"We had an A&R person at Geffen saying, 'You guys can be the Pink Floyd of the underground.' I was, like, No, we can’t." Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore remembers Nirvana and 'The Year That Punk Broke'

Thurston Moore and Kurt Cobain
(Image credit: Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for MUBI | Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Thurston Moore's acclaimed new memoir Sonic Life may detail his life before, during, and after Sonic Youth, but the vocalist/guitarist also devotes a significant chunk of the book to the rise of Nirvana, and his friendship with Kurt Cobain's band, who signed with the same management company and record label as the New York quartet such was their respect for Moore and his (then) wife, and Sonic Youth bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon.

In his book, Moore recalls seeing Nirvana for the first time at a New Jersey club in 1989, when the Sub Pop act were touring as a quartet with second guitarist Jason Everman, and remembers standing "agape and transfixed" by Cobain's band.

"It took all of an electric flash of a second to see how incredibly beautiful they were and how soul-shredding the music was," Moore writes. "It would soon be clear that Nirvana was articulating something that connected not just with the punks but with the nerds, the freaks, the geeks, the losers, and the weirdos... It was going to be more than just cheap thrills, offering instead a radical reconsideration of musical expression at large."

In a new interview with MOJO magazine, Moore admits that he knew that his friendship with Nirvana would be a useful selling point when it came to approaching publishers for a book deal.

"I felt that was the aspect of our history most casual readers would be most interested in and I had no issue with that," he confesses. "When I was putting this book together my agent basically said, 'Give me your Kurt chapter.' It was used for finding the right publisher. I understood the value of that."

Asked by journalist Andrew Male if, in the process of writing the book, he rediscovered anything about his relationship with Cobain, Moore replies, "I don’t know if it elucidated anything more than what actually happened, which was this turning of the culture on its ear and offering it to the rest of the world."

Famously, a Sonic Youth/Nirvana European tour documentary, filmed ahead of the release of Nevermind, was titled The Year That Punk Broke, which became a catch-all term for the dawning of a new alternative rock era worldwide.

"However, it wasn’t as if bands like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, The Jesus Lizard or whatever bands Kurt was associated with were going to become the next big thing," Moore adds. "In the end it was all these bands none of us had ever worked with on the road, like Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam – because they were making the music more accessible. Around this time, we had an A&R person at Geffen saying, “You guys can be the Pink Floyd of the underground.” I was, like, No, we can’t. I realised that would be false. Nirvana stood alone – just this charmed thing. At one point, I was thinking maybe there’s too much Kurt in this book. But I realised this is partly because his presence in our culture was so profound."

Sonic Life is published by Faber & Faber, and is out now.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.