The new documentary Montage of Heck takes a fresh look at the life and career of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who, while only in the pop limelight for a shade over two years, remains one of the most iconic figures in rock-music history.
In an effort to correct some of the myths that surround Cobain, director Brett Morgen opens a window onto Kurt’s private world, providing at times intimate glimpses of the rock star’s personal life.
But to better understand Kurt Cobain and his songs, it’s important to realize that there are at least three Kurts to consider.
The first is Kurt the rock star, an image Cobain quite consciously crafted, the side of his persona that he sometimes called “Kurdt.” This is the one most listeners associate with him: the brooding poet, the artist filled with punk-rock anger and aggression who resisted and loathed fame. Kurdt would often make up fabulous stories in interviews, some loosely based on facts (he claimed to have once lived under a bridge), others fabricated in a spirit of playful absurdity (though sometimes journalists failed to recognize the joke). Kurdt was the defiant punk artist who flashed his middle finger at the status quo. It was a role Kurt loved to play.
The private Kurt, by contrast, seems to have been ambitious and driven. While Kurdt disdained fame, Kurt energetically pursued it.
Once Cobain became a star, he suffered under the new pressures and burdens that came with it. But when asked once in drug rehab why he didn’t just travel far away to escape the spotlight, he responded that he was afraid his fans would forget him. Cobain biographer Charles R Cross observes that at several points in Kurt’s career, he consistently chose the path to fame and wealth, when he could have chosen otherwise. (Of course, “Kurdt” would then complain bitterly.)
The third Kurt is Cobain the creative artist. Any objective survey of Kurt’s writing, songs and paintings reveals an enormously creative mind. In contrast to the career-driven Kurt and the mopey Kurdt, the creative Kurt was an unrelentingly playful personality that delighted in fanciful juxtaposition of images, poked fun at societal roles and stereotypes, and engaged in an almost constant game with language. This Kurt had a particular fascination with following seemingly sensible premises to absurd extremes.
The famous lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit are as good an example as any:
Here we are now, entertain us
Looking out onto the hormone-infused dancing at a teen party, Cobain follows “mulatto” with “albino,” playing on the number of syllables and ending vowel. If skin pigment is what linked those two words, whiteness suggests having one’s blood sucked out, which generates “mosquito.” But a mosquito penetrates the body (and sucks), and that leads to “libido.” The subsequent transformation of “hello” into “how low”” continues the logic and the wordplay.
This kind of songwriter’s game with rhymes is reminiscent of the bridge to the Beatles’ Taxman, the verses of Leiber and Stoller’s Little Egypt and any number of songs by Cole Porter.
Unfortunately, many Cobain commentaries mistakenly confuse these distinct elements of Cobain’s personality. The most common error – and the basis for the myth Montage of Heck hopes to dispel – is conflating Kurdt and Kurt.
There is nothing necessarily inauthentic in a performer creating a mask as Cobain did; Bob Dylan and others have done this for decades. That the private Kurt contrasts with the public image he projected, then, does not mean that fans have somehow been duped or that Cobain has been dishonest. The public image is an extension of Cobain’s creativity – another dimension of his imagination that he based on himself, not unlike a character in a semi-biographical novel.
The often unnoticed – but perhaps more serious mistake – is confusing either Kurt or Kurdt with the creative Cobain. It’s all too common to find Cobain’s personal biography breezily read into his lyrics, the attitudes projected by the brooding Kurdt blended into their meaning.
While it’s clear that Cobain’s sometimes sad and desperate personal life was the source of many of his songs, the songs themselves go far beyond personal anger, complaining, sorrow and confession.
Instead, his songs reach for something beyond his own experience: sometimes he’s simply enjoying the craft of songwriting, playfully engaging with the rich history of pop that he knew and loved.
It’s through viewing Cobain in the broader context of pop songwriting – which includes its techniques and history – that one discovers a fascinating artist of considerable breadth and depth.