Some personal background: in 1989 I stopped writing about music and from around 1989 to 1994 I completely stopped listening to modern music in order to work on my background knowledge: jazz, blues, early rock, etc. I went all the way back to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven and listened to every major album I could find (the vinyl was dying and I was picking up ten albums for five bucks) till I reached Patsy Cline. And then one day I heard Kurt Cobain was dead.
I knew nothing about Cobain when I first saw images of teenage grief after his suicide at the age of 27 . It reminded me of Lennon’s murder, just young kids crying their eyes out. So I bought Nirvana’s fourth album, (if you include Incesticide) the September 1993 In Utero and that plus a woman who forced fed me a steady diet of Biggie Smalls till I got it, brought me into the 1990s again.
So, yes, Kurt was the voice of his generation (only he and Bob Dylan have ever owned that moniker), and yes, his opinions on gender, racial equality, fame, drugs, and music, had a profound influence on the 1990s, that has led to gay marriage and the decriminalization of drugs, but I loved the songs only for the songs sake because I was the wrong age and I got into it after the fact.
Musically, I consider him among the top ten rock songwriters of all time and let me put that in simpler terms. Nirvana’s albums (including the odds and sods, and passing on the post-post Kurt livers and greatest hits), in order of preference:
In Utero – A+
Nevermind – A+
MTV Unplugged – A+
Bleach – A
Incesticide – A
That beats all other first five albums of any one, ever, with the exception of the Beatles. Kurt’s sensibility was so of its time, but early of its time: he was a pusher for equal rights, -a sort of universal suffrage for more than voting, a feminist tactician, an anti-corporate maven, an anti-populist , and a man who used the power of rock without the testerone fueled push of metal. His sensibility was feminine in the extreme.
For a generation, he introduced an alternative social pact with the world.
Great right? But the songs… the songs were greater: “Sliver” was the greatest song ever written not about childhood, but by a child or at least from a child’s perspective, the temper tantrum of the chorus, the “Grandma take me home”, with its hysterical, over the top, narrow perspective apocalyptic howl of childhood, leads you back till Cobain falls asleep home in his Mom’s arms; all the sadder if you knew about his difficult teen years shunted from house to house. It is a presaging of his end, completely alone, harrowing in the way the subjective horrors of childhood are harrowing: it is harrowing by its very focussed despair. The way Cobain viewed life was just that, a very focussed despair, a self-obsessed to the place where, and I mean this very literally, it becomes insane. Rock and roll has never been equipt for this, it wasn’t built for this generation.
Cobain is not our first insane rock star, but he is the first to make a career of fueling his insanity back to his fan base: with a sense of abandonment the root cause of his daymares, Cobain shared his vision of adulthood, his entire “don’t grow up, it’s a trap”, a childhood of latchkey children, selfish petulant adults incapable of raising their kids, and for Generation X a mountain of abandonment by their selfish Me Generation parents. These teens and college kids joined Kurt in a different world of rock and roll. He tapped into something because the something he tapped into was something he was himself: a generation left to their own designs. People wonder how the difference between the rich and the middle class became so huge, it is because these kids were left without the moral scale they needed to not be overwhelmed by financial greed when they grew up; since, unlike the tough love of their parent’s parents, the spoiled coolness of their own parents left them to deal for themselves.
For a generation, Kurt exemplified the truths they live: Kurt was an artist, a poet, a songwriter, and a dreamer, a man out of time, trying, in typical psychological terms, to build himself a family after losing his own, a hyperkinetic lonerism of intense proportions. This energy, this crazedness, is part of Nirvana as well. In Brett Morgan’s “Montage Of Heck” HBO documentary about Kurt, he notes that all Kurt wanted to do was take heroin and paint. I understand exactly how Kurt felt: there is a pounding energy to Kurt that nods out only when junked up. I feel the same way about alcohol, what I loved about drinking was how it slowed me down. Kurt took junk to pause, to wrap his family around him, and create and nod out, Nirvana were both loud and quiet. They built a sound between extreme swings.
In Utero starts like a speedfreak in a car accident and ends like a junkie who looks more like a setting son, and in between those two extreme, it was a self portrait, of himself, and of his band, battling out of the loudness of fame. You need the simplemindedness of born to be a drummer Dave Grohl, to cheerfully bang your way out of trouble, fame was like tieing Cobain in a chair, sticking a pound of sugardown his throat and letting him loose till he crashed.
I am not going to get into Courtney Love here except to say, she was the wrong fit when he needed the right fit, she wanted in while he needed out.
Nevermind isn’t as great as In Utero, but it is in closer collegiate step with its audience: it reflects white teenage middle class to working class America exactly; the way teen America haven’t since then (in a different age The Wonder Years might have got close, in a different age…). Teens cried when Kurt died because he didn’t make it through and he knew what was happening, he understood what was being done to him, but he couldn’t push his way through. Nevermind is a masterpiece and it is still a little overestimated, it is the most important album of the 1990s and yes, it is missing by a step. But “Smells Like Teen Spirit” misses nothing: it is the voice, the floodgates opening to the 1990s and beyond, it is the reason the 1990s was a better decade musically than the 1980s. Hardcore, punk, rap, these were all semipopulist, cult music (metal was the flavor, Metallica morphing to hairmetal), but alt? it wasn’t crossing over. The Ramones never made it big.The Replacements never made it big. Nirvana made it big and that was because “Teen Spirit” caught a moment as certainly as, say, “Blowing In The Wind” once did. Because the song isn’t a tangibly political concept, its political significance is easy to miss. But it couldn’t have been more important and, maybe just as important, Cobain’s death was rock and roll’s last act –apt it was a suicide (I know, if… ), it was the last word of forty years of teen rebellion and the last word was a denial.
The problem with “Montage Of heck” is not the montage, it’s the heck, it completely misses the story because to grasp the story would have been to derail the montage. It is like half the story, if the biography were surrealistic dream sequences within a greater picture, so much the better, as a stand alone it is all dessert and no meal.
The truth is, Cobain is a story that demands text, and we don’t get text, all we get is subtext: there are moments so outstanding here but it asks us to jump through our imagination to reach them. Morgan has the aesthetics of an artist, and there is a painterly absorbed visual vision to the entire documentary, but it seems to exist outside Cobain’s life (or inside, but it is an inside with no outside).
Some of the home movies, Cobain as a child, Cobain playing with his daughter, are so touching, so lovely. He was an excellent artists and all the montages are perfection, but they aren’t history, they are left field observances that miss what was really going on. Are you the person in your home movies? I’ll give Morgan 100% the benefit of the doubt on everything he showed. I see no agenda and I see a true artist. He might not have got at Kurt but he had moments that were very revealing, and a beautiful powerful statement of a sort: it was like Kurt as Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. It was impressionistic but missing the story itself. Fine for a screening at MOMA, nothing close to the first or last word on Kurt Cobain, the most important rock star of his generation.
When I tell people I hold Cobain in such a high regard, I think they think I’m joking. He is a little like Johnny Carson, time has passed him by, and I have to accept that his greatness hasn’t managed to survive the decades intact. So maybe he is very much of his time, maybe he was such a cusp superstar, such a harbinger of the new century, he hasn’t quite managed to move forward. But songs as great as “All Apologies”, “Heart Shape Box” “Negative Creep” “About A Girl”… maybe they are ripe for re-discovery for the voice of a generation, beyond it all.
Montage Of Heck – B+
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