The New York blog East Village Grieve is reporting the death of Maggie Estep, a poet, novelist, and spoken-word performance artist who rose to prominence in the 1990s, at a time when her hip, confrontational attitude fit right in with the burgeoning “alternative” scene. Estep died of a heart attack at the age of 50. The A.V. Club has reached out to her representatives for official confirmation; meanwhile, tributes from those who knew her continue to pour in on Twitter.
Like other spoken-word artists of the grunge era such as King Missile (and even Henry Rollins, if you like), Maggie Estep married her aggressive, sardonic verse to rock music, on albums such as 1994’s No More Mister Nice Girl. Tracks like “I’m Not A Normal Girl” and “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With” found Estep embracing her own neuroses and taking aim at boringly conventional idiots—two of the guiding philosophies of Generation X.
In an age where anything “counterculture” was readily snapped up, Estep’s angsty coffeehouse rants and Lower East Side cool made her a regular presence on MTV, which featured her on Spoken Word Unplugged (the kind of MTV show concept that now seems like a lifetime ago), and sent her out on the “Free Your Mind” tour with fellow slam poets John S. Hall (of King Missile) and Reg E. Gaines. Estep’s video for “Hey Baby” even turned up on Beavis And Butt-head, where she arguably broke through to her widest audience. Her MTV fame helped her land slots on the Lollapalooza and Woodstock festivals in 1994, and garnered her a glowing profile in the New York Times.
Estep followed No More Mister Nice Girl with a second record—1997’s Love Is A Dog From Hell, which featured the bitingly satirical dare “Stalk Me”—and contributed to the Jack Kerouac tribute album Kicks Joy Darkness (alongside Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Michael Stipe, along with many others). She lent her distinctive voice to two songs on Unsound Methods, the third album from former Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder’s Recoil project. Estep could also be heard—and seen—performing on PBS’s The United States Of Poetry and, in 2004, on HBO’s Def Poetry, where she got a knowing laugh from the audience just by reading the title of her poem, “Happy.”
Estep was also a prolific novelist, writing blackly hilarious books full of screwed-up characters in seedy, smutty surroundings, like the dominatrix’s assistant in Diary Of An Emotional Idiot. She also wrote a trilogy of mystery novels (Hex, Gargantuan, and Flamethrower) centered on Ruby Murphy, a recovering alcoholic who gets inadvertently dragged into some of New York’s oddest crimes, usually involving horse racing. Her most recent novel, 2009’s Alice Fantastic, also revolved around the racetrack, though there, too, it was just a setting for a much larger menagerie of animals, addicts, estranged lovers, lunatics, and others living on the fringe. She also said she had been working for years on The Angelmakers, a novel about female gangsters that she’d “written seven times and not yet gotten right.”
Over at her website, Estep kept up a steady stream of near-daily posts about whatever was on her mind that day. Her last update, from February 7, finds her reflecting on her very brief career as a stripper, then veers into talking about Google’s auto-correct and the curiosity of the umlaut, which then segues into an anecdote about the time her friend ordered her a cake that read “Happy Birthday, Slut.” It’s a funny, feisty ramble of the kind Estep specialized in, and it’s a shame she won’t be making any more of them.