Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings

[Universal Music Enterprises; 2015]

Styles: grunge, field recording, spoken word
Others: Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Layne Staley

In my review of Sub Pop’s 2009 reissue of Bleach, I mused, “Twenty years after the release of their full-length debut and fifteen after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, I feel like we’re finally approaching a place where we can look past Nirvana as Gen X zeitgeist, Nirvana as cautionary tale for the media-age, and Nirvana as megalithic cultural phenomenon to objectively assess Nirvana as an honest-to-goodness rock band.” I was, of course, kidding myself. My entire musical formation took place in the shadow of Kurt Cobain, in the cultural sea change that he helped to usher in, in the dense contextual web he tried to assemble for his fans, in the pitch black umbra cast by his death.

My earliest memory of Nirvana: I was nine years old, sitting in my friend Adam’s basement, when, appalled by my musical illiteracy, he popped Nevermind into his CD player. Half a decade later, the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be so familiar to me that if I heard it come on the radio, I’d flip the dial in the hopes of catching something else. Hearing it for the first time in 1991, though, I was paralyzed. Having been raised to believe that the devil could literally reach out to you through your stereo, I was left physically shaken by the alien sounds being wrenched from my friend’s speakers. Fast forward three years, to the morning after Cobain’s body was discovered: I went back over to Adam’s house and we sat on his porch, where I kept him company as he tried to come to terms with what we had lost.

At that point, Cobain was little more to me than a confirmation of what my mother had always told me about the deleterious effects of rock music, yet I still could not shake the feeling that I was witnessing something significant.

Composed of interviews with Cobain’s loved ones, as well as personal video and audio never seen or heard outside of his immediate family, Brett Morgan’s HBO documentary Montage of Heck makes good on its promise of providing an intimate portrait of its subject. Maybe too intimate. Five months on from the film’s premiere and the things I remember most about it are Courtney Love’s tits and the copious footage of Kurt Cobain being too high to function in the presence of his infant daughter. To echo a question posed by another TMTer, I spent most of the movie wondering, “Should I really be seeing this?” Cobain had spent the majority of his career grappling with his celebrity status, simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the public eye. In the years since his death, we have seen exhaustive biographies, excerpts from his home demos, and even reproductions of his private journals turned over for mass consumption. And now, even these private moments — footage of Kurt as a child playing in his backyard, footage of Kurt and Courtney getting ready in front of a bathroom mirror, footage of Kurt feeding baby Francis Bean — are to be laid out before us to pour over and dissect for any glimmer of insight into the man behind the songs and behind the shotgun.

The film’s audio companion promises a similar peek behind the veil. The soundtrack collects much of the music featured in the documentary, along with some additional material culled from Cobain’s home recordings (much more additional material if you shell out for the deluxe edition). Setting aside the question of ethics for the time being, it’s easy to be impressed by the breadth of what’s been assembled for this project. The infamous (and maybe apocryphal?) spoken-word piece about Cobain’s first sexual encounter with a mentally disabled girl is captured here. You’ll also find acoustic demos of well-known Nirvana tunes (“Been a Son,” “Sappy,” “Frances Farmer will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”), as well as germinal tracks that would later be cannibalized to form other songs (“The Yodel Song” retooled to become “Stay Away” or “What More Can I Say” to become “Sliver”).

Perhaps most fascinating, though, are the various tape experiments and sound collages that Morgan dredges up. When “Beans” first surfaced on Nirvana’s boxed set With the Lights Out, it stood out as a jarring novelty, but Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings restores it to its proper context. Amid similar exercises, such as “1988 Capital Lake Jam Commercial,” a radio spot for an early Nirvana concert that Cobain recorded as a dialog between two characters with comically pitch-shifted vocals, or the experimental audio collages “Montage of Kurt” and “Montage of Kurt II,” it doesn’t feel so peculiar. Later fragments provide further glimpses into directions that Cobain never got to explore on-record. There’s “Scream,” a 30-second audio-sampling/tape-manipulation experiment that would have sounded at home as part of a Whitehouse song; the doomy guitar solo “Reverb Experiment;” and a brief field recording called “Kurt Ambiance.” Taken together, these tracks reveal a more playful and occasionally even goofy side to an artist often painted in only the most somber of hues.

There’s a moment, halfway through “Burn the Rain,” when Cobain is interrupted by a phone call from someone looking for his then-girlfriend Tracy Marander1. Cobain informs the caller that Marander is at work. The caller says something else, to which Cobain replies “alright,” and then he hangs up the phone. It’s a small moment (and one captured in the documentary itself), but I would contend it’s illustrative of what will drive most fans to purchase this collection. There are certainly those who will come to The Home Recordings in the hopes of uncovering some as-yet-unheard gem from Cobain’s vaults. Others will approach it hoping to engage in the kind of musical archaeology described above, tracing the evolution of the songs we love from the rawest of material to its final form. But perhaps the greatest promise is to move, in however minuscule a way, beyond the performer/audience divide. In death, Cobain is rendered so monumental that even a mundane phone exchange feels like a privilege to bear witness to. But perhaps this is all part and parcel of losing any loved one. Every newly discovered scrap of their past becomes precious, because there is no more of them to be found in the future.

And here is where my critical faculties fail me. If my tone came across as self-righteous at any point, then know that I implicate myself in any accusation. I too hungered for the documentary and, perhaps more so, the release of this collection, because I, like many of my generation, regard Cobain as a loved one, even though all we will ever know of him is the distorted impressions of those close to him, his own tangled legacy of half-truths, and whatever we can project of ourselves upon his art. Because no matter what, a part of me will always be that 11-year-old boy sitting on his friend’s porch, contemplating phantom pains from a limb that he doesn’t even realize has been severed.

Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings is essentially an audio sketchbook, and its contents are necessarily rough, half-formed, and fragmentary. There is pleasure to be found here, particularly in Cobain’s left-field excursions into Burroughs-ian collage, but these pleasures will hold scant value to anyone not already convinced of the author’s peculiar genius. Yet for people who have been touched by the work and death of Kurt Cobain, this mottled bag of odds and ends will prove invaluable. Like any good piece of Cobain-related ephemera, the collection simultaneously illuminates its subject and further ensconces him in myth. It provides us transparency into the creative processes and eccentricities of the artist while adding new layers to his folkloric doppelganger existing in the public consciousness.

To assign a rating to these pieces of a life would feel somewhat crass, like rating someone’s diary. Taking a step back and appreciating the collection as a product, however, we can admire the curatorial ear with which Morgan has constructed the album. The tracks are diverse and career-spanning, presenting us with a new vantage point from which to view one of the most fascinating cultural figures of the 90s. But most of all, it allows us to spend another hour and eleven minutes in the presence of a voice that we had thought we’d never hear from again. And whatever misgivings we may have about the Cobain-Love estate or our right to bear witness to these moments, it’s an opportunity that few Nirvana fans will be able to pass up.

1. Can we take a moment to appreciate Tracy Marander? Who can really say what their relationship was like, but without Marander working shit jobs to keep a roof over his head during Cobain’s formative years, there might never have BEEN a Nirvana. And all she really got to show for it during his lifetime was a passive-aggressive “fuck you” in the form of “About a Girl.”

Links: Universal Music Enterprises

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