By Bob Ruggiero
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"We lived cloistered away for so many years and nobody gave a damn," Warnick adds. "And because of all the resources we have here, people are really against all the Guns N' Roses stuff. All that compromise."
Because of the city's growth and Seattle's current dominance, of course, compromise is unavoidable. But the way Seattle has become a mecca differs from the East Coast norm, in which small groups import their culture, take over a corner, and slowly integrate. There are plenty of new immigrants in the Northwest, many of them Thai or Vietnamese, but the city's self-conception obscures these communities. And among the young, Seattle isn't a place where you can come as you are: you come to integrate yourself into a vision based on affinities you believe you share. For someone like Kurt Cobain, the college community of Olympia and, later, Seattle represented a chance to go inside after a childhood in the cold as a small-town outcast. And perhaps inspired by his expression, kids have flocked here to join what he sardonically called "our little tribe."
From outsider to insider, though, is always a tricky move. It's the same jump that indie rock, the music Cobain claimed lifted him from the dung heap of conformity, keeps trying to manage. Indie never really did away with rock starsit just located them at eye level. As a young indie fan, Cobain idolized his own favorite bands, thought of them as the basis of his community. Just like the kids who now idolize him, he didn't perceive the gulf between artist and audience, and eventually he became part of the indie-rock elite, an elite that in many cases still denies its own elitism. But he was sensitive enough to be bothered by the distance now that he could see it between himself and the kids who thought he was lifting them out of their own shitty lives. And so he felt even more isolated.
"Kurt didn't have any friends anymore," says one close acquaintance. When people go over the edge, they've usually alienated even their most intimate companions, and at one level this remark doesn't reflect anything beyond Cobain's particular illness. But it also makes him an indie rocker to the core, deeply troubled by that shift into broader resonance that characterizes every successful artistic act. Rich Jensen, Sub Pop's general manager, views the problem as a struggle with the sacred. "Kurt viewed his favorite bands as icons," he says. "An icon is something you own, or it's a false idol."
The Seattle music community has been shattered by death many times in the past five years; part of the vigilant self-protectiveness I sense feels like the fear of yet another disaster. In 1990, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose. In 1991, poet and longtime scene habitué Jesse Bernstein shot himself. Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch overdosed in 1992. And last July, Gits singer Mia Zapata was found strangled on a Capitol Hill side street. Wood, Sargent, and Zapata were all the same age as or younger than Cobain, and because they hadn't reached the level of stardom that separates people from their regular lives, their deaths were, in fact, much more directly felt among local artists. They're remembered, too: Andy comes up in conversation at least four times over the weekend's course; 7 Year Bitch's soon-to-be-released C/Z album features a song about Stefanie and one about Mia. It's even called Viva Zapata.
"Mia's death affected all of us so much," says Matt Dresdner, bassist for the Gits, who continue to play as a three-piece; their debut album, recorded mostly before Zapata died, is out on C/Z. "She knew so many people; so many would say, 'Mia was my best friend.' Person after person, and they really felt that way. She was very accessible always and very honest."
Partly because it was a murder, Zapata's death genuinely transformed the smaller, more local scene in which she was a leading light. A women's self-defense program is now in place, and friends continue to raise money to investigate her murder; Nirvana even played one of the benefits, last fall at the Kind Theatre. There were also negative effects on the scene. "A lot of bands, coincidentally I imagine, broke up after she was killed," says Dresdner. "I do think Mia was a catalyst and inspired people to do stuff." Talking about Kurt with people in clubs and cafés, I actually feel his presence less than Zapata's. She is mentioned over and over. Posters asking for information adorn the wall of the Comet Tavern and Moe's; on some street corners, you can see the flyers made by friends a long time ago. There's Mia's warm, big, charming face, and the words: "Damn! Damn! Damn!"
These intimate shocks, which don't draw jets full of confused rock critics and bill-waving TV tab reporters, have stayed with Seattle musicians in ways that seem to affect their daily lives. These griefs really do belong to them. Kurt Cobain's another story. The rage Zapata's friends feel is not for her, and it's not existential. It's a hopeful anger, one they can imagine doing something about.