Rereading Nirvana at 20/13 Distance

The political context to the release of Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are in 1993, a book I’ve lived with some twenty years, is well-established by now. Azerrad retained editorial independence yet the invitation for him to create the book in the first place was a consequence of the need to combat the negative publicity increasingly swirling around the band in mid-to-late 1992 as substantially accurate talk of extensive drug abuse, intra-band tension and so forth got going. The book remains the bible for Nirvana given the extensive cooperation provided by the band and the detailed personal information provided by Kurt Cobain. It’s now very possible to speculate, reasonably, about how honest Kurt was being, the extent to which he played up certain stories, whether he was playing to his image as the divorce-damaged teenage punk, the grunge monk, or whatever other pieces of his figurehead role he chose to parody.

One piece that isn’t commented on is, if you reread the book, ever noticed that it sticks so true to film plotting? We discussed a couple months back how, often, narrative structures taken from fiction funnel, package and guide the content of non-fiction works. Come as You Are is a perfect example of the ‘triumph of the will’ hero story. In the tale, the hero to be goes through a time of challenge that turns him into champion he must become. Having become that champion he proceeds to advance on his mission, defeating all enemies, overcoming all obstacles until eventually victory is achieved and, even if the peace is uncertain, the future is faced with a positive certainty that it will be valiantly conquered.

Ignoring my hyperbole, welcome to Come as You Are, a book in which the happy young adolescent is armed with the angst, the instrument and the mode through which he can win; in which drummers are discarded for a variety of sins and in which the book takes the time to say they were too uncommitted, limp-wristed and/or mediocre to serve the hero; in which family and social groups don’t match up to the Christ figure’s standards; in which everything falls into place and the final requirement — the magical incantation/powerful weapon, the Holy Grohl — is acquired and Nirvana almost unquestionably win because they simply must.

The Charles Cross biography published in the early 2000s has a similar background, equally well-known, in which Courtney Love chose to grant Cross access to Kurt’s materials, plus her personal cooperation, with him retaining editorial independence. This came in the midst the damaging saga of the Nirvana LLC battles and the mounting froth from the conspiratorial minded — another well-timed publication that, as far as I can see, can still be trusted but not without a question or two in mind.

This time, however, the story couldn’t just be a march to glory given the, now-known, tragic ending. But it didn’t require much tweaking to construct an equally serviceable plot, equally tried and tested in fictional productions, in which the hero triumphs but is defeated and laid-low by his own Achilles’ Heel, his particular fatal flaw. On this reading of the Kurt Cobain story (and yes, in each case we’re looking at storybooks) all the same people are discarded, the same battles and enemies summarily dealt with…And then the already long-known flaws conspire; depression, plus drugs, plus anti-industry urges, all bring ‘Camelot’ crashing to the ground in rubble.

In each case, what I’m saying is that the books neither leave interpretation of conflicts between individuals up to debate (they come down on the side of Kurt almost without question); they overestimate struggle while neglecting what was always in there favour (i.e., not to denigrant the achievement, but our hero’s band is best friends with a well-established band, Melvins, who get them access to the number one producer in town, Endino, who gets them access to the number one record label in town, Sub Pop, who support and sell them), overestimate individual achievements (Dave Grohl admits he played virtually all the drum parts laid down by Chad Channing earlier, so would Nevermind not have sold anyway no matter who was on drum stool?) and relies on anecdote rather than data to try to portray what happened. I’m not stating that they’re untrue, but I am saying reserved judgement and a healthy openness to other views may be beneficial — fiction can contain great truth but it can’t replace fact.

Anyways, just to complicate that commonly marketed cliché that there are only seven plots in any story:


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