For a music critic, being immortalized in song could be the highest compliment...unless the song is a death threat.
“I have got a feeling you’ve never been in this situation before,” says the English fellow on the other end of the line. He’s right — I’ve never spoken with someone who has publicly vowed to murder me.
A couple of days earlier, I’d been Googling my name, as one does when one’s hands are very idle and one’s ego is rather large and yet perhaps not sufficiently secure, and I came across the following MySpace message from the U.K. band Tubelord: ” ‘I Am Azerrad’ is our next single.”
To paraphrase noted cabbie Travis Bickle: Are you talkin’ about me?
Now, there are not many Azerrads, especially Azerrads known by obscure indie bands. I kind of hoped the song was about me, and yet I also hoped it wasn’t — that title just did not bode well. But who else could it be about? My distant cousin Lawrence, who designed the cover of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication? Possible. But not likely.
I listened to the song on the band’s MySpace page — Tubelord have a yelping, emo-ish sound with fitful eruptions of odd-meter riffs, like Robert Smith fronting Yes’ indie-geek grandchildren. So far, the lyrics were impressionistic; maybe my name was only in the title. But a little further along, there it was: “I see today, I see you, Azerrad / I’ve read the clues, they lead me to your head / I’ll kill today, I’ll kill you, Azerrad.”
So they’re singing about murdering me, Michael Azerrad. Not some almost unreal object of public revulsion, like George Bush or Osama bin Laden or Spencer Pratt, but me, son of Ruth and Joel, with a pencil point stuck in his left palm since the age of six. Obviously, songwriters adopt personae; they’ve just never adopted them at my personal expense before.
To what did I owe this homicidal fantasy? I’ve written a couple of popular books: Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. And people can find weird things in books (“I’ve read the clues”) and become obsessed with the author (“They lead me to your head”). Clearly, the guy thinks he’s me (“I Am Azerrad”), but since I exist, he has to annihilate me. It’s a Mark David Chapman thing. You wouldn’t understand.
Then again, Tubelord are sort of proggy — maybe this is payback for the time I panned Rush’s 1989 live album, A Show of Hands. A disgruntled Rush fan called my home late at night and asked whether I’d had musical training. Next day, I unlisted my phone number.
It’s comforting to know that some outstanding rock critics have been assailed in song. In 1985, Sonic Youth savaged Robert Christgau with “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick.” Christgau disliked being singled out for death: “There are nuts out there,” he later explained to Salon. Still, he deemed it the year’s 25th-best single but retitled it “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick (and Now It Don’t Work No More).” Touché, Thurston!
In the late ’70s, the Go-Go’s unleashed the caustic salvo “Robert Hilburn,” which called out the venerated Los Angeles Times critic as a “boring fart”; the 1993 Trumans Water track “Aroma of Gina Arnold” berated the writer and the entire burgeoning alt-rock subculture she was thought to embody. “I thought it was fair enough that they responded with a song,” Arnold tells me. “What I didn’t like was when people on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley sold T-shirts that said KILL GINA ARNOLD.”
In 2000, twee poppers Tokidoki lashed out with “Ira Robbins,” possibly as revenge for a bad review Robbins gave their friends. Imagine getting hated on by a twee-pop band — is there anything more humiliating? “Oh, no, I felt immortalized,” Robbins says. “It was my song. Someone had picked me out of all the pile of journalists to point the finger at.” But, he adds, “It would have been different if it was some hardcore band screaming, ‘I’m going to fucking kill you!’ “
Of course, that’s what Tubelord were screaming at me. So I decided to confront my would-be assassin and phoned Joe Prendergast, their 20-year-old singer-guitarist. He turned out to be a soft-spoken college student from suburban London and didn’t seem overly homicidal. Prendergast said he was simply mixing an instrumental on his laptop while a copy of Our Band Could Be Your Life lay nearby. “I didn’t want to save [the file] as ‘Untitled Project,’ ” he said. “I saw your name on the book and I was like, ‘Azerrad’ has definitely got a swing to it.
“It must be surreal for you,” Prendergast continued. “I’m really sorry about that, man. I didn’t want to freak you out. You were kind of an abstract concept — all I knew of you was your name, not as a flesh-and-blood being.”
I often forget that I have a funny little quasi fame. “You’re like an MP3 online,” Prendergast explained. “Anyone can do whatever they want with you. They can cut you up and make a little remix.”
It’s true. As a journalist, I’m not supposed to be the subject, but as an author, I’m fair game — another ingredient in the media soup. So yeah, go ahead and remix me. Just don’t cut me up.
Michael Azerrad is the coproducer of About a Son, a documentary about Kurt Cobain. This is the first time he has written about himself.