This is 114 1/2 Pear Street. Kurt Cobain lived with Tracy Marander in one half of the house (the right as facing), then he moved into a small one room cabin at the rear.
Across the Montage of Heck soundtrack, Cobain strains his voice, never letting loose his full force or volume. Partly it’s because, over an acoustic rather than the roar of a full band practice, the sound would be too stark – it would overwhelm his playing. Yet also, in such a small living space, every sound could be heard and would be fully exposed. Instead, he marked later intentions, where his yells would go – a guide in place for when he could later let rip.
That’s where the brief intervention of ‘Scream’ stands as a neat juxtaposition. One of Cobain’s signature elements – his scream – is isolated and captured in this single, solitary moment, otherwise absent. And what a scream too. It further emphasizes the distinction between ‘domestic’ Cobain (non-screamer) and ‘public performance’ Cobain (screamer) which the Montage of Heck project has so neatly picked out. The differences between the persona of Cobain and the private individual.
The Kurt Cobain – Montage of Heck: the Home Recordings soundtrack ultimately felt no more intrusive or voyeuristic than scrabbling through a painter’s paint palette – the ‘voyeur’ comment is shown to be just another cliche tossed at every posthumous project, not just Cobain’s. These are all the elements of his songs, these are sound recordings with artistic intent behind them, they’re part of his art – they’re not chunks of CCTV footage recorded without Cobain’s awareness.
Cobain’s vocal work stands out on the record. Cobain said many a time that he came up with the music first – that extends to the vocals too. Something like ‘the Yodel Song’ shows him finding the sounds that fit the music long before he considers creating actual words. It’s like he’s writing a second song, first, the instrumental music, then the vocal melody – the rise-and-fall cadence showing where he might stretch for a note, where he might go from murmur to roar – then, finally, he converts those sounds into words/lines slaved to the initial tune. The music – meaning both the instrument and the vocal – is of far more significance than the words just as he always said.
The CD era did infinite harm to the coherence of albums with forty minute triumphs being replaced by forty minutes, plus filler, plus repetition, plus flabbiness – a seventy minute mainstream album is always at the limits of endurance. The soundtrack works for me because of the sheer variety therein; it neatly avoids the trap. Something still at the level of a first attempt or ad-lib, is replaced by a more developed instrumental, in turn passing to a song that’s reached the point of having a vocal line, then on to something that has made that next stage of having words too. The (brief) bursts of experiment are a neat contrast and, likewise, the spoken word pieces too maintain the uncertainty over “what comes next?” These interventions and deviations keep the surprise factor high throughout.
If they do come to do a Cobain ‘singer-songwriter’ record (which would seem a viable proposition) I hope they keep it down to 40-50 minutes. Anything over that consisting of song-follows-song-follows-song-follows-song would lack drama. The deviations within the soundtrack appeal and I can’t see how else one can really showcase the scale and variety of what Cobain was doing in a more polished record. Incidentally, whatever mixing was done, it sounds great – the sound is far crisper than I would have expected from cassette tapes originating in the damp north-west anywhere between 20-25 years ago.
The balancing act of ‘Rehash’ next to ‘You Can’t Change Me’ stands out for me. ‘Rehash’ features lines related to the typical bar band/cover band scene that dominated the Aberdeen/Grays Harbor area. What’s telling is that when Cobain barks “chorus!” it’s not a note for the future, it’s a deliberate lyric – he already has a chorus (i.e., “rehash!”) What he’s actually doing is parodying the local bands who just wanted to do impressions of Van Halen in a formulaic way hence ‘rehash’ and hence the lyrics “solo! Chorus!” – it’s the same point he made later with the title “verse chorus verse”, that there was a cookie-cutter song approach he felt was tedious.
On ‘You Can’t Change Me’ or ‘Been a Son’, by contrast, he really is making notes about the development of the song. Placing ‘Rehash’ and ‘You Can’t Change Me’ next to one another is a neat trick of arrangement as it calls out Cobain’s self-knowing comment on his way of creating songs. He’s using his approach to marking song structure to resolutely different effect.
‘Rehash’ fits into Cobain’s ’86-’88 spell of writing songs marking his disdain for aspects of his surroundings. This whole record is loaded with musical ‘ghosts’; they’re a real joy. A casual listener might wonder why Cobain kept all these random pieces, but the impression is reinforced that Cobain genuinely listened back to these pieces and cannibalised aspects that caught his ear and imagination. Again and again brief wisps of a later Nirvana song come through like hints at ‘Sliver’ and ‘Stay Away’ for instance. One can see that ‘She Only Lies’ acts as a potential origin point for the core riff in ‘Sappy’ while ‘Poison’s Gone’ bears markers that would later show up in the demos of ‘Old Age.’ It’s an indicator of Cobain’s deep listening, his ability to tease out a crucial motif and to turn off-the-cuff ideas into something deeper and more developed.
In other places a single line might point toward the future, for example in the way ‘You Can’t Change Me’ echoes the chorus of ‘Swap Meat’ or how the word ‘recess’ creeps in alongside ‘rehash’ and ‘rehearse’ before he explicitly smacks “smoke hash” down at the end of ‘Rehash’ to show he’s knowingly playing with the word and how it might sound in his mouth, working it over, chewing on it, trying it on for size. No wonder people thought he was mumbling or incoherent when sounds were so malleable to him.
There’s a further sense of him finding his voice by testing others in the way he did very explicitly on the ‘Fecal Matter’ demo. He’s regularly testing what he could do with his voice whether that’s through his story-telling tone, the voice he uses for poetry, the different singing styles he attempts. Behind the tale of the ‘lazy slacker’ there’s this deeply active guy working hard and thinking about where everything could go.
Outside of the overt tribute of ‘And I Love Her’, other points seem to show Cobain learning from songs that caught his eye. There’s an apparent snatch from Shocking Blue’s ‘Venus’ in the ‘Rehash’ riff for one (thank you Marcus.) The way snags from one or another place in Cobain’s work appear in fresh contexts also entertains, whether that means the “why is that so groovy?” line taken from ‘Spank Thru’; or the bullying scene from ‘Beans’ (on ‘With the Lights Out’) reappearing as a distinct (and extended) element here; or his fixation with using sped up tapes to create squeaky helium voices… For the first time I’ve realised this wasn’t just a one-off, this was an approach to creating new voices Cobain enjoyed – something fun and worth a smile.
Sub Pop refused to let Cobain break the mood of ‘Bleach’ by putting ‘Beans’ on. Yet that song meant enough to Cobain that he pushed them to include it – he didn’t fight for anything else to be a part of that record, he even let Sub Pop choose the order of songs. Similarly, Nirvana’s very first single ‘Love Buzz’/’Big Cheese’, a first chance that he absolutely needed not to screw up…But he insisted on splicing pieces of his ‘Montage of Heck’ into the recording. That’s how key these playful elements were to him – he wanted them slammed right into the art of his first releases.
Cobain vented dissatisfaction with ‘Bleach’, most overtly with ‘Nevermind’, with ‘In Utero’ too (he told Azerrad he felt the record was barely different from ‘Nevermind’) – he was never wholly pleased with any of them because, ultimately, there was always a gap between his desires and his politeness. ‘Montage of Heck’ demonstrates the other Cobain that was always there in the background agitating for squeaky toys to be added to songs, for randomness to replace the grind of regularity, responsibility and compromise. I think he’d have loved this release for boldly stepping away from the expected, the norm, the tedious professionalism that left him cold again and again. This was who Cobain was when he was alone and who, in his own telling, he would have liked to have had the bravery to be in public with no apologies, no politeness, no pulling his punches at the last minute as he often did.
I heard some f***tard say something about “if this was any old eighteen year old and not Cobain we wouldn’t care about this.” Well, any child under the age of six months looks pretty much like any other kid and has no massive distinguishing characteristics – but a parent/sibling is still entitled to love THEIR child more than that of a friend or random stranger. Yes, I care about this recording because it’s Kurt Cobain and because that’s someone, a music, a topic, I care about. There’s no apology to be made for that and the denigration is meaningless. Origin matters.
Krist Novoselic, in his eulogy to Cobain, stated “Kurt had an ethic towards his fans that was rooted in the punk rock way of thinking. No band is special, no player royalty. But if you’ve got a guitar and a lot of soul just bang something out and mean it. You’re the superstar.” I remembered those lines a lot while listening to this record.
Do you need another Eighties’ vintage hard rock/hair metal demi-god or 2000s commercial hip hop bling merchant lauding it over you? Do you want to believe that great achievement only comes from the mythical 1% of magic geniuses who we should feel lucky are willing to share their gifts with we lucky mortals? I don’t. When I look at Cobain I see a mortal with few chances in life who worked hard, took chances, made something happen. I had hoped he’d killed the rock star image dead but it was resurrected in new form to reinforce the divide between creators and consumers.
That’s another element missing from critiques of the record. I’ll talk later sometime about the obvious criticisms that can be made of the commercial approach of the record label to this release, but in essence this isn’t anyone else’s work, this is Cobain. We’ve had the rock star major label Cobain image; the martyr Cobain image; now here’s a Cobain previously unseen – and some people are uncomfortable realising that they don’t like the person they see. The whimsical, DIY, ad-libbed, in development, noise-addicted, poetic Cobain. It’s amazing it’s taken twenty years to finally meet this guy on record – “hello Kurt, nice to meet ya.”
If I heard an 18 year old who could put something this intricate together – I’d be impressed and I’d encourage them to keep going, to keep ignoring the haters and those with nothing but spite to share. Cobain took the base metals present on this release and shaped them into gold through persistence and experimentation. Anyone could do this – and that feels great. That’s alchemy – and it’s a magic open to anyone who wants it.