Brandon Wetherbee is host of the talk show You, Me, Them, Everybody. He’ll be at The Wonderland Ballroom tonight, Friday, May 1. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck airs on HBO Monday, May 4.
I own Bleach, Nevermind, Incesticide, In Utero, Singles Box, MTV Unplugged in New York, From the Muddy Banks of The Wishkah, With The Lights Out, No Alternative and The Beavis And Butt-Head Experience on CD. I own multiple unlicensed b-sides CDs and a bootleg red vinyl of Nirvana playing at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan on April 10, 1990. My MTV Unplugged cassette tape broke.
I’ve read Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana by Michael Azerrad, Screaming Life: A Chronicle of the Seattle Music Scene by Charles Peterson and Michael Azerrad, Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross, Cobain by Rolling Stone, Journals and Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross.
I went to the Oak Park Public Library and Northeastern University Library to use their microfiche machines to read Cobain obituaries published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today.
In junior high I had a Nirvana poster on my bedroom wall. In junior high I had a Nirvana collage compiled from Hit Parader issues and AOL-accesssed-printed-at-a-classmate’s-house fan portraits downloaded from the World Wide Web on my bedroom wall.
I wore a Nevermind album cover t-shirt, Incesticide album cover t-shirt and Nirvana notebook drawing t-shirt. My aunt threw away my Incesticide t-shirt and Incesticide CD because she said they were disgusting so I told her her daughter was white trash because she liked Guns N’ Roses.
I had a Nirvana patch on my junior high backpack.
I wore a Nirvana winter hat throughout junior high. I chastised a boy a year my junior because I quizzed him about Nirvana lyric meanings and deemed him unworthy.
I had a Nirvana smiley face key holder which was really supposed to be used to hide/hold drugs but I didn’t know that and actually used it for keys.
I drew Nirvana and Sub-Pop logos on my junior high trapper keeper. I was paid to draw the same logos on classmates trapper keepers.
I started a band because of this band, wore dresses on stage because of this band, studies women’s studies because of this band, volunteered because of this band, wrote zines because of this band and talked on stages because of this band.
I’m not attempting to prove I’m more worthy of writing about this band or claim I’m the biggest Nirvana fan. I don’t have a Kurt Cobain tattoo. You know who does? Fred Durst. I interviewed Durst earlier this year. He is the dumbest millionaire I’ve ever met. In other words, being a Nirvana fan doesn’t really mean anything, I’m just getting to a point.
I didn’t want to see Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. I’m glad I did.
The film begins with a show heavily featured in the Live! Tonight! Sold Out! VHS (it wasn’t on DVD until 2006). The know-it-all feel goes away quickly. Within 10 minutes people like me and people who have no idea why this guy is important are enthralled.
The two plus hour documentary about Cobain, the first to be authorized by Francis Bean Cobain and Courtney Love, manages to keep attention on a story most every viewer already knows. A mix of modern day interviews, new animation to Cobain audio recordings, previously seen video and newly animated Cobain drawings seen in places like Journals, the well known story becomes captivating. The first half is especially watchable. Cobain’s artistic output is raw, promising and prolific. Technology has caught up to repackage his art films and sound collages into a digestible narrative device. What was weird 30 years ago now sheds light on the pre-Bleach era.
Once again, the first half of the film is especially watchable. It shows promise and hope and Jesus Christ, be nice to teenagers! They’re going through so much! Every single teenager. As an adult man, I pity 100% of teenagers around the world. Montage of Heck makes me want to tell every teenager that it gets better but that’s a lie so I’m not going to do that. It’s gets better for most, not everyone. Just be nice to teenagers.
Transitioning from teenage hell to the early days of Nirvana, we get some footage previously seen from the DVD included in With The Lights Out. All of a sudden it’s clear why this band is so relatable. It’s not the pop sheen Vig added to Nevermind or the good looks Cobain never knew he had, its the sludgy, honest mess of a sound. With no real scene, no real knowledge of what’s “cool,” Cobain and Novaselic and Channing were able to plod away in a basement to a handful of townies. Their ugly and isolated sound was able to grow organically. With the use of footage previously seen but framed in this narrative rather than through a post success lens, viewers are given the knowledge that this band and guy really did work at the music. Years and years of bad shows, long practices and delusion led to a Sub Pop deal which led to a DGC deal with led to…you know.
HBO is the official channel of Nirvana in 2015. Earlier this year they aired the well made Sonic Highways by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl does not appear in modern day interviews for Montage of Heck. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has few lines in Montage of Heck. Grohl has been more candid about his former band leader in Tonight Show interviews from 2014 than this documentary. His absence is interesting but warranted. His voice is not needed. In fact, the filmmakers have done a fine job keeping talking head segments to a minimum. Though he’s rarely used in Montage of Heck, this documentary coupled with Sonic Highways makes is so, so, so obvious how they benefited from each other. Without Grohl’s powerful drumming, Nirvana might still be touring with TAD. Without Cobain, Grohl doesn’t achieve what he did on Foo Fighters and The Colour and the Shape.
There are three women featured in Montage of Heck, Cobain’s mother, Love and his first long term girlfriend Tracy Marander. Marander’s portion of the film is sad. Most of this thing is sad but you probably already knew this. Marander’s segment gets to me because without her, Cobain doesn’t have the time or place to fuck around or be an artist. She was a girlfriend that obviously believed in her boyfriend and the two appeared to have a sweet, loving relationship that ended organically. Once it’s over, we don’t hear from Marander again. Instead we get heroin use due to stomach problems and Nevermind and Love and heroin and Love and heroin and Francis Bean and heroin and Love and Vanity Fair and Love and…you know.
The stomach problems. Cobain claimed his stomach problems led to heroin use. He attempted to get his lifelong affliction treated but poverty tends to get in the way when it comes to both mental and physical health services. This is not overlooked in the film. In fact, it’s highlighted in this more than any other book or film about Cobain.
Here’s why all of that merchandise at the top of this piece was mentioned: no rock and roll band will ever achieve Nirvana’s type of fame. The music industry has been pulled into the modern era. Fans no longer have to buy Hit Parader to read what were essentially press releases about their favorite band and spend way too much money on hard to find bootleg CDs. Now there’s little demand and an infinite supply. Even if another band is able to go from indie to major and sell millions of physical copies of an album, they still won’t be on MTV multiple times a day, dominate one of a handful of radio stations geared towards young people or be reported on like they’re news. That era is over. Without acknowledging it, Montage of Heck presents an interesting what if. What if Nirvana broke in 2011 rather than 1991? Would they still be together? What if Cobain suffered cyber bullying in 2005 rather than 1985? Would he have made it out of high school? This leads to the what ifs in the viewer’s life. If I didn’t embrace this band at 12, would I be this person at 32?
I got into this band because of the television show Hard Copy. They did a report on head banging and damage it did to necks and played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” throughout the segment. I liked that song a lot. No siblings, no cable, no music in the house meant Hard Copy was my Spotify. It wasn’t much different for Cobain. When he discovered punk rock, he didn’t know everything there was to know about the subculture. He had mix tapes made by friends. 15 years later when I was in junior high and the early years of high school, we also didn’t have a subculture. We had a few bands or directors or authors that you loved and used them as your guidance. Whether it was Cobain or Tarantino or Hunter S. Thompson, you consumed their works and either dove in to devour what they loved or you just enjoyed it like a normal, healthy person and moved on. I dove in and devoured. That meant hanging out in record stores and head shops and bookstores and video stores and talking to older people that just had to know more than you, right? Now I have a phone with all of the world’s knowledge in my pocket. There’s no reason for a 12-year-old to search out. They also have phones with the world’s knowledge in their pockets.
The biggest revelation in Montage of Heck is Cobain’s, “paper thin skin.” All criticism, love, praise and scorn got to him. He would not have made it in today’s climate. At least we have three studio albums, a b-sides collection, some live albums and a few million kids that embraced the ideas and ethos of the band.
Please, be nice to teenagers.