The rock star among us
Our creative director used to be an emo/punk rock fixture in Madison and beyond. His ties to the music scene helped bring the Nirvana in Madison story to life.
How our upcoming July issue feature story about Nirvana in Madison came to be is a story unto itself, involving one dedicated writer and researcher, 31-year-old color negative film from a disposable camera and our own creative director’s remarkable emo/punk rock past.
It starts with Kurt Stream, who decided at the start of the pandemic to work on the story of Nirvana’s time in Madison, which had never been told before in full detail. “I’ve been fascinated with Nirvana’s ties to Madison since I was a teenager, but, like many Madisonians, I only knew the basic storyline,” says Stream. “I thought somebody should write a more complete history before all the small details are lost in time.”
Stream was born and raised in Madison but now lives in Tacoma, Washington, with his wife and daughter. He earned a degree in audio engineering and was a sound guy at Madison music venue O’Cayz Corral in 1999 and 2000. Hearing about Nirvana’s first Madison show at O’Cayz for 20-plus years spurred his interest in the story.
“When the pandemic hit I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands and started reaching out to people to get the full story,” he says. “More for my own curiosity than anything else.” But soon a good untold narrative took shape, including an interview with Butch Vig, who hosted Nirvana at his Madison-based Smart Studios and went on to produce and record “Nevermind.”
In his research, Stream dug earnestly for photos of the band in Madison. He finally came across a small, blurry, uncredited photo of Nirvana in the Wisconsin State Journal. Stream contacted Tom Alesia, a writer for the paper, who gave Stream a list of photographers who could have taken it, including Tyler Jarman. Jarman was a former WORT DJ and a manager who booked bands for O’Cayz Corral in the early ’90s. Over the phone, Stream learned that Jarman — who isn’t on social media and is not a fan of the news media — still had the negatives from the disposable camera he’d used to snap the photos of Nirvana in 1990. He’d been offered a nominal fee maybe 15 years ago to include them in a book about the band, but Stream says Jarman ignored the request. “I think the only reason why he let me share them for the article was because we had so much in common and talked for a while,” Stream says.
Further sleuthing led Stream to our creative director, Tim Burton, whose eyebrow-raising name caught Stream’s attention when he saw it on the magazine’s masthead. He wondered if it was the same Tim Burton who had liked one of the old-school flyers he had posted on the Madison Punk Archives Facebook group. (It was.)
This group and others — including Madison Music Venues of the Past and Friends of O’Cayz Corral — are where casual and hardcore music fans collide. When it comes to Nirvana, Stream says, the fandom goes beyond sharing random memories for some. Intense documentation of Nirvana shows, memorabilia and photos can be found on the living archive, livenirvana.com. But in music appreciation Facebook groups, you’ll find members like Stream and Burton posting flyers from past gigs, swapping show stories and posting links to podcasts and YouTube videos featuring local bands or famous acts that made their way through Madison.
But Burton has more than just an appreciation for Madison’s alternative music history — he lived it. A bassist and vocalist, Burton toured almost every state in America in various bands throughout the ’90s. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Burton moved to Wisconsin in 1983. While attending La Follette High School, he published his own fanzine covering regional and national bands, including groups formed by his peers. “Most of the bands that were popular in our scene all sort of originated from our high school,” Burton says. For example, Inspector 12 — a band Burton covered in his ‘zine and went to see at all-age shows — put out an album produced in 1986 by Butch Vig, who five years later would record and produce Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” “I never met Butch or anything, but obviously he was connected to the scene here heavily and produced smaller bands,” Burton says.
Burton remembers the first time he heard Nirvana’s “Bleach” album — it was at practice for one of the first bands he played in, Natural Cause. Then he joined a Milwaukee band named Demise (the band found out about Burton through the zine), and they often played shows in Madison. Demise put out a 7-inch record and did a bit of regional touring. Then came the band Business as Usual, which morphed into None Left Standing, one of Burton’s more accomplished groups. They recorded a demo, put out a 7-inch record and recorded a full-length album on a local label called Rhetoric Records. The band toured the East Coast and opened for acts including The Offspring and Rancid when they came to town. In 1997, Burton became the bassist for The Promise Ring, a band whose album “Nothing Feels Good” was listed by Rolling Stone as the third-greatest emo album of all time. “It was very well known for that genre,” Burton says. He did a two-month U.S. tour with the band and appeared in a music video that was on MTV.
But Burton’s run was cut short after The Promise Ring’s van flipped on black ice while on tour and everyone was seriously injured, including a 20-something Burton, who broke his arm. “That really put a stop to my music career after that,” Burton says. He decided to go back to school at Madison College for graphic design and landed a fateful internship with Madison Magazine that’s led to a career here for going on 20 years. Burton was recently reminded of his touring days when two of his band van photos were featured in the Dave Grohl-directed documentary “What Drives Us.”
The memories have continued to come back for Burton while working on this Nirvana in Madison story. Burton personally picked up the negatives from Jarman, and the two talked for a long time about music.
“I think the reason why he let us have the photos was because he knew that we were fans of the music,” Burton says. “He got a sense from Kurt that he was really into the music and was part of the Madison music scene when he lived here. Same thing with me. Otherwise I don’t think he would have done it. We came to him as music fans first.”
How lucky are we to not only snag a dedicated freelance writer who put all the pieces into place for an epic story landing on the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” but to also have a rock star among us who sealed the deal?
The Nirvana in Madison story and photos will first be available to Madison Magazine subscribers starting June 17. Madison Magazine is printing a special collector’s edition of the July 2021 issue featuring Nirvana on the cover for newsstands, available starting June 30. You can find all local newsstand locations by clicking here, or you can buy a single copy of the collector’s edition issue. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here or on the Subscribe module below. Kurt Stream will also be hosting a “Nirvana in Madison” special on WORT 89.9 FM that will air at 8 p.m. on July 2.
For media inquiries, please reach out to Madison Magazine Editor Andrea Behling at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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