Twenty-five years have passed since the death of Kurt Cobain, frontman of Nirvana. Kurt’s music had such a huge impact on my life, and Montage of Heck, the documentary by Brett Morgen, is a bittersweet reminder of the hole that was left that day. It still hasn’t healed.
I was 12 in 1991, I was the only person I knew my age who had heard of Nirvana. My older brother had Bleach on vinyl long before any Teen Spirit had been sniffed. He recorded it onto tape for me as a gift. He knew I’d love this band and he was so right. I was already into Sonic Youth but their songs were just fun, they didn’t hit me right in the angsty centre of my heart like Nirvana were about to. The second “Blew” churned away in my Walkman I was obsessed.
My brother looked remarkably like Kurt; same blonde scruffy hair, skinny jeans, cardigans and Converse, the piercing blue eyes. I was in awe of him, the epitome of cool and protector of me, and as I grew up he was one of the few people in the world who had me sussed out.
April 8th 1994 was the first time my heart broke. I was aged 15 and the previous year of my life had been the hardest. As well as all the usual crazy hormones and unrequited crushes, my innocence had been taken from me without my permission. Its something I didn’t tell my family about and still haven’t. It started me on a sudden downward spiral and caused a massive change in my attitude. I turned to LSD and sex — as much of each as I could get, abusing myself and letting myself be abused because I hated myself and wanted to die. So did Kurt Cobain.
It was my brother who broke the news of Kurt’s death to me, and I truly didn’t believe him. After Kurt’s stay in rehab, I assumed this was just NME gossip, that he was missing but would be found to be just fine. There was no internet back then of course, news did not travel quickly. It was a Friday night, my parents were out, my brother returned from the pub and sat me down to tell me what he’d heard. It hurt a lot.
It is impossible for me to watch Montage of Heck without aching, and it hurt worse this time — 25 years on from Kurt’s death, and just a month since my first visit to Seattle. Now everything seems clearer to me. Seeing the streets he would have walked, the domineering mountains looming in the background, a busy city but the suburbs just feel so wide open and sparse, and endless, like there is no way out.
The first part of the documentary, and the most painful for me to watch, is about Kurt growing up in Aberdeen, Washington. His mother, Wendy O’Connor speaks of him as a child. An angelic looking blonde haired boy, blowing kisses at the camera, playing guitar and drums from the age of three. A boy generous with his love and attention, a boy with a mind so creative he just had to act it all out. His parents couldn’t handle his energy, had him put on Ritalin which just made matters worse.
His parents’ divorce was a trigger for Kurt. Time and time again in this film it is noted that Kurt could not handle being the centre of attention for the wrong reasons, and divorce back then was just not the done thing. He didn’t want to be the child of parents who didn’t love each other — he was ashamed. His behaviour began spiralling out of control and Wendy didn’t know what to do with him so she sent him to live with his father and step-mother until they couldn’t do it anymore either.
It is during this phase that we hear about a side of Kurt that we couldn’t imagine from our hero. He bullied his half-siblings and made life with him very difficult. No-one understood Kurt and he was passed from relative to relative. He was just a boy who needed his mom.
Everyone interviewed in this documentary feels in some way responsible for Kurt’s death. They never say it explicitly but its there, hidden in their stories of him. Wendy tries to tell it like it is, admits she didn’t know what to do with him, but there’s regret in her voice that she didn’t try harder. Kurt’s father, Donald, looks like a deer caught in the headlights, painful guilt in his eyes. How awful it must be as a parent to lose a child to suicide with the full glare of the world on you. Donald looks like a man who still cannot believe all this happened to him.
Director, Brett Morgen, did a pretty good job of making this much more than your usual ‘talking heads’ documentary. He used Kurt’s own home movies, journal entries, personal recordings, notebook scrawls, and drawings and not to mention the usual assortment of vintage concert clips and TV interview footage. The editing of it all together is sublime. The animated segments, though bleak and well…grungy, really do bring Kurt’s thoughts to life. There’s no denying that a picture is (literally) painted of him as depressive from an early age. Kurt and his friends used to visit the home of a developmentally challenged high school classmate to steal her father’s alcohol. After he attempted to have sex with the girl, his classmates began insulting and shaming him. Feeling totally ridiculed, Kurt laid down on the train tracks near his home, with the intention of ending his life, but the train whistled by on the adjacent track. Not today death, not today.
Much like Kurt himself came unknowingly to the rescue of thousands upon thousands of misunderstood teens, punk showed up at Kurt’s door and gave him a home. This is where we begin to see just how ambitious he was. He started the band with Krist Novoselic, practising their music at the same space The Melvin’s did. He was a contradiction of himself a lot of the time—fighting an ongoing battle with his introverted self, the brooding one who wrote poetry and felt nothing but shame and the other side, the Kurt—or Kurdt as he would spell this incarnation—who wanted to succeed so badly that he made the band practice every single day until they were tight as heck. Throughout the film, we see various notes Kurt wrote outlining the technical and logistical steps needed for his band to get off the ground, including instrument costs and record label addresses and phone numbers, and how the name ‘Nirvana’ came to be. Kurt was driven and driving himself towards a cliff edge at full speed.
Kurt had a girlfriend now, Tracy Marander, she inspired the now classic song “About a Girl” and she freely admits that she took care of him, mothered him and gave him a home in Olympia. He worked as a Janitor for a while but most of the time he was unemployed with Tracy keeping him. In many ways, Tracy allowed him to follow his dream of becoming a musician, and without her, Nirvana may never have been.
Things moved fast. The band signed to Sub-Pop and their album Bleach sold steadily, setting the band on their first tour. Kurt and Tracy parted ways, without ever really saying goodbye, it just kinda happened. You can’t help but feel for her after all she’d given to him, she was left behind without a second thought. It is around this time that Kurt began using heroin.
The band’s first review came after they released their debut single “Love Buzz” in 1988. “It was in this hip magazine out of Michigan these scenesters were doing,” Krist says. “They said it was like Lynyrd Skynyrd without the flares. Kurt was really hurt by that. He hated being humiliated. If he ever thought he was humiliated, then you’d see the rage come out.”
There is a pattern starting to emerge here. His parent’s relationship, his first sexual encounter, his first review—things that should have been joyous memories for him all turned sour. The torture probably made him the genius songwriter he turned out to be, but putting himself so directly under the spotlight was perhaps never a good idea for someone as vulnerable as Kurt.
Then in 1991 came Nevermind and his mother was terrified. When she heard it she had a feeling this was going to change the world and she wasn’t wrong. The band signed with DGC Records and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released. Kurt was immediately a superstar.
With fame also came Love.
A lot has been said about Courtney Love’s involvement in Kurt’s death, she has always been portrayed as the wicked witch who turned Kurt rotten. But the very intimate video footage of the pair together shows a couple who were, at least at first, totally smitten and totally comfortable with each other. Courtney, in all fairness to her, bares everything in this film. Their relationship wasn’t always pretty — it was drug-fuelled and messy, they made each other laugh and hid themselves away, just wanting to be together, like so many couples do in the first throes of passion. Unfortunately, it also happened to be the time he was rocketed into super-stardom when he should have been making more music and going on tour. Has the phrase, “be careful what you wish for” ever been more appropriately used than in the case of Kurt Cobain?
Kurt was clearly enamoured with her, and he was most likely impressed with her real ‘don’t give a f**k’ attitude—the character he tried to play but couldn’t keep up the act. The true Kurt felt every criticism he received like a stab to the heart. Courtney became pregnant, the notorious Vanity Fair article happened and she admitted to doing heroin in early pregnancy. The pictures showed her naked, with swollen tummy and cigarette in mouth. While it was Courtney that bore the brunt of the backlash, yet another moment of what should have been a joyful and exciting time in Kurt’s life — becoming a father — was destroyed and turned into a nightmare by other people’s opinions and the betrayal of people he thought were friends.
Kurt’s heroin abuse became a serious problem now. He stopped for a while when Frances Bean was born because he had no choice with Social Services watching their every move, but he couldn’t keep away from it for long.
His love for Frances shines through on film, but the pain ran deep for Kurt. He couldn’t cope with his new life. It was all too much all at once. Frances’ 1st birthday video shows cracks forming between Kurt and Courtney — their relationship was heading in the same direction that his parents’ did. Courtney admits that she had considered having an affair while they were on tour in London, and that Kurt just ‘knew’. This may have been the final straw in a life that just felt like one big humiliation to him. Kurt apparently attempted to take his life while in Rome, overdosed and ended up in a coma.
What happens next is not portrayed in the documentary but it is widely known that Kurt fled from rehab, returned to his home in Seattle, and there in the room above the garage he took his own life. The use of a shotgun felt final, no chance of escape from death this time.
Nirvana’s music brought me so much joy during such difficult times. I found friends through the shared love of his music, built relationships on it, had some of the most fun times of my life while it played in the background. Kurt felt like a famous brother to me.
Frances Bean Cobain was the Executive Producer on Montage of Heck. She wanted to make this film to show the world that her father was just a man, not the revered, pseudo-religious figure that he has subsequently evolved into being, and she got her wish to some extent. But even with knowing all his flaws, his timeless music and exquisite lyrics and his legendary place in the 27 Club posit him in another league to most musicians.
On April 5th 1994 Kurt’s fire burned out, but the light he brought to people’s lives will never fade away.