Hoax-Shaped Box: Church Of Kurt Cobain Is A Prank

Reporters flocked to Portland's South Park Blocks late May when the "Church of Kurt Cobain" held its formative rally. But, a week later, the buzzards of the Fourth Estate are wiping egg off their beaks. It turns out the event was an elaborate hoax, a "media jam" perpetrated by a local prankster who says he was trying to make a statement about pop idolatry and win a prize from a local radio station seeking publicity.The "church" purported to use the music of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Seattle band Nirvana, as a focus of inspiration and meditation for a non-sectarian Gen-X focused fellowship (Cobain committed suicide in April 1994 after a long bout with heroin addiction).Although many reporters were quick to question Cobain's status as a role model, nobody questioned the motives or background of the "Rev. Jim Dillon." As it turns out, the 29-year-old Dillon, emblem of Portland's twentysomethings, was really Jerry Ketel, a 34-year-old Portland graphic artist.The May 28 rally, which was supposed to gain converts to the new faith, attracted about 20 fans and curious spectators and a dozen reporters and photographers to the park. Stooges planted by Ketel carried signs bearing images of the late musician's face and the slogan "Peace, Love and Kurt."News of the "church" made the Associated Press news wire and ran in national magazines and European newspapers. Ketel says his actions were partly a prank and partly a critique of the media's deification of Cobain.Ketel also submitted the event as an entry in the "Expose KNRK" competition. The contest challenged listeners of 94.7 FM to concoct publicity stunts to promote the radio station; it resulted in more than 30 entries, ranging from public music performances to massive signs in high-traffic locations. (Ketel wore a KNRK cap whenever "the Rev. Dillon" was on camera.)Ketel insists that the Cobain Church prank had a serious side. He hoped to win the contest and have KNRK donate the $10,000 prize to local suicide and drug-abuse prevention centers."There really are good intentions for this whole project," Ketel said. "There is a drug problem, and I think there is responsibility in the media to help do something about it. There have been a lot of people cashing in on this whole music scene, and yet there isn't enough social activism on the part of those same people." At the rally, "Dillon" challenged the media and the music industry, which he believed profited from Cobain's short life, to establish a Kurt Cobain memorial fund. Though Ketel's stunt reached a large number of viewers, Portland sign painter Scott Campbell won the $10,000 prize by repainting his car in KNRK colors and pestering commuters as "Extremo the Clown."Ketel's chances probably weren't helped by the fact that two of the contest judges worked in the business he so easily manipulated. KGW-TV Channel 8 anchor Jim Benemann and KATU-TV Channel 2 weekend anchor Leah Hope sat on the six-member KNRK judging panel."Obviously, I don't feel good about it," says Benemann, whose station, along with KOIN-TV, swallowed the hoax hook, line and sinker. "Frankly," he says, "we like to think we can smell a rat. But it didn't seem so off the wall that someone would be so devoted to Cobain's music and life that they would want to do something like that." Hope, whose station didn't give air time to the story, said she wasn't offended by the prank, but simply didn't believe it was well-enough executed to win the prize.Some Cobain associates reacted angrily when Ketel announced plans for the church, but other devotees called the "church" with questions about membership and offers of contributions. "I've basically been telling people, 'If you really want to get involved, start your own, become active, do the right thing,'" Ketel says. "Make a positive influence for social change."

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