Posthumously Respecting The Word and Art of Kurt Cobain

Over recent years, I’ve had quite a lot of experience of death. Here’s what happens: your body empties of any vestige of the person therein, your physical presence in this world is then destroyed and/or discarded. Your family/friends/loved ones will dispose of near all the belongings you accumulated during life because – ultimately – they loved you, not your things; because they lack the life experiences that made those things mean something to you; because they have their own things to look after; because your things don’t mean to them what they did to you. Regardless of unsubstantiated rumours of life after death (I’ve lived in a haunted house and experienced auditory and visual phenomena without ever catching anything that made me think I was witnessing the active spirits of the dead), your actual involvement in the affairs of this planet ceases. After this time you are a memory – nothing any one does or does not do touches you; you are not aware; nor do you participate in any way – as a memory you exist only as a poor-quality and incomplete recollection in someone else’s head, filtered through their perceptions and experiences.

I’m indebted to an earlier comment on the blog – thanks Billy! – for leading me to this post. The coolest thing about writing the blog has been to come into contact with other minds and lives. Billy raised comments made in a 1992 interview for Flipside magazine (I spoke to one of the interviewers during the preparation of ‘Cobain on Cobain’ – nice bloke, gave me permission to quote the interview directly in the book) in which the following exchange takes place:

Cake: I’ve seen so many bootlegs of you guys, are you pissed off about that or what?

Cobain: For the most part I really don’t care. I like to hear live bootlegs and I would appreciate if the people that make them would send me a copy. But that’s the case, nobody sends me anything. But when embarrassing things come out like stuff that I’ve done in my basement on a two-track or a boombox, that are basically just unwritten songs or pieces of songs; songs I’d like to put together someday into a song…When those come out it’s really embarrassing and it frustrates me.

Cake: Like when you were playing Jabberjaw and all these people were singing Polly when you were doing it and Chris goes “how the **** do you guys know that song?” and somebody goes “bootlegs!”

Cobain: Right! It’s really embarrassing also when they take it upon themselves to title the songs for you. There are some really dorky ones like ‘The Rocker’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’. Oh God!

So, as a starting point, what is known of the intentions of Kurt Cobain circa 1993-1994? Well, he was working on the audio-visual work which became ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ And Nirvana’s ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single would feature a song from MTV Unplugged. Meanwhile, he recorded one shaped up studio demo, one brief shred as part of a studio jam, then the home demo of a further song. Other than that there’s currently just conjecture. But, from conversations with Kevin Kerslake for ‘I Found My Friends’, it’s clear that the video we see – a straightforward live clip/interview clip period piece – is only a fraction of what Cobain intended: Cobain intended further levels of editing, chopping, slicing, reworking – that he simply never got to make the video art collage he wanted. Meanwhile there’s no evidence Cobain had further Nirvana plans at all (I’ve covered the mooted Lollapalooza EP elsewhere on the blog). The only other hints would be the comments made in the ‘Come As You Are’ book about his vague plans for his own record label releasing lo-fi weirdness including ‘the singing flipper boy.’

Does that make all posthumous releases by Nirvana illegitimate? Well, actually, if you want to take a fundamentalist position: yes. Cobain in no way authorised, approved or had any consideration of any release after the planned ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single. If the express wishes of Kurt Cobain are what matter most to you – then you should reject everything after that.

Billy’s first query was “does the fact that Kurt passed away justify releases that betray his wishes or what he would’ve done (basing this on his own words of course)?” There are a lot of intriguing avenues in here. Firstly, for normal human beings like you or I, our words don’t go on permanent display to be hauled out and used decades later in our name or to show us (or those around us) where they’re deviating from holy script. The very fact it’s possible to do that is an oddity created by fame and celebrity – and reliant on fans preserving and compiling Cobain’s interviews regardless of whether he would have found that creepy or intrusive. You and I, we’re lucky, we have the gift of forgetfulness: I feel for John Lydon when his world-changing 18-20 year old self is waved in his face as if that’s all his 60 year old self should be allowed to be – I’d be a lot more perturbed if someone didn’t evolve, learn, grow, change as they live life.

In the case of Cobain, he’s forever trapped in the words of a 20-26 year old young adult, from age 24 one in the middle of an unprecedented disruption and disturbance of his life. There’s also the wider context: Cobain’s time in the music industry ended in the pre-Internet era and before the huge mechanism around the release of demos and outtakes exploded. To use Cobain quotations to claim what he definitely would/wouldn’t have done in a fundamentally different industry, as he approached 50 years old, with his work lacking the halo of death: it requires one to view Cobain as a stone statue, as someone on whom an opinion can be imposed without them reacting or changing – a dead man.

Cobain, on Nirvana’s very first release, wedged noise segments into the recording; on the band’s first album it was only the record label’s refusal that stopped him sticking ‘Beans’ on the record; there are random background noises to ‘Nevermind’ songs; noise jams wedged on the end of 1991 and 1993 albums; the band’s own archives raided for a Christmas demo/outtake/radio release in 1992; the noise jam backing William S. Burroughs; his contributions to Melvins at that time – Cobain’s objection to illicit release of stuff he didn’t like doesn’t mean the kind of material that came out on ‘Montage Of Heck’ wasn’t material he could/would – or couldn’t/wouldn’t – have found a use for. To argue otherwise is legitimate, but does mean trapping Cobain in the identity of the mainstream singer-songwriter pop-punk figure and refusing to place equal value on his very broad artistic, musical and creative palette. It comes down to competing visions of who Cobain was and, therefore, is. Again, those visions are something imposed by onlookers and you/I/we are all entitled to see him differently. It doesn’t mean we have absolute right to predict his future choices.

Intriguingly, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Cobain had lived: his death fundamentally changes everything. Deciphering whether Cobain would have become a Johnny Cash style troubadour, an Axl Rose style recluse, a convert to electronica and the potential of remix culture, a lo-fi home recorder in the Lou Barlow mode, a reformation tour band leader, a noise experimenter or improviser in the Thurston Moore mode…Who’s to say? Of course that question has direct bearing on the reaction to posthumous releases. There’s no indication whether or not Cobain would have been happy to see ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’, ‘Live At Reading’ or ‘Live and Loud’ released. ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ is definitely and demonstrably not what he intended to release if he hadn’t died. If more outtake releases and ‘product’ were required there’s no way of telling what from the ‘With The Lights Out’ boxset he would or wouldn’t have been willing to release. It’s all personal opinion and belief: using Cobain’s words to sanctify choices he never had a chance to make doesn’t validate or justify one’s choices any more or less than someone else’s opposing view.

This brings me back to the Monty Python clip: it seems very pertinent to this kind of discussion of Cobain – a man who gives no impression of having wanted people following him around or worshipping his words as incorruptible religious text to be used to bless or condemn others. Using Cobain’s 1992 words to condemn releases he wasn’t, isn’t and never will be aware of seems inane at best. Cobain’s words shouldn’t be used to dictate the behaviour of other human beings for the rest of their lives: having made commercial arrangements with record and publishing companies, he explicitly granted them a degree of control over his work. Similarly, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, former members of Nirvana, Frances Bean Cobain, Courtney Love – they were all given degrees of control by Cobain. These are factual indications of his intentions so why should they be downgraded and random interviews be privileged instead?

Billy raised another question: “does an artist’s wishes matter?” The answer is an absolute yes…And, on top of the rights the artist grants to others in exchange for support of one form or another, those wishes are called a will. A will is the official, provable testimony of an individual regarding what they want to happen after their death. It means that random people on the Internet, random strangers in the street, relatives you’ve barely seen in years, commercial contacts you’ve had to work with – none of them get to twist your words or speak on your behalf. I was in a position fairly recently of having to execute someone’s last wishes – whereupon other people told me that my relative had intended something different. I explained openly that I would stick to what was written in the will and, secondly, what I was told by him in person. In the case of Cobain, piecing together his intentions from public sources, having never met him, having no personal experience of him, it would seem a grim way to ‘respect’ him.

The final part of what Billy raised was “if you specifically go against (or ‘rape’ as Kurt may have put it), their wishes and disrespect them, can you still really call yourself a fan?” This gets to the crux of something for me: no one has the right to tell you if you’re a fan or not. Cobain spent his life seeking to escape the control of family, boss, record label. The charitable causes he used Nirvana to support were about freeing people from the vulgar imposition of power by others – he believed everyone had the goddamn right to be who they are, how they wanted, without anyone else telling them they couldn’t. He was a punk after all! If you want to hear every note Cobain ever played, if you just want to hear the official releases, if you don’t want to hear anything he didn’t personally choose to release before his death, if you just occasionally enjoy one song or another – no one, repeat, no one, gets to tell you that’s wrong. Anyone who believes that imposing their views on others is the thing to do when it comes to Nirvana hasn’t learnt much about Cobain and “don’t know what it means” when it comes to his music.

In my eyes, the best fans are ones who have taken Cobain’s words and decided to do something active in this life: frankly, making a consumer choice to buy or not buy a record is a pretty poor way to show respect to Cobain isn’t it? Over at LiveNirvana there’s a community of fans devoting however much or little energy they can to finding and preserving recordings, interviews, images of Cobain and Nirvana – that’s an amazing thing to me. Then again, if that’s not your thing, that’s cool – you’re allowed to just enjoy the music however you wish. In my case, writing about the uncertain living conditions Cobain endured in his teenage years, the absence of a home or of security, it reinforced my decision to volunteer at a group supporting the homeless and to donate regularly to homeless charities. Showing respect and honour is about DOING something: it is not about telling others what to do or demanding they do it differently.

A gentleman percussionist called William Hooker bequeathed me a beautiful statement earlier this year: “if that’s your thing, that’s great, I’m not dismissing it – it’s just not MY thing.” That’s what’s missing a lot of the time. Cobain’s final plea was for ‘empathy’, the desire to listen to and respect other peoples’ feelings without trying to control, overpower or deny them. The world – particularly this year – seems to find it hard to move beyond right/wrong dominance or to do the hard work required to accept others feel differently and to seek commonalities.

I’d personally rather Cobain’s music didn’t rot in a Californian vault – I don’t see any great honour in burying his music along with him. I thought, and people are welcome to disagree with me, that the ‘Montage Of Heck’ soundtrack, out of all the posthumous Cobain-related releases, was closest to his true anarchic artistic spirit. Far from dishonouring him I felt it showed him to be a true artist, someone complex and hugely varied. So, the most crucial statement I can make today is, this is just my opinion – yours is good too. On this blog, sure, I’ll state my beliefs and put forward my reasoning and evidence – I hope it’s fun for you to read and if you have a different opinion on the things discussed…Wicked. That’s all good! I mean, wow, I’m kinda just delighted we’re all still here in late 2016 discussing the life and works of a man and band who ceased to be 22 years ago.


4 thoughts on “Posthumously Respecting The Word and Art of Kurt Cobain”

  1. The best way to respect Kurt Cobain’s legacy is to give to a foundation dealing with addiction or suicide. Montage of Heck is a total rape of his legacy, but it might be at least somewhat justified if the profits went to a cause like that.

    1. I confess I find the overuse of the word ‘rape’ in modern media difficult given the sheer gruesomeness of the act its actually meant to refer to. I think we disagree – but I agree wholeheartedly with people donating or supporting causes they wish to see flourish. So I think we agree massively on that! 🙂

  2. Nick, thank you for tackling some of the philosophical rabbit hole-like questions I posed in that previous comment and sharing your view on those questions!
    It was nice to see the new (to me) perspective you presented on some of the points you made sir.

    1. Sheesh, if even a fragment of what I said meant anything then I’m delighted. Questions welcomed but, in the end, music is about individual and personal revelation – not some kinda universal demand. That’s one of the cool things about it: no new religion, just individual creative, emotional, spiritual and intellectual eruption.

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