During the five-odd years that I knew Kristen Pfaff, she was: an outspoken scholar in the field of women’s studies at the University of Minnesota, and an engaging conversationalist eager to discuss politics without stooping to condescend another point of view. A visible figure in my somewhat claustrophobic community, Kristen at the time worked as a clerk in a local record store until her unceremonious dismissal due to a vocal show of support for friends of hers – members of the local band Cows – who were accused of slandering the reputation of her manager, by way of an interview in a rock publication.
Kristen, undaunted by such trifling attitudes, found a new job at a local coffee shop which had been a popular hangout for a vast and colorful assortment of art school students, local rock personalities past, present and future, pen-wagging bohèmes, and anybody who had a story to tell. The job transition had put a financial strain on Kristen, but she took it in stride. I still have the brand-new CD player she had to sell in order to cover some of her living expenses at the time, and if she ever wanted it back it would have been hers for the asking. Even in impoverished living conditions, Kristen was kind and generous, and was probably the biggest supporter of my pathetic habit of bumming smokes in a bar than anyone else I’ve ever known – never complaining once.
She had plenty to keep her mind occupied during those days – local Amphetamine Reptile artists God Bullies had been experiencing some shake-ups in their personnel, and it looked as though Kristen was to be their new bass player. She had already made a small word-of-mouth splash locally with a double-bass combo called Drool, along with long-time friend and companion Chris Kieser, Shannon Selberg and David B. Livingstone [on loan from Cows and God Bullies, respectively]. As if Kristen’s creative agenda hadn’t already extended itself far enough, she ultimately declined the prestigious post offered by the AmRep stable [a bit of a shame in that she would have been the first strong female presence on that label with her clothes on], and formed her own band. Along with Joachim (Joe) Bruer and Matt Entswinger (formerly of Bastards and Mondo Cane, respectively), Kristen helped form the powerhouse nucleus of Janitor Joe. The trio wasted little time in releasing a single on the newly-formed OXO label, run by close friend Jeffrey Herrman, and were offered a record deal with AmRep, resulting in the full-length release Big Metal Birds. Janitor Joe quickly garnered a small but respectable following locally and abroad, as Kristen thumped out riveting sensual bass melodies amidst the sturm und drang of Matt’s bone-shattering percussive attack and Joe’s monstrous vocal assault and guitar frenzy. Still, by the time they were ready to follow with a second release, another opportunity had presented itself.
On July 4th, 1991, members of the Seattle band Hole had showed up at a picnic at the house where Kristen was living, and although she would walk out on their show at the Uptown Bar later that same evening, Kristen was offered a job with the band two years later – enabling her to pursue yet another tangent of an already prolific musical career. Hole had already stimulated a sizable industry buzz with their debut LP, Pretty on the Inside, and in the light of lead vocalist Courtney Love’s recent marriage to Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, it seemed that Kristen would have her first real brush with widespread fame. Although it could be argued that her newfound recognition was only by association with an established celebrity scene, she certainly possessed the talent and determination to hold her ground once she set foot into the limelight. In the year to come, she would rightfully share in the group’s critical acclaim as Hole prepared themselves for a major label debut, Live Through This; numerous live dates, and the Miss World video in heavy rotation on MTV.
In Early ’94, following the death of Kurt Cobain, Hole took a temporary hiatus from touring in support of the new LP, during which time Kristen returned briefly to Mpls. to visit old friends, rent an apartment, and discuss plans for yet another group, tentatively called Palm. Meanwhile, the fame and recognition that came with playing in Hole – something Kristen seemed genuinely frustrated by – seemed to make her a hot commodity, as people around her tended to project their own larger-than-life impression upon her. The Minnesota Daily – a local college publication – published an interview with Kristen titled Not The Hole Story, a wry response to the backlash of attention she was now receiving. Prior to the Daily interview, Kristen regarded the idea with ambiguity, well aware that it was in fact her association with Courtney Love that made her appear to be media-worthy. Although she later remarked that she felt the session would possibly even things out a bit.
During this time, her replacement in Janitor Joe – Wayne Rogers – had been recently dismissed as the band was preparing to tour in support of a new LP, Lucky. Kristen joined forces with her old pals for a couple of impromptu sessions and an under-publicized – though largely attended – “one-time only”; show at the 400 Bar in Mpls. Thankfully, Kristen had arranged for me to record the show, in the hope that some portion of such a document might prove valuable to the band. A large number of old friends and fans turned out that night to witness Janitor Joe back in full force and in rare form indeed, but at the time it seemed unlikely that anyone could have realized it was the last time most of us would ever see Kristen alive. At the end of the night, I sat down with the members of the band and we listened to segments of the recording. Kristen suggested enthusiastically that the tape should be released in some form, and Joe suggested that culling a couple of tracks for an OXO single might be an option, for old times’ sake. At this point, Kristen had agreed to accompany Janitor Joe on a European tour with close friends Hammerhead, and it was decided that we would discuss the matter when they returned – in about three weeks. In the meantime, Kristen played a rather delightful prank on me, and had me unwittingly scampering off to the house of a certain young lady she knew I had a certain interest in – although I believed at the time I would be joining the band members for a little post-gig soiree. Kristen told me she and some of the band would drop off their equipment and meet me at the house of some friends, giving me a warm hug and promising we would see each other later. If I have ever in my life wished that a promise could have been kept, it would have been that one.
About a month later, I dropped by the Uptown Bar to check out locals Hot Date, and gather some info on an article I was doing on local talent. The opening band, Wake Oolo, turned out to be approximately 3/4 of The Feelies, so it happened I was listening to their rendition of the Velvet Underground’s What Goes On, when Jennifer of Hot Date told me the news: that Kristen Pfaff had been found lying over the edge of a bathtub in her Seattle apartment amidst a floor strewn with syringes; dead at age 27. Surprisingly few people seemed shocked by the news. Although my personal observations of Kristen’s flirtation with drug culture would have relegated it to no more than an occasional thrill, others swore it was only a matter of time before the deadly lure of addiction would force its hand. Since Kristen was in Seattle at the time of her death, it seemed unlikely that she could have hoped to fall back on the support of he close friends in Mpls., who might have been able to help her avoid the deadly Russian roulette pattern of heroin use. It has been speculated that on the evening she died, Kristen was in the midst of officially moving back to Mpls., perhaps even in the hopes of putting some distance between herself and the Seattle drug scene. I guess no one will ever really know what was supposed to happen, right? I personally dreaded the prospect of having to read about another faceless drug casualty of the alternative rock scene, not to mention all the articles I imagined would inadvertently shift the attention to Courtney Love, in lieu of the loss of her husband and the struggle to keep her daughter. The fact is that Kristen was not made valuable through her employment with Hole, and she is all of our loss.
I know I’m not the only one who will remember her as a beautiful and charming young woman who had so much energy she barely seemed to know what to do with it. I have spoken with many of the friends and loved ones who have survived her, and despite the frustration and anger at her loss, there is no small amount of grief at her absence from our community and our lives. Perhaps one of the most frustrating consequences of her death is that her funeral was to be held in her hometown of Buffalo, NY, making it impossible for many of those who were closest to her life to say a final farewell. As one close companion remarked through tears, “she got what she wanted, her fifteen minutes of fame”. Sadly true, although the real tragedy lies in the fact that fifteen minutes in the life of Kristen Pfaff could equal an eternity in the life of those around her, and the trade-off is that’s exactly what it has now cost her.
[Editorial addendum: although everyone has their own story to tell in situations such as this, mine is simply based on my own personal experiences and observations. In no way is this intended to be the definitive story of Kristen’s life, and if anyone cares to debate the credibility of the details therein, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in dragging Kristen’s name through the mud – thankfully, she seems to have been spared that fate at least.]
© J.Free / The New Puritan ReView; 1994; 2022