By: Alexandra Molotkow
September 12, 2017

One in a series of ten posts reprinting HILOBROW friend Alexandra Molotkow’s profiles of figures who’ve loomed large in her personal pantheon.

“He’s larger than life and our culture is obsessed with dead musicians,” Frances Bean Cobain told Rolling Stone, in an interview pegged to the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Frances Bean, Kurt’s daughter, is an executive producer; right from the beginning, she told the director, Brett Morgen, that she didn’t want “the mythology of Kurt or the romanticism.” The film’s intent is partly to peel off his legend — it’s driven by previously unseen footage and personal documents, as well as interviews with those closest to him.

It’s true that dead artists never get old. “Dying for your art” is the ultimate endorsement for it, and suffering adds value: Tragedy makes the artist forever interesting, and adds pathos to the work. Romanticizing dead artists involves taking pleasure in their pain; at the same time, a romantic through line turns bad pain into good pain, and sometimes it’s necessary, even for those who were there. “Kurt got to the point where he eventually had to sacrifice every bit of who he was to his art,” Frances Bean says in the interview, “because the world demanded it of him.”

The fact that Cobain has been ordained as a rock ’n’ roll saint is a testament to how attached we are to the ordinance. Jim Morrison’s flaky mystique was appropriate to his era, but Cobain stood for a mangier, more cynical generation, defined by its inability to valorize itself. He’s most often associated with a banal struggle — not marginalization or madness or even addiction, but teen angst. And he never seemed all that godlike: a small, self-effacing guy in torn-up clothes, playing smart, simple rock songs decades after rock’s big arrival.

Cobain came off as genuine and basically down-to-earth — a major talent but not a virtuoso, a guy with loads of character but a life-sized personality. And he knew enough about the rock-star myth-making process to have fretted about it publicly. “I feel like people want me to die,” he’s quoted in the documentary, “because it would be the classic rock ’n’ roll story.” (“I told him not to join that stupid club,” his mother famously said, after his death.)

The film tends to dramatize Cobain’s torment and genius — the notebook animations are a little much — but it does make him seem human. The most striking footage is the most banal: the home movies of Cobain as an adult, not with his band mates, but with his wife and daughter. Scenes of Cobain with Courtney Love bust the misconception that she was some heartless succubus, siphoning off his energy, or that Cobain was a hapless victim. In one scene, Cobain and Love goof around, half-naked, in front of the bathroom mirror. She worries that he’ll screw around on tour, and about her career; he listens attentively while shaving his beard into a mustache — “It’s a womb broom!” — which she begs him to keep. In another scene, Cobain films an extreme close-up of his lips mashing against hers, while Love moans. It’s a little bit gross, mostly because it feels wrong to get that close to other people’s intimacy.

Frances Bean was born into controversy — at the time, a Vanity Fair profile by Lynn Hirschberg alleged that Love had been using heroin during her pregnancy. But footage here shows the family lolling at home, in a state of bliss so obvious that the couple seem almost sheepish about it. The film’s interview subjects speculate, as everyone has, about Cobain’s inner life, the source of his torments and his creativity, but what’s clearest is his capacity for affection, and the fact that he adored his kid.

“Every month I come to more optimistic conclusions,” Cobain said in an interview with Rolling Stone just months before his death, the audio of which is featured in the documentary. He talks about loving his family, looking for new creative challenges; he worries that being happy might make him boring. Montage of Heck offers an in to some of the happiest moments of his life; it shows some of the most miserable as well, as when he nods off while holding Frances Bean during her first haircut. “Stop it, Kurt, you don’t want our daughter to see you behaving like this,” Love says. “I’m not on drugs,” he whines, “I’m tired.”

The film is especially painful for the fact that Cobain seems capable of fulfilment; even more, that he seems to know his own capacity for fulfilment, as well as how badly he’s screwing up. The idea of the suffering demigod, torn apart by the demands of fame, is much more palatable than that of a vulnerable person on the brink of a terrible mistake.

It seems doubtful that Cobain opted to burn out rather than fade away. He doesn’t come off as that vain, or anywhere near that cruel to the people he loved; he seems like a good person under bad influences, but not beyond hope. There’s nothing inspiring or beautiful about his death, and the least romantic part is the suggestion that it could have been otherwise.

Originally published April 17, 2015, in the Globe and Mail.


CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators