Heart Shaped Box: The Musical Kurt and Courtney

This week Courtney Love’s co-manager revealed, under oath during a lawsuit, that Courtney is considering a musical of her life with Kurt Cobain. The immediate reaction from the world media was a combination of disbelief and yet more commentary on Courtney’s eccentricity. In the interests of playing Devil’s advocate, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad?
Taking their tale apart there’s certainly a substantial quantity of drama that could be woven into a stage production — first meetings, drug bonding, beach wedding, Vanity Fair controversy, Kurt Cobain’s suicide threat at the time of Frances Bean’s birth, fights in Rio, all the way to Rome, Police attending the couple in Seattle, the drug intervention, last call and curtain close. A writer of quality would need to work out how to organize this into a properly structured plot but that’s a minor item to overcome. Likewise perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard to soundtrack each spell of their existence to a Nirvana tune — so long as one didn’t rely on lyrics matching on-stage action. Perhaps this combination of music and events could work?
Ugh…Who am I kidding? Yes, something could be done, but only in the sense that any idea could theoretically happen with money and will behind it. That still doesn’t make the idea of Kurt n’ Courtney: The Musical (A.K.A. Heart Shaped Box: The Musical) one that appeals. Green Day’s musical production of American Idiot gained credibility due to the band’s direct involvement. It also helped that it wasn’t tackling a true-life event that still carries emotional weight. Green Day have a playful, non-serious reputation also that meant critics and fans alike gave them the benefit of the doubt when the idea first emerged — it sounded like fun.
The musical life and death of the Cobain marriage really doesn’t appeal. It’s a plot arc retold only as a tragedy, one not lending itself to the fluffy uplifting style of a musical. The intended audience also seems unclear; if aimed at serious Nirvana fans then it fails to account for how horrified most Nirvana fans will be to see the band taken so lightly; if aimed at the average lover of musicals then is the unpretentious, un-melodramatic and unglamorous music of Kurt Cobain really what they would want to see? It seems a risky commercial proposition.
To emphasize, the only audience that would care about the life of Kurt and Courtney are precisely the audience who would find the topic far too sensitive a subject to be treated as a musical. I admire originality, of course, there’s not been a musical rendition of Elvis, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix — but sometimes maybe the reason something hasn’t happened is for very good reasons.
I would happily read a Courtney Love memoir, her interviews and public statements have always been entertaining, intelligent, edgy and sharp. I can’t conceive of feeling the same sympathy if the tale was presented as a grunge Grease. A simple play, rather than a musical, might feel a little more appropriate — perhaps that’s all that’s meant by ‘a musical’? The music of Kurt Cobain would drift in the background as the story played out; no need for the cast to batter anyone with lung power.
There’s no denying there’s a story worth telling; it’s all a question of how. I don’t see evidence of Courtney having committed many sins against the memory of Nirvana. As a result I have faith that this will all turn out to be a lot of media foaming concealing a far less egregious truth.


Trends Continued.

Reinforcing yesterday’s post, let’s consider the circumstances in which the new songs on In Utero were created. There were few practices in 1992, very few live concerts (just sixteen shows after the Asia tour concluded in February, even altogether it was still Nirvana’s quietest year since 1988.) The October 25-26, 1992 demo session resulted in recordings of five of the pre-Nevermind songs that ended up on In Utero plus one new song (Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle which had also been attempted at a session in April.) It seems likely that the disrupted nature of the October session meant only this number of songs could be demo’ed. All Apologies and Heart Shaped Box were certainly already in existence.

The January Rio de Janeiro session, again, seems to indicate a stuttering, halting machine. The Other Improv and Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip are little more than scratch lyrics over meandering on-the-spot tunes (not a comment on how fun they are to listen to.) M.V. has barely twenty-five words and is little more than a doodle. I Hate Myself and I Want to Die has a sketchy demo feel. It leaves a feeling that they’re jamming these songs together on the spot rather than any deeper or more extensive process of creation taking place.

From February Nirvana is basically all over. One more song has so far emerged, You Know You’re Right plus the charming solo scrap Do Re Mi. There was always a lull after an album release (it happened in early 1989 and again in late 1991) but twice in a row now the lulls lasted at least a year. It doesn’t suggest a band that wants to spend time together, creating together. It feels rushed, like they’re getting back to their real lives after a brief distraction.

Trending Kurt Cobain’s Creativity

With so much Nirvana material now available — officially or unofficially — it’s possible to take a shot at tracking the peaks and troughs of Kurt Cobain’s song-writing. Take a look. This may vary as more information becomes available (in which case I’ll update this), however the basic point is extremely clear. Kurt Cobain produced 84% of his songs (with Nirvana and solo) prior to Nevermind being released.

That figure may, in fact, be even higher. Curmudgeon debuted in October 1991 suggesting it had been written prior to Nevermind’s release. Meanwhile the main riff from Tourette’s is performed at a sound-check in Vienna in November and, according to Gillian G Gaar’s book Entertain Us, Krist Novoselic believes the song was written in 1989. She also states that a 1987 practice tape features two additional unknown compositions Nirvana were jamming on.

This leaves Heart Shaped Box, Serve the Servants, Very Ape, Milk It, M.V., Scentless Apprentice, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip plus The Other Improv — with You Know You’re Right and Do Re Mi the only results of the final thirteen months.

Does it matter? Well, I’d argue yes. It suggests that Nirvana, at the height of their fame between 1992-1994, barely existed as a productive and creative group, they just tidied up leftovers. It also suggests Kurt Cobain’s crisis leading to his death was not a short-term crash sparked in 1994. Instead it looks like part of a malaise stretched over a significant period of time, around thirty months in which he barely wrote a fresh note.

Nirvana: Why More? Why Now?

Eighteen, nearly nineteen years ago rock music’s dominance ended. Nirvana sang it on its way by showing up the old poses and histrionics for the lame fakery they were. Since then the band’s archives have been gradually displayed for the legions of fans who still know that this was art not product. Journalists and professional writers have taken every chance to rehash the tales – you know the old stories by now. But in trying to recall the visceral fury of Nirvana there’s been insufficient energy set aside to think, consider and question.

Here, all I wish to do is present ideas, thoughts, theories on issues arising from the story of Nirvana. My reason? Because this wasn’t just another band, it wasn’t just entertainment. There was something deeper here and my curiosity has led me to demand more than just hearing what the band ate for breakfast.

As news arises regarding Nirvana and the various individuals who made that era special I’ll comment, I’ll consider and, if I have thoughts of my own, I’ll raise them. What I promise is that whatever I say may not be right but it’ll be what I honestly think. My second promise is that having told you my truth, I’ll welcome you showing me yours.