Steven Jesse Bernstein was born in Los Angeles, California. He moved to Seattle, Washington in 1974 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 and poetry scene, with notable fans including Kurt Cobain and Oliver Stone.
He 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.
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 Nirvana, 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".