On April 8, 1994, I was at a stop light in front of the Publix on Fowler Avenue in Tampa, Florida when I heard the news: Kurt Cobain had shot himself in the damn head. “My God,” I thought. “Another rock and roll tragedy.” Like every other fan, my heart ached for his infant daughter, Francis Bean, and I found myself looking to Courtney Love for answers that didn’t exist.
And now, 21 years later, Bean is credited as an executive producer for the rock-doc “Montage of Heck,” the word “Heck” an ironic cherry atop this morbid sundae made from interviews, journal entries, recordings, and home videos culled from Cobain’s personal archives.
And while Love was not a producer on this film, (Director Brett Morgen stated in a Rolling Stone article that Love didn’t see the project until it was finished) every child of the 90’s knows who has always held the keys to Cobain’s Kingdom. Courtney Love is ultimately responsible for green-lighting this film that fully exposes Cobain, not as the Rock God who changed the course of rock and roll in the 90’s, but as the garden-variety junkie he really was.
Anyone who has struggled with addiction knows well that the personality eventually becomes a slave to the desires of the beast, and Kurt so hated that beast that he ended up murdering it in cold blood. “Montage of Heck” blurs the line between “intimate portrayal” and “public exploitation“ of Kurt Cobain’s battle with his demons. I have no doubt that Kurt would hate this that this film was made.
He would be mortified to know that millions of people have now seen the junkie filth in which he lived at the height of his fame. He would be horrified to know that the filmmakers shared a story he narrated about a sexual encounter with an intellectually disabled girl, the truth of which Cobain will never be able to confirm, defend, or deny. What man wouldn’t feel unspeakable shame at being seen nodding out while holding his baby daughter in his arms? I can imagine few things more intimate than a mother begging her son to avoid an early grave, so does it seem fair to Kurt that millions of strangers are now in on that private exchange?
I say no.
I am aware that I do not represent the majority of popular opinion about this film. It received a 97% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. IMDB has it at 7.7/10 stars. It is so easy to impose onto our artistic heroes the romanticism of “misunderstood loner who lives in a self-imposed exile and creates masterpieces through the fog of mind-altering substances.”
And clearly Courtney Love saw no shame in revealing the underbelly of Kurt’s life and why would she, right? Who better to testify to the glory of the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll lifestyle than the Queen of the Cobain royal family, waving to their angst-ridden subjects with arms once blackened with track marks?
Perhaps to see through the mirage of the tortured genius, you would have had to “Live Through This,” as Love’s band Hole once challenged us to do. To see greasy hair and pock-marked skin as something other than the telltale signs of a Rock-n-Roll mad scientist, one may need to have known Kurt Cobain like I did. See, I lived with him on the top floor of a crumbling apartment building on the West Side of Chicago—only his name wasn’t Kurt Cobain. It was Moonie.
Moonie was a tortured genius who could charm a snake out of its skin with his magic guitar. Like Cobain, he was a heroin-addicted triple-threat: music, lyrics, and painting. Moonie’s anthem, his “Teen Spirit,” was a hypnotic wall of orchestration the likes of which I have not encountered since. (I wish you could hear that otherworldly tune, but all evidence of its existence dissolved into four walls of trash and resin)
His music! His brilliance! I yearned to experience intimacy with the vessel entrusted with such a gift. I wanted to protect him from the world of corporate bullshit out there. It didn’t seem fair that he should do something so pedestrian as earn a living wage. He needed to be spending all of his time creating music and art, not shlepping muffins and coffee to tie-wearing turds for $8 an hour. I wanted to lock him in a room, feed him, and bring him drugs so he could focus only on being a genius.
So when Cobain whipped his penis out and waved it in front of video cameras to say: “Fuck You Very Much,” his life seemed the pinnacle of possibility for every misunderstood outsider like Moonie. We suspected Kurt did a ton of drugs but so what, man—he was the perfect mix of fury, rebellion, and artistry. He was the anti-hero of our generation.
And now that I’m a grown-up, I see that it was all bullshit.
Moonie was not the victim of a society that had sold its soul to the devil in a three-piece suit. He was a stinky man-boy incapable of taking responsibility for his life. Our disgusting apartment was not some Screw the Man badge of honor, but evidence of a downwards spiral that takes people out of the game—even legendary rock stars.
For Moonie and Kurt, drugs and talent had a mutualistic relationship, each taking turns as host and parasite. If separated, both would surely perish. The only difference between Kurt Cobain the heroin addict and Moonie the heroin addict was Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, genius record producer Butch Vig, and the jet fuel of the still-rising rocket of MTV. Without them, Cobain was no different than my roommate.
The tragedy of “Montage of Heck” is in the annihilation of the sacred space that must exist between the artist and his art for the illusion to be sustained. To create an illusion, the magician must use a most delicate sleight of hand. To maintain the illusion, the magician must never give away his secrets. As we have seen with Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, the blending of art and artist has the power to destroy even the most magnificent illusions.
And now that Morgen has drawn back the curtain on the Great Wizard of Grunge, “Nevermind” will never be quite as magical. In “Montage,” the pain behind the lyrics was given a face: Kurt Cobain. It no longer feels proper to covet an addict’s damaged soul, even if it was the addict who extended the offer.
I imagine many will take issue with me: “Cobain was a genius, missy. You don’t make “No Apologies” unless you are brilliant.” Maybe. Probably. But Cobain didn’t have a monopoly on drug-fueled flashes of greatness. Fame is a simply a lightning strike of fate: unpredictable, and dangerous. Cobain happened to get hit.
I can say from experience that anger can be oddly pleasurable, and it is much easier to blame the world than change your life. Kurt’s anger and contempt for the world seemed a secondary addiction, and whether or not he could have turned his life around is a question whose answer lies somewhere between Cobain and his eternal soul. I hope he found the peace he was looking for, and that it is in a place far enough away from ego as to be unfazed by the humiliating revelations in “Montage of Heck.”
One final note: I will admit that I am incapable of being completely neutral about this as I have my own incriminating “personal archives:” video tapes of rock shows I performed while high and stupid. All I remember was that I was wearing a purple cape and leopard stretch pants, riffing unrehearsed dialogue I just knew was so, so witty.
I have never watched those tapes, and I don’t see that ever changing. I keep them in a box in the back of my closet as evidence of who I think I am when I am under the influence. And while I’m positive that viewing them after my death would be entertaining in a morbid, voyeuristic way, I promise you that they would reveal nothing about who I am. Because for addicts and rock stars, it’s all an act, folks.