Releasing Kurt Cobain’s rough drafts and outtakes does no disservice to his legacy.
Jeff Burlingame wrote in Time on August 19, that the release of new material from or about Kurt Cobain should cease. His reason — that this is not what Cobain would have wanted — was a fair one which I respect…but don’t agree with.
What happens to dead musicians when there’s no more music and nothing new said of them? They’re forgotten. Their music dies. The lifeless repetition of greatest hits ultimately makes it impossible for existing fans to return to the music with fresh ears, or for new fans to feel excited discovering it. Their music becomes the audio equivalent of sun-bleached wallpaper; over-familiar background that we barely notice let alone view with any intensity.
In a beautiful eulogy at Cobain’s memorial, Krist Novoselic — Nirvana’s bassist and Cobain’s friend — spoke of Cobain’s ethos saying; “no band is special, no player royalty.” That’s why it’s so troubling when people take Cobain’s words as diktats to be obeyed two decades after his passing. Every time there’s a new Cobain release someone makes the claim that his image shouldn’t be taken in vain, or that his unreleased music should be kept locked away to maintain the sanctity of his back catalog. Creating a Gospel of Kurt, or converting his music and image into holy relics, reeks of a posthumous sainthood that’s as un-punk rock as it gets.
Asking “What Would Kurt Think?” only raises more questions. Do the views of Kurt Cobain the troubled teenager carry equal weight to those of Cobain the weary 27 year old? Is everything he said sacred? Is there nothing that can now be seen as immature, or only applicable within the context of his life? Dogmatizing his words then adopting them as our own means we pick-and-choose whatever we wish, illegitimately appropriating his status to justify our own personal wishes and intentions. It means we falsify Cobain; no one can truly know what such a contradictory and intriguing person would think of the world of 2015.
A further truth is you don’t have to care what Kurt Cobain might think — it’s your choice. When you first bought a Nirvana album you didn’t fill in an application form asking for his permission. Following an onstage breakdown in Rome in 1989, Cobain raved at one of the owners of Sub Pop, his record label, that his audiences were idiots. In 1992 he released a statement asking certain fans to “leave us the fuck alone!” Just as Cobain had every right to make such statements, fans had every right to ignore them. Buying someone’s music doesn’t provide them a veto over your personal morality or your enjoyment of said music.
No one expects an artist’s rough sketches to match their fully-realized works. Consider the slew of outtakes leaked in August 2015. The result, far from being a decline in respect for Cobain, was an outpouring of reaffirmed enthusiasm for the man and his work. One take of “Lithium” saw Cobain, voice near gone, barely able to croak the chorus. This humanized the man while revealing him as someone so titanically dedicated that even with half-a-voice he still pushed himself all the way in his desire to practice and perfect. This alternative version brought out idiosyncratically telling details invisible if all we had was the polished work on “Nevermind.”
Outtakes can reinvigorate well-worn songs. True, the Cobain of 1994 didn’t choose to release them. But back in 1992 he agreed to his record company’s request that Nirvana outtakes be stitched together to exploit Nirvana’s unexpected fame and the Christmas buying season. The high quality of the “Incesticide” compilation shouldn’t disguise that Cobain had no trouble with its commercially compromised purpose. He even named a 1992 song “Oh the Guilt,” a quotation taken from his “Journals” where he lamented the idea that he was meant to feel guilt for his success and burgeoning wealth.
It’s also unreasonable to expect that Cobain, who would now be in his late forties, would stand here in 2015, ignorant of and naïve about the commercial potential of outtakes — even the Beatles and Led Zeppelin have engaged in archive projects. The idea that Cobain was an austere purist who wouldn’t have joined with his bandmates in embracing the release of archive material if the opportunity arose seems illusionary.
The use of Cobain’s image and music is a matter worth vigilance. Cobain’s avatar chanting Bon Jovi songs in a game was disquieting — yet the result reenergized fans and reaffirmed their belief that Cobain remains more than just product. There’s a certain overwrought paternalism to claims that any use of Cobain’s music or image is predatory or that individuals need protecting from hearing music that isn’t ‘perfect.’ Such an argument underrates the general care that has been taken by his estate and over-privileges what is being consumed. It’s isn’t life-or-death, it’s just music, no matter how good. It’s hard to see the existential harm caused by letting those who wish to hear more exchange their cash to do so.
Ultimately I’m glad that posthumous sales of Cobain’s music have provided for his child, have helped fund Chad Channing’s excellent band Before Cars, have allowed Novoselic to pursue political interests. I’m more than happy to keep production plant workers, administrators, marketers and everyone else at a record label in work so they can feed their families.
And maybe it’s selfish, but it does thrill me whenever unheard recordings reignite that voice, that sound — it’s like encountering an old friend and finding the years haven’t dulled their energy. While Kurt Cobain chose to burn out, it would be our mistake if we let his last embers be buried in a record company vault and allowed to fade away in silent indifference.