Before watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, you need to understand the artist’s three sides

John Covach, University of Rochester

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.

A note written by Kurt Cobain, signed ‘Kurdt.’
girlfriday_/flickr

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

A mulatto

An albino

A mosquito

My libido

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.

Artists often project pubic images that clash with their private selves.
DNFTT2014/deviant art, CC BY-NC-ND

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.

The trailer for Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.

The Conversation

John Covach is Director, Institute for Popular Music at University of Rochester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Prince Guest Stars on ‘New Girl’

Famed eccentric musician Prince (the artist formerly known as ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’) will guest star on the hit TV show ‘New Girl’, it was announced the other day.

“Jess (Zooey Deschanel) is ready to paint the town purple when a chance encounter finds her and best friend Cece (Hannah Simone) invited to a once-in-a-lifetime mansion party thrown by music legend Prince, guest-starring as himself,” a description of the episode from Fox reads. “Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Nick (Jake Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield), Winston (Lamorne Morris) and Coach (guest star Damon Wayans, Jr.) are determined to crash the festivities, building toward an unforgettable ending. The episode also will feature special guest cameo appearances. “

Although, according to executive producer Brett Baer, it was Prince who actually contacted the show about making a guest appearance since last year. He contacted the show’s stars and told them he was a big fan and wanted to work with them.

Can you imagine Prince calling you up and asking you if he can be a part of your performance?

Pixies Say Kim Deal Is Irreplacable

Back in June 2013, legendary punk band the Pixies released a statement regarding bassist Kim Deal leaving the band.

We are sad to say that Kim Deal has decided to leave the Pixies. We are very proud to have worked with her on and off over the last 25 years. Despite her decision to move on, we will always consider her a member of the Pixies, and her place will always be here for her. We wish her all the best.

Since then, the band has hired Paz Lenchantin (famed bassist of A Perfect Circle) after trying a couple others, but drummer David Lovering told Brooklyn Vegan that they’ll never really be the same without Kim.

When we were in the lurch when Kim Deal left it was a tough decision. Basically, no one can replace Kim Deal. It would be impossible to do. Kim Shattuck, we had actually hired her for the European tour, and that had finished a few weeks ago, and then we had worked with Paz in the past, probably around the same time we were looking at trying to figure out the bassist. Paz is just wonderful. She’s gonna take over for the next portion of it. It’s just what we’ve been doing and hopefully it’ll be good.

Dr. Dre To Create $70 million Academy for Aspiring Music Moguls

When I read that Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine were creating a music academy at USC, I immediately thought about how drastically different it would be in comparison to traditional music schools. Of course, Dre’s school is going to be geared towards the music business (or “innovation in business” as they put it), but it will also have an arts program, and the first thing that comes to mind is “hip hop is not going to die anytime soon.” But music is not all that will be taught there.

According to the announcement in the LATimes,

Instruction will involve engineering, computer science, fine arts, graphic design, business and leadership training.

and as Dean of Fine Arts at USC Erica Muhl said in an interview,

“Academy students will have the freedom to move easily from classroom to lab, from studio to workshop individually or in groups, and blow past any academic or structural barriers to spontaneous creativity.”

While the NYTimes hopes the school will produce the next Steve Jobs, the question right now remains who will be one of the lucky 25 who manage to get in to the school on its first opening, and what should we really expect of them? Pop music has been forever cursed with echoes of regurgitated, and sometimes even stolen art, and while the donation is a beautiful contribution to the world of music education, it also carries a certain standard that could possibly alter the course of the students’ professional careers, and not necessarily in a good way. After all, half the donation is coming from a man who got that money from gloating on his records about selling drugs, treating women poorly, employing prostitutes, and killing people with guns, and while rapper Eminem said in the past that what is said on a record is much different than what is usually said in real life, that doesn’t necessarily mean that none of what has been said on a Dre record is true.

It’s also possible that this move by Dr. Dre could help to shift the discourse on rap records from violence and drugs to a more peaceful and educational movement, something we’ve recently seen from Snoop Lion (the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg), which is undoubtedly a natural progression in both the arts and in life. Violence, after all, has the power to ultimately hinder record and concert sales, especially if the listeners are in jail.