After reading Alice Wheeler’s point of view about Brett Morgen’s movie, ‘Montage of Heck’, the new documentary about Kurt Cobain, I knew she would be a very interesting person to talk to. After all, someone who is not afraid to express her opinion, someone who has said during the Q&A at the movie premiere in Seattle that the movie was told through Courtney Love’s point of view, had to be interesting and very brave.
I decided to contact her, and to my surprise she answered and accepted to talk with me over the phone. Alice is a Seattle-based photographer who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and who did ‘the punk rock thing in Los Angeles’ when she was just a young girl in 1979. She attended Evergreen State College, a liberal arts college in Olympia Washington – Matt Groening’s school – where she studied ‘the meaning of life’ with Slim Moon, Kill Rock Stars’ founder. She started taking pictures during this period, but she wasn’t particularly focused on one thing at the time, Olympia is a one and one half hour drive from Seattle, and the music and artistic scenes were very close. It was the center for the riot grrrl movement in the early 90’s. Alice published a fanzine that included work by Kathleen Hanna and poet Steven ’Jesse’ Bernstein, who would later become an icon in Seattle’s underground music scene.
During the late 80’s, Kurt Cobain moved to Olympia from Aberdeen, and began a relationship with one of Alice’s friends, Tracy Marander – she inspired him the Nirvana song ‘About a Girl’ – and the Nirvana’s frontman befriended Alice Wheeler. At the time, she took pictures of many bands, ‘it was a dynamic scene and the cost of living was cheap!’, she hung out with Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) and Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile) who were just starting their careers and she shot Nirvana during the early days, as a matter of fact, she was the photographer for Nirvana’s first photo shoot ever, in 1988, for their single ‘Love Buzz/Big Cheese’ and L7’s ‘Shove’.
It is very easy to understand why Alice would get passionate about ‘Montage of Heck’, she was Kurt’s friend and even sold a photo to the movie, when it was still a project. Morgen has worked on his film for many years, but at the end, he ‘repeats all the fake stories that were originally designed to minimize the truth about his drug use’ told me Alice. ‘I am not saying none of those things happened, but the film emphasizes the two last years of Kurt’s life, when he was on drugs and depressed. It is a disservice to his memory and music not to explore the years when he wrote all that great music and was happy’. Alice added that the movie appears to be looking through the eyes of Courtney Love and to be serving her ongoing agenda.
And who else would know better than Alice, who has been around since the beginning of Kurt’s career? In particular, she has a big problem with the timeline of the movie, ‘there is no clear delineation of what happened before heroin and Courtney Love and after’ … for Alice it is clear that Courtney Love and heroin entered Kurt’s life, in this order. She continues explaining that MOH doesn’t give a clear picture of the creative spirit in the Olympia music scene that Nirvana was part of before they became huge, Unfortunately MOH focuses on the Courtney years and the journal entries of the last two years while ignoring Kurt’s more productive happy years.
I ask her if she is afraid of Courtney Love, after all, a lot of people are, and Alice reminds me about the Mary Lou Lord Story, and other incidents, ‘I heard there were many threats, she [Love] appears to be a violent person. But I don’t care’, she adds bravely. Other girls? Kathleen Hanna probably remembers very well about the time she was punched in the face by Love at Lollapalooza in 1995: ‘And then she assaulted me and that was really sad’.
Since 1994 many people in Seattle have ODed on heroin, Alice had two former roommates who died from opiate overdoses, and sadly Cobain’s death fits into this ambivalent landscape. Alice describes her friend as isolated, and surrounded by drugs, ‘I heard rumors that people were doing heroin at his house’, she says when I ask her about Cobain’s last months.
There has been a lot of speculation about an eventual divorce, and Alice says she doesn’t know for sure but heard ‘they might have broken up because he was angry at the way she was behaving’. In 1994, Nirvana was supposed to headline Lollapalooza, but Kurt had declined, giving up on many millions, and there were rumors that Courtney was furious. Of course, MOH doesn’t go there at all.
So much has been said and speculated about Cobain’s last days and death, was it a suicide or a murder? And at this point, I have to ask Alice about the murder conspiracy: ‘It is very sad but he killed himself, there’s no doubt in my mind’, she answers explaining that she believes it was possible that he had developed a very big tolerance for heroin. Alice laughs when I ask her if she has ever talked to Tom Grant, she answers no she hasn’t. ‘Courtney has hired many P.I.’s over the years’ says Alice, adding that Courtney even hired a P.I. after Kurt’s death to ask Kurt’s friends what they thought about her.
So this is not what Alice is after when she criticizes MOH, the ending of the movie confirms it was suicide, and Alice believes Kurt committed suicide,… she is just mad at what the movie focuses on, while failing to show how clever, talented and creative Kurt was. ‘I didn’t like the cartoon version of Kurt,’ she says ‘it was making a weird fantasy of a sad and lonely boy’… another myth, ‘An example of one of the most malicious myths the film features is the idea that he was destined to commit suicide because of his childhood scars,’ she also writes in her review of the movie.
And the fans, the lost kids, are the ones who seem to bother Alice the most, ‘sometimes they remind me of Kurt’, too many kids get the message that to be creative you should do heroin, because of the Cobain myth, which was unfortunately reinforced by MOH. Alice believes ‘the myth is wrong that heroin destroys creativity.’
‘The director of MOH had more access and resources than anyone else making a film on this subject and yet the final product is in my opinion both confusing and disappointing,’ she writes in her review. ‘Morgen was not curious to find out about Kurt, says Alice to me, ‘MOH does not tell the real story, the director just focused on the same old cliché stories that Courtney Love has told over and over again’.
There is a passage in the movie, during which Kurt talks about lying down on train tracks to try to kill himself,… he was just a teenager at the time. It’s unclear if this really happened or if this is just a journal entry, or even a fantasy? ‘I don’t know if it is true’, replies Alice, Journalists have also asked the same question to Morgen who gave the weirdest and most revealing answer: ‘These are questions that don’t serve any purpose for me, and by that I mean I’m after an emotional truth and you’re asking, from a historical perspective, about facts and data. And those are great for books but they take us away a little bit from the experience of ‘Montage of Heck’. I don’t know if this guy realizes the damage he is doing.
Alice Wheeler has published photos for many publications including Newsweek, Time, Life, Rolling Stone, Spin, and No Depression, and she is now publishing a book of photographs, she took over the course of three decades. ‘Outcasts and Innocents: Photographs of the Northwest’ is a coffee table book which contains many pictures of Alice’s favorite subjects, girl bands or anarchists, teen punks or princesses‚ but also landscapes and scenes of Seattle’s recent history, ‘not the scrubbed-up coffeehouse earnestness represented in films and sitcoms, but the glory of the drag scene; the devastation of AIDS; the freedom of choice celebrated at Hempfest, gay pride parades, and protest rallies; and yes, a music scene that continues to captivate music lovers internationally.’
‘I have waited for many years to do a book of my photographs because I did not want to exploit my friendship with Kurt,’ she writes, and this book is the first monograph of her work, in which she shares images of Kurt, Kathleen Hanna and many other Northwest luminaries. And in these dark internet ages, when it is so easy to steal a photo without even crediting the author, any artist needs some support. You can see some pictures and buy the book here:
Update: The book is on a pre-sales deadline of June 1, and everyone who buys the book before June 1 gets their name in the book.
Kathleen Hanna is also writing the introduction,
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