Reflections on “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

I remember Nirvana as a changing point in my life. A lot of people do. It was a weird creeping of post-punk into mainstream culture. It was highly alienated and came from the alienated, white working class kids. Things that all made since to me. It’s funny, by the mid-1990s, I found Nirvana frankly banal. I had gone through the SST and Discord catalogs finding music to review for print ‘zine, and Kurt Cobain seemed like a silly, tragic man to me even by the time I was 16.

The first time I saw Nirvana—it was watching television, an old 60s tube set, at my grandparent’s post-war row house in Augusta, Georgia. The neighborhood was transitioning and most of my neighbors where black or had been there since the 1950s. It was a working class neighborhood in the South in a city that had infrastructure decay starting in the late 1980s. Cobain semi-coherent lyrics hit a nerve with me in that environment.

The Montage from Heck may go into why Cobain hit a nerve. I was born when Kurt Cobain was in middle school. Divorced parents. Both working class but had chances at higher education. My step-father was the figure I admired the most even if we yelled at each other constantly: he had come from long patrician Southern family that had fallen down. He had decided to be a mechanic and left Georgia Tech. Drugs flowed around both the city my grandparents lived in and the suburbs I grew up in. A few of my friends (and sometimes myself) would be homeless for brief periods trying to rebel and escape. I would be hauled off to semi-rural bedroom town during the week.

This is my transition to teenage angst poet, and Cobain was, in some ways, a pop culture legitimatization of that angst: surreal, angry, self-aware.   The dada want to efface was there too. Anger at complicated family life. Anger at Reagan. My anger was young, half-formed, too pink to be politically meaningful.   Nirvana was perfect for that. Cobain came from that.

I suppose these very issues, however, are also what caused me reject that almost immediately. I never thought Nirvana had sold out, as selling out was how music got here. I thought it was inchoate and shame-obsessed. It’s dada aesthetic subsumed in the faux-lumber jack aesthetics of grunge and popularization of post-punk. Also as a person who was used to pain, who had lost friends to suicide by 15, I saw Cobain’s flaming out as a cop-out. Another working class, lower middle class turned rich and successful cliché: nothing angers me more than a poor, little rich boy story.

It all seemed so flash-pan. The anger seemed so very limited, and as I got older: it seemed both not sophisticated enough and also not aware of social problems either. The racial tensions I lived which confused me as a child were not reflected at all in that music. Cobain was like the main character in Catcher in the Rye, he seemed profound when one was transitioning to manhood, but mawkish once one had already got this.

Montage, however, shows me a sit of Cobain that I deeply empathized with and a particular kind of family and class arrangement that I did come from. Washington State was not Georgia in 1985.

The fear of humiliation drove Cobain, and I knew that fear. The facile act was an attempt at self-honesty.  Brett Morgan doesn’t make me like Cobain in this film, but he does make me see something in his self-destruction that was more than just a character failing. More than a cheap rock-n-roll cop-out. If anything, Morgan makes me see Courtney Love as a human being in her own right because Kurt definitely did and Morgan was working with primary material.  The heroin addiction, the inability to control oneself, and the loathing the very stability one wanted: this makes total sense to part of me that came out of failed marriage, and lost friends to drugs, suicide, and alcohol-related car wrecks in my teens.  I saw a lot of that trauma, and I can’t imagine what adding that kind of fame and money would do it if one had not already come to some serious self-realizations.

The frantic art. The punk aesthetic which is actually a dada aesthetic. The fear of shame. The acting out.   All of this becomes fatal in a class transition.   That is probably not what Brett Morgan wanted to prove, but the slamming of a high art, working class angst, and inchoate politics when given tons of money very quickly: it is fatal.

Interesting that now we see collapses like this, but mostly of child stars. Most musicians that have influence on pop music are not found in the minor labels anymore—indeed those labels are mostly owned by major labels anyway, or they have seized functioning except for a culturally significant few. Most pop stars are engineered, a great majority of them by corporations like Disney.

The kinds of burn-out we saw from late 1960s to the late 1990s, frankly, don’t seem possible anymore, except in Hip-Hop and even that seems to be fading.  After all, when you prepackage music , you can control the marketing much easier. Yet, in a way, this is an aesthetic lost, but it may save some lives. After all, the spectacle won’t need the self-immolation of 27-year-old musicians who came from broken homes and a whole lot of nothing anymore.


2 thoughts on “Reflections on “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

  1. Your personal details here remind me why I’m not a naturally radical person.

    My youth was much more middle class and mainstream, although not perfectly so. There was no personal experience of broken home, homelessness, drugs, suicides, etc in my youth. I had no interest in alternative culture because, at the time, I had no awareness of it. I barely noticed Cobain until he died. When I was growing up, I mostly listened to Oldies and Classic Rock.

    I had to leave home to transition out of mainstream, middle class life. My struggles have never been environmental. There was never any outward correlate to my depression. It just was. I couldn’t blame anything else for it, or so it seemed that way at the time (maybe internalized sense of failure is a middle class sensibility, instead of fighting against the world).

    Cobain died the year I graduated from high school. His music didn’t speak to me at the time. When I hear it now, it does symbolize a transitional point. The mid 90s was a strange time.

    As for artistic self-destructiveness, I’m not overly drawn to that variety of melodrama, especially not on a personal level. I’ve never even given it much deep thought or considered the political significance (or insignificance), as you’ve done with this post.

    So, whose music is supposed to speak to depressed, apathetic, middle class white kids?

    • “So, whose music is supposed to speak to depressed, apathetic, middle class white kids?”

      If you listen to pop music right now, it is almost entirely escapist. The little bits that are not basically come out of black culture, and if apathetic, depressed, white kids didn’t like it (even though there are some weird racial context of this actually), it would not dominate the radio beside pop.

      I am, in many ways, much more prone to radicalization. It is generally a failing middle class or someone who swifts classes up or down (I moved up, even though I make about the same amount of money as my parents, I work in white collar work and live abroad whereas my step-father was a mechanic and my mother was waitress-turned-nurse-turned-disabled).

      I think aestheticizing that alienation is healthy, but in the context of cultural industries, that aestheticizing can put one in a dangerous situation. Being a poet, I don’t really have to worry about that 😉

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