Cause for Celebration: Montage of Heck’s Trove of Unreleased Cobain

Kudos and acknowledgment to Osty and to LiveNirvana for the early review AND for LN always being the best source of Nirvana news and information. A true legacy that site.

I think it’s fair to say that Montage of Heck has been a treasure trove for Nirvana fans. The film contained intriguing interviews with individuals who have rarely spoken extensively in public about Cobain, it contained substantial quantities of home movie footage either self-recorded or recorded by those around him, it gave a fresh experience of large amounts of Cobain art work, displayed a significant amount of Cobain audio recordings whether spoken word or musical – I mean, what a great year 2015 has been! The book, again, allowed an opportunity to read and consider the interviews from the film in greater depth and at leisure – it’s a valuable release – and the art work was worth looking at. As experiences, the cinema showing of Montage of Heck was really slamming – the volume, the sound quality, I loved it, it’s as close as I can imagine coming to seeing Nirvana in their heyday playing live, I found the sound that good. Similarly, being at home, watching Montage of Heck on DVD – brill, contemplative, varied, a full range of experiences at work. This is worth celebrating!

And now, in just a few weeks, we’ll be seeing the full Montage of Heck soundtrack release. S’ok if I just say “woohoo!!!” Leaving aside the not so super ‘Super Deluxe’ release which I think I griped about sufficiently last week, I think it’s fair to say that the soundtrack release is looking really great. Here’s the 31 tracks of Cobain compositions emerging:


So, let’s do the numbers – because this is the biggest release of previously unknown Cobain originals since his death in 1994. That’s how significant this release is. With the Lights Out contained 25 songs that hadn’t previously been officially released in any other form of which 8 were covers (Heartbreaker, White Lace and Strange, Moby Dick, They Hung Him on a Cross, Grey Goose, Ain’t it a Shame, Immigrant Song, Seasons in the Sun) but – even more significantly, 13 had been seen on bootlegs (Anorexorcist, Help Me I’m Hungry, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew, Raunchola, Beans, Don’t Want it All, Clean Up Before She Comes, Blandest, Token Eastern Song, Opinion, Verse Chorus Verse, Talk to Me) leaving just 4 songs (Mrs Butterworth, Old Age, The Other Improv, Do Re Mi) that hadn’t previously emerged prior to the official release.

The Montage of Heck soundtrack contains no fewer than 14 unreleased songs of which only one – the Happy Guitar – has been previously bootlegged. This is awesome. We’re 21 years after the death of Kurt Cobain and there’s this kind of quantity of genuinely unheard material emerging? Brilliant. A massive result.

Also, it’s always been under-appreciated that Cobain wasn’t just a song-smith, the guy had a genuine interest in the potential for sound creation with the limited means available to him as a dirt-poor unemployed guy in the Northwest. The ‘experimental pieces’ see him manipulating and testing the limits of his guitar, his voice, the effects he could access, his enjoyment of seguing together audio clips and snippets. Cobain was more than a guy whacking chords together into pop song structures. Whimsical though his efforts may have been, at least in the late Eighties, he was playing around and experimenting and the soundtrack makes a genuine effort to account for that with a number of these efforts – I admit I’m pleased, as a bit of a noise freak I’ve always wished there was more official record of Cobain’s freak-out moments.

The presence of audio clips of Cobain speaking to tape is also intriguing. It’s often forgotten that Cobain had a literary side, that his lyric-writing was – in his eyes – often a by-product derived from his poetry writing rather than singing being the first priority. The ‘Aberdeen’ clip has raised controversy given the likelihood that it’s fictitious or massively exaggerated but, regardless, it shows Cobain practicing his story-telling abilities, his interest in telling a tale. He’s been notorious for a long while for his willful inventions during interviews – this is akin to that aspect of his character. There’s an unfortunate tendency to hammer singer-songwriters with the need to be ‘true’ in their words, rather than appreciating their right and ability to inhabit other characters, write through other eyes, tell tales just as thoroughly as Hollywood or the great American authors. These audio clips may not elevate Cobain into those ranks, but it does indicate his striving for artistic expression – an expansion of how Cobain should be considered. The 10 audio/experimental pieces really do deserve to be here.

And that’s what I love about the Montage of Heck soundtrack. In conception, yes, it hangs together as a collage of sound material – an obvious intention well-performed. Secondly, it’s a richly varied approach to Cobain’s works which does so much more than just demand he adhere to verse-chorus-verse songwriting – thank God! Finally an open-minded attempt to show Cobain as a guy with an expansive taste and creative muse encompassing a full range of different outputs. Thirdly, hoping for vast wealth remaining in the vault has been looking ever less likely year-by-year…To be suddenly shown that YES! There is something approximating the hopes of the early 2000s, it gives me enthusiasm for the future of Nirvana/Cobain releases, that there might be more to come over the next decade.

As for the eight ‘known songs’, let’s look again and remember that ‘the Happy Guitar’ and the version of ‘Sappy’ are nice to have in improved quality (and not just on bootleg), that ‘Do Re Mi’ and ‘Clean Up Before She Comes’ are rarities in and of themselves and great to see more of. When this project was first mooted all I imagined we’d see – and this is only a year ago, less in fact – was home demos of known Nirvana songs. That would have satisfied me. To see so much other material – wow, beyond my dreams. I’m looking forward to hearing the four demos of major songs (Been a Son, Scoff, Frances Farmer, Something in the Way). OK, I could do without Beans but it seems that part of Beans is used as a motif in another collage – plus the context, blending Cobain’s serious and humorous homework, makes some sense of the tracks inclusion and what the hey! It’s brief! I’m good with it.

(EDIT: 1am, Tuesday 20 October. Brett Morgen has confirmed that this is in fact an entirely different source of ‘Beans’ to that used on With the Lights Out. I’d like to acknowledge this and apologise to readers and to Mr. Morgen for the inaccuracy on my part.)

Finally, quality. All I can say is “what do you want to hear?” Cobain seems to have had a very shrewd understanding of his own works; it’s why the band were able to release three albums and one compilation in his lifetime with barely an ounce of filler – he knew what his best efforts were in the context of whatever he was trying to do at the time. If all you want to hear are studio-readied, mainstream-ready recordings…Then go listen to the albums released 1989-1993. If you want to hear his also-rans, then check the singles, check With the Lights Out for a fair summation of what Cobain deemed his ‘second string’ songs. If you want to hear the stuff he deemed incomplete or abandoned, then there’s a lot of that now floating about. Here we have a young guy sat at home trying things out, seeing how they feel. We have no way of knowing if he might ever have returned to any of this – just instincts and vibes and impressions of how complete or otherwise something sounds. I enjoy that space of imagining, where there’s no proof, we just see how we feel in absence of categorical truth.

31 tracks of Montage of Heck? Bring it on. Autumn is here and a few nights with this on the stereo sounds just fine with me.


4 thoughts on “Cause for Celebration: Montage of Heck’s Trove of Unreleased Cobain”

  1. Morgens attempts to paint a very specific picture of Kurt includes him saying ‘it’s all in the music’ including carefully presenting Kurt suggesting the same in an interview before quickly cutting the scene. Well, as anyone with a brain knows, song lyrics are not autobiographical!! We don’t read a novel and think it’s an accurate view of the author. Oscar Wilde said similar things in the one page preface to a Portrait of Dorian Grey (highly suggest your read it. Easy to find)
    I recall reading a scathing review of the new (at the time) arcade fire album in the Guardian. The writer basically said Wil or Wim or whatever the singers name is, if you don’t like your job you should look in the classifieds section blah blah because apparently there was a song with lyrics abou how he is un happy and hates what he has to do – or something. It was embarrassing. Well, Morgen is perpetuating the same level of ignorance by trying to hold up Cobains lyrics as a window to his soul and utter justification for whatever it is he was employed by Courtney to portray

    1. Hi Jen, of course, there’s a full two hours of footage in the film which exists to give a window onto Cobain – it isn’t just the case that we’re left to look at the lyrics. In fact we’re given multiple ways to begin our own personal engagements with Cobain – music, home recorded audio tapes, art, interviews with his closest people, excerpts from Cobain’s interviews, live footage, home movie footage, news clips…There’s a vast amount of material laid out permitting you to make up your own mind. Far from being ignorant Morgen has provided a resource with which you can do whatever you wish – he’s also pulling a glorious trick via use of that clip by surrounding it by all these sources thus showing Cobain was WRONG about it all being in the music – which is why he picks a clip where Cobain is making a joke about that point…Which I think is pretty clever.

      1. He clearly doesn’t believe Courtney’s claims about the cheating. But the only thing murder missionaries will agree upon with the unconverted is that Kurt didn’t kill himself because of Lollapalooza.

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