Steven Jesse Bernstein

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Steven “Jesse” Bernstein (December 4, 1950 – October 22, 1991) was an American underground writer and performance artist who is most famous for his recordings with Sub Pop Records and close relationship with William S. Burroughs. Bernstein’s substance abuse issues and mental illness contributed to his provocative local celebrity, though they ultimately culminated in his suicide.

Steven Jesse Bernstein was born in Los Angeles, California. He moved to Seattle, Washington in 1967 where he adopted the moniker Jesse, and began performing and self-publishing chapbooks of his poetry (the first chapbook was Choking On Sixth, 1978). Bernstein would become something of an icon to many in Seattle’s underground music scene. Notable fans included Kurt Cobain and Oliver Stone. Bernstein’s mental illness was not as alarming as it might have been off the stage, as his drug-reinforced manic episodes were harnessed and channeled into engrossing, often perverse, entertainment. According to one Seattle newspaper, he opened for music acts such as Nirvana, Big Black, Soundgarden, U-Men, and The Crows:

“He read poems from a stage with a live rodent in his mouth, its tail twitching as baseline punctuation. He tried to cut his heart out in order to hold it in his hands and calm it down. He once urinated on a heckler and tended to throw things: beer bottles, manuscripts, drumsticks, his wallet, a sandwich.”

The concept for the Bernstein album Prison was for Jesse to do a raw, live performance at Monroe, Washington State Penitentiary Special Offenders unit in 1991. Jesse went with his manager Barbara Buckland, Bruce Pavitt from Sub Pop Records, Grant Alden, then with Seattle’s Rocket Magazine, now known as the co-founder of No Depression Magazine, photographer Arthur S. Aubry, and various tech people. None of the session except for the photos taken by Aubry was usable, however, and SubPop later contracted Steve Fisk to finish the project. The album was intended to be produced along the same lines as Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, but 2 Fisk later decided to score the recordings with jazz and ambient music. The album was only partially completed when Bernstein committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat three times with a knife. He was 40 years old when he died – about a month and a half before his 41st birthday.

Prison was released on April 1, 1992. In 1994, one of these recordings, “Me and Her Outside (No No Man)”, was used in the film Natural Born Killers.

I am Secretly an Important Man, a collection of poetry, short stories, and spoken performances, was released in March of 1996 by Zero Hour Publishing.

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