentlessly crashes against the shores of the Northwest.

There were flashes of unwashed blonde hair, crooked smiles, dirty shoes, shadowy unknowns, and scrawled messages on stained drywall.

Photo by Ian Witlen

Suddenly, with KURT ending, the screen was snuffed black as if the projector were being blocked by a human body. Then the movie screen silently retracted into the ceiling like a dark curtain, revealing five grunge kids in a heap at center stage. Maybe dead. Or maybe junk drunk.

This was Heffington's work, a strange and expansive dance adaptation of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, starring five longhaired negative creeps, flannel-clad and squeezed into filthy torn tights or long thermal underwear.

Photo by Ian Witlen

Heffington's dancers rose from the dead, only to be trapped in a dank, pitch-black, fake smoke-filled, unfurnished space. Like the set of Bertolt Brecht play about Gen X. Or yeah, the gym from Nirvana's "Teen Spirit" clip.

They were four brown-haired creeps. And an ambiguously gendered blonde, who woke up, spazzed out, and unbraided a rope of hair dangling through the middle of his/her totally unknowable face.

Together, like weirdo cheerleaders trapped under the bleachers, they twitched through finely choreographed seizures of angst and deep heroin nods while wracked with existential spasms, wrestling schizo demons to a soundtrack of ominous booms, gasps, moans, grunts, and guttural exhalations.

Photo by Ian Witlen

That's when a shaft of light sliced through the darkness. And Blakeslee appeared, illuminated with his guitar.

He tore into a delicately distorted solo guitar piece, entrancing the grunge kid creeps. And after a few minutes of hypnotic riffage, he segued into a cacophony of looped axe samples, which slowly calmed and quieted, before bleeding through to a pair of hymn-like dirges as his vocals swerved between sarcastic sneer and operatic warble.

His final tune: "Prayer for Death."

Photo by Ian Witlen

A drum kit was dragged out. The amps were shoved toward the edge of the stage. A sheet music stand was plopped down beside the microphone. And after a short intermission, Thurston Moore straggled toward the mike to introduce himself.

Tall and gangly and smiling with a guitar slung around his neck, he said, smirkingly: "Hey, I'm Thurston and I was born at the Coral Gables hospital in 1958."

He kept talking for about 15 minutes, delivering an informal and funny stream-of-consciousness spoken-word performance about growing up in Miami, meeting dirty hippie dudes in Coconut Grove as a kid, and getting his mouth violently washed out with soap by a gang of nuns.

"This is turning into a Henry Rollins kinda thing," Thurston snickered.

Photo by Ian Witlen

Photo by Ian Witlen

"I don't know what else to say!" he laughed. "I'm gonna play, like, one song. Then I'm going to play some music with my friend [Miami local and International Noise Conference alum] Steve Bristol.

"I want to read a couple of things I wrote," Moore added, "now or maybe later, with Kurt in mind. I thought the film was beautiful and I was happy to see that film. I love the idea that we can just be expressionistic in our feelings towards people, whether we were intimate with them or not, as long as they brought beauty and feeling into our lives."

Then Thurston, now and not later, read one of those things he wrote. "This poem is called 'Olympia." Just like the theater and the town where Cobain grew up.

"For whatever/Throw away the key to the Dharma Center/I know nothing/Stack of music/Breathing there/You'll never know what hit you/Chelsea light moving, rings true/The ultimate adult/The inexhaustible treasure/The wrong idea meant to be/The obscene strut of your exit is where I choose to drift/Give me you/Random House/Introducing distance, the responsibility to return/Better than I remember/I don't like isolation/This room has heavy bleed."

Photo by Ian Witlen

Next, leading into his only true song of the evening, Moore said, "I'd to play a song that I wrote in 1993. And it was somewhat inspired by a lot of interactions I had with the little community that was kind of hanging around [Kurt's] scene at the time in the Pacific Northwest.

"The references were abstracted. But it was certainly pointed at some friendships I had within that scene. So I wrote this song and then I wrote an album that was somewhat thematically structured around it.

"It's called 'Psychic Hearts.'"

After brooding through "I know you have a fucked up life/Growing up in a stupid town ... But will you remember one thing for me/I will always love you," Thurston shifted into a 15-minute atonal free jazz noise meditation as Bristol expertly banged away on his kit.

Moore bowed the guitar with a busted drumstick. He strangled that electric axe. He picked its strings with all ten fingers. He indulged full-on whammy bar abuse. He slapped it with rock-star windmill moves. And the instrument screamed, wheezed, buzzed, hissed, and almost ate itself alive.

Ranging from vertiginous ringing clank to high-pitched piercing guitar wails, this experimental freakout piece finally peaked with a frenzy of swirling squelch and feedback, giving way to an asynchronous explosion at hardcore speed as the indie-rock fanboys and -girls flocked to Thurston's feet.

Photo by Ian Witlen

Ending, Moore read a final, vaguely Cobain-related poem, winding through Seattle-esque imagery and even echoing his Miami monologue.

"Appearing this morning/Last night's magic workshop/Not only not real/But openly gay and indeterminate/Nuns smile, voluptuous and crazy/How I wish to be on you/A meadow, pounded by rain/The storm is natural enough/This has everything to do with you/And your tiniest hair/Be a warrior/Love life."

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S. Pajot
Contact: S. Pajot