michael azzerad   The Messenger  
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  Kurt often complained about how he got singled out for media scrutiny. "Why do they keep hounding me?" was his constant plaint. "Nobody else has ever gotten this much shit." Even shown the relentless way the British establishment dogged Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the late Sixties, Kurt still preferred to think his persecution was unprecedented. He was simply one of those people who attract hassles--he had been bullied and picked on since high school and thereafter courted it in the punk tradition of provocation. The abuse he got in the media was just the same thing writ large. But another reason for the battering was simply that a lot of people like to blame the messenger.

Kurt's reaction to the adverse conditions which afflicted him and his peers--his scream--was refreshing in its honesty after years of blithe, feel-good pop. After over ten years of "morning in America," Kurt was mourning in America. But it was more than that. Screaming was a very important first step, because to solve the problem you must first state that one exists. At the time, nobody was doing that; the rock nation's political consciousness had degenerated into a series of vast, stylized telethons like Live Aid. The actual empathy and moral outrage which had presumably inspired these extravaganzas had been turned into an empty, abstracted pose. Kurt's caustic wail reminded that passion and empathy were the best weapons against a society which was becoming oblivious and uncaring.

For this, Kurt earned the scorn of the keepers of the status quo; he also became a hero to a certain stratum of the youth of the western world. But as Will Rogers once said, "This thing of being a hero, about the main thing to it is to know when to die." Like so many things about celebrity, Kurt seemed to understand this intuitively. We'll never know if he could have eventually pointed to a way out of the morass, but by making his point and then exiting soon afterwards, he ensured his place in legend by martyring himself. But with a more beatific approach emerging at the margins of progressive music (everything from Tortoise to the Orb), his music is looking more and more like a very bold start toward reconciling the pain it expressed. That's just one of the many paradoxes which fueled Kurt's brilliance: Passionate vs. detached, popular vs. underground, macho vs. effeminate, aggressive vs. passive. Even his songs veered between loud and soft, grinding and melodic. A lot of our idols are animated by just such internal contradictions. And, eventually, undone by them.

Kurt was an icon, but a peculiarly Nineties kind of icon. As various forces act to fragment the culture into easy-to-manage market segments, micro-icons emerge, people who mean everything, but only to a relatively small, distinct group. Like Tupac Shakur or Selena, Kurt was just such an icon. The candlelight vigil in the Seattle Center a few days after his death was a dense gathering of grief and shock. Thousands of lives were being changed before one's very eyes. And yet, beyond a hundred-yard radius of the site, the world went on as usual, oblivious and uncaring.

Read an excerpt from Michael Azerrad's book about Nirvana, Come As You Are.
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Copyright © 1997 Michael Azerrad.

Photo of Michael Azerrad © Mark Seliger.