Cobain’s Montage of Heck: the Home Recordings…Capital A Artist, not Major Label Act

Posted: November 17, 2015 in Nirvana News

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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.

https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/09/10/nirvana-tour-hits-olympia-inside-kurt-cobain-and-tracy-maranders-former-home/

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.

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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.

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Comments
  1. Mitch Holmquist says:

    He actually lived in the left (Studio Apt.) as facing

    • nsoulsby says:

      Apologies Mitch – so looking at the photo from here he lives in which…?
      Mentioned you to Buzz and Dale the other month!

      • Mitch Holmquist says:

        Right on, facing the house, he lived in the unit on the left, it is a very small studio (for 1 year) then moved to the unit in the back

  2. Brian says:

    Oh this release…. I finally got my deluxe cd in the mail and listened to it twice all the way through on seperate occasions. I understand the criticism. I consider myself a pretty hardcore Nirvana/Kurt Cobain fan and for me, there’s not a lot to go back to and revisit on this release. On one hand it is exactly what Brett Morgan said it was. A companion piece to the film. It does portray Cobain in a certain light (which isn’t a negative one) but it’s mostly just scraps of ideas for songs and audio experiments.

    I’ve had my own “Kurt’s Home Recordings” album for some time and looked forward to adding more to it but this was a hard listen for me. I’ll probably only pull the more complete songs from it but at the same time I’m not mad at the Nirvana camp. I’d of paid $20 for a 10 minute Do Re Mi so paying $20 for a CD doesn’t bother me. Knowing there is better material (like the stuff that was leaked, VCV & PT) gives me hope for a more song oriented album. I’ve listened to those two so many times.

    On a side note, why do they call the person that leaked those songs Elmo? Lol

    • nsoulsby says:

      So true! Same as you, I paid a very reasonable amount for a perfectly valid approach to Cobain’s remaining music. I confess I’ll definitely listen to – but am not crying out – for yet more ‘ever so slightly different to what we already know’ studio takes. I really liked hearing the weirdo, gonzo stuff with so many words and approaches that we haven’t heard before. I still listened to all the leaks of course but did anything stir me as much as the MoH soundtrack? Nope.

  3. J says:

    Your reviews are great, as in as good as anyone else who is a critic or does reviews. But the wording- well you report like you’re speaking for Kurt or that you know exactly what Kurt would/think feel. Now take the person who knows you best in the world, then take someone who’s ONLY read about you and only knows you based on what you’ve said to (nearly all) major publications (feel free to include ALL sorts of home movies, etc.). Based on that would you feel like that person would have the right to write things based upon exactly how you’d react/think/say/feel? You know you’re not Kurt right? But obviously you don’t think you’re Kurt, we know that. But do you get my point? And have you EVER gotten a gist of what Kurt would think about you as a person or what you’re doing (which of course does not excuse anyone else who does what you do or make those people any different) or what kind of person or what sort of regard he would hold you in? Or (I assume you don’t) do you even care at all? I guess the best thing ABOVE ALL about being a human is one can justify anything to one’s self. Please don’t take this as a dig (hard not to I know), or get defensive right away (even harder I know) but if anything (I imagine there’ll be nothing), maybe think about it reflectively (yeah I know the justification makes it way too easy to do that). And feel free to respond about how no one knows what someone else would think so that opens it up to how anyone can review anyone and therefore it’s alrigt and then that’ll make sleep easier tonight. Do you know what a remora is?

    • nsoulsby says:

      Evening J, hope you’re A-OK. My view is pretty simple – I’ve put my thoughts out into the world and I’m more than happy for you to comment (and utterly unconcerned whether that might be negatively or positively) because that’s what making something public is about – it’s about turning it into something open for inspection not demanding a particular reaction from anyone. I write, as a fan, spreading a love and appreciation of something I enjoy – close friends of Cobain’s and members of his family have made clear they appreciate me and given Cobain himself is dead I’m at least happy to have spread a little goodness. “What Would Kurt Think?” – if he comes back to prove me wrong about anything then I’m very happy indeed because being wrong is a perfectly cool thing. In the end, what is an opinion worth? Nothing. So where’s the harm in an opinion being wrong? There isn’t any. 450 posts down the line, I come back to the line from Minor Threat’s song ‘In My Eyes’, “at least I’m ****ing trying, what the *** have you done?” Which isn’t aimed at you – it’s a challenge to myself, to keep writing, keep working, keep putting in energy to the people and things I appreciate. Cobain had nothing against people talking to him or about him – but ultimately I just stay true to that last word ’empathy’ even while being as honest as I can be in what I think and feel.

  4. brenda says:

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about the next release shouldn’t be song followed by song to keep “surprise” high. Every nirvana release ever was a collection of songs- because they were musicians and this is what they were good at. I actually believe the next album should avoid the scale of all of kurts artistic experiments and not make that point. I don’t care that he tried spoken word sometimes, he wasnt particularly accomplished at it- thats largely where this went wrong. I got the feeling of embarrassment several times during this album, not because kurt wouldn’t want me to hear it, but because i didn’t want to hear it. I also wouldn’t want anyone to hear me doing this shit- everyone experiments, but no one’s are any good the first time round. What Cobain was really good at was writing songs- even his scraps are good on this (to my ears). If universal ever wants to sell another kurt Cobain album they should learn from this mistake. This wasn’t just a marketing disaster (which it was) but fans that stole the album hated it. If you feel ripped off and didn’t spend a cent, you have a bigger problem than advertising. This was the experimental “look how much art kurt tried out” album, we already got it and it was a bomb. They’d do well next time to forget filling the album with every failed art experiment kurt attempted and just stick with songs (even if some fans find it interesting, it’s clear this was a failed idea, maybe this more experimental material can be kept to releases like Cobain unseen, which if i recall most people never listened to). I get theres not many full songs left, but the i enjoyed the new songs on this, even if largely unfinished. I’d gladly buy another album filled with song scraps, but would never bother with kurts ambiance parts 3 and 4.

    • nsoulsby says:

      Much respect to your specific tastes, but my personal view is its very reductionist to see music as just “songs” or musicians as just “people who make songs.” Reducing Cobain’s work to just a procession of ‘radio friendly unit shifters’ would seem to do him the most sincere disservice, likewise, wow, it’d be the final death of Nirvana’s connections to the underground tradition if they were only seen as creators of mainstream-worthy songs. There’s also a distinction between saying “I don’t like the experimental or spoken word pieces” and claiming that the release is invalid. I thought the release was really lovely and I enjoyed it very much. We just differ on that – it doesn’t valid or invalidate the release either way – which is about personal taste. I’d be very sad if Cobain’s music became a case of fan’s tastes rather than what he was actually doing regardless of what fans, record labels, the mainstream wanted.

      • brenda says:

        No one said anything about “mainstream worthy” songs. I never really saw any of nirvanas songs as “mainstream worthy” and honestly its mind boggling to me that a band like nirvana was ever even in the mainstream- especially given the vapid tastes of the early 90s (boyz 2 men, Whitney Houston, garth brooks?! Ahhgg!). I listen to punk, nirvana is probably the only ‘mainstream’ band i really like- largely because their music is pretty punk rock.

        Actually it’s weird how underrated nirvana is in the punk scene. I can’t get a single disbastard crust lord to not groan when i mention them. Probably just reactionary to the endless procession of “best artist of all time” rolling Stone articles on display- no one can live up to those, no matter how great the material was. I think their mainstream break through crippled them as a band. I think had they stayed indie punk darlings, i would probably be able to throw them on at a party and have people go- “hey who’s this?”, instead of “No! Vetoed! Stop!”.

        I know that kurt was an Artiste (capital a) and dabbled in countless mediums- many of which he excelled at (particularly painting and obviously song writing). However are his joke radio commercials for upcoming local shows really artistic triumphs? Is this why 20 years later we’re still talking about him? For me his artistic legacy was music hence my greedy desire for more melodies. I think it no great disservice to Cobain as this is the artistic legacy he CHOSE to leave us with. He may have become a great spoken word artist, who knows? He never refined those enough to feel comfortable showing them to us. His sketches do no justice to what they may have become, if anything at all.

        My desire for Cobain music isn’t rooted in mainstream acceptance or even pop sensibilities (in the traditional sense). I actually like his more atonal stuff, that he was able to put such gentle melodies on such abrasive material I think speaks more to his talent than the obviously more “pretty” songs he wrote. Its easy to write a pop song over pop music, try writing one over a wall of noise . (something imo sonic youth could never do- despite their greatness as an experimental noise rock band, i don’t think their melodies ever crossed into pop territory- just my opinion of coarse).

        This may sound like I’m contradicting what i said earlier about not really seeing them as a mainstream pop band or whatever. What I’m referring to here are the songs stripped down to their core. Ignoring the distortion the songs were laced with (which prevented my parents from ever seeing them as anything other than noise) and evaluating them based on chord progressions and structure alone. It’s much simpler to add a pretty melody to an e,g,d,c than to all the tritone and bizarre chord changes nirvana utilized. They did both, but some people can’t hear them for pop songs because of the feedback and in tune screaming. This primal noise was of coarse vital to their sound which makes cobains pop sensibilities very idiosyncratic (and also not always utilized, I’m not ignoring the noise songs without melodies- this release could be just those and itd still be worth more a listen then what this is).

        People mistake my criticisms of this release for dislike. It’s a total a failure, but I haven’t stopped listening since it came out (although admittedly with heavy editing). I love it.

        Also thank you for taking the time to not only read these comments, but respond to them, you maintain an excellent blog here.

    • Matt Australia says:

      Hey Brenda I’m actually replting to yoyr final comment below, but theres no reply button there. What you wrote really spoke to me. I feel you tapped into key aspects of Cobains musicianship that are totally missed by almost everyone. The way you explained about noise + melody, screaming in tune, etc, i was really struck by how precise you were.
      Also your comments about the bizarre trend of how underrated nirvana are in the punk scene – they are basically ignored. Compare their ethos to, say, the childish exploitative carry on of the butthole surfers later on. Johnny depp and all the rest. But nirvana may as well be pearl jam as far as anydiehard crusty (as you amusingly put it) DIYer is concerned. I recall as a 15yo at school, when nirvana where at their peak, everyone was ‘too cool’ to listen to them as they were considered sell outs, aiming instead for NOFX and No Means No. I tried listening to the first three pearl jams recently, for pretty much the first time since they came out. Unlistenable. Absolutely have NOT stood the test of time.
      As I’ve mentioned elsewhere here the fact that Steve Albini says he still listens to In Utero occasionally, is the most extraordinary and underrated compliment ever. Also he said ‘ i can’t begin to tell you how great my respect for that band became, after watching them work in the studio’

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