Was Kurt Cobain the last great rock star?
There’s a pub debate to keep you going all night. What’s undeniable is that he was one of a rare breed: a musician who gave everything to his work, who wore his heart on his sleeve and then took his jacket off and spun it around his head – and was hugely successful.
It was this rawness and vulnerability that made him and his band, Nirvana, a global phenomenon, achieving the remarkable feat of uniting a generation of insecure teenagers from Seattle to Sleaford to Shizuoka. It’s an openness apparent in a superb new documentary: Cobain: Montage Of Heck. There are interviews with those close to him, but the most revealing elements are the notes, film clips, drawings, diary entries and recordings that Cobain produced prolifically.
They offer a beautifully clear picture of a fragile, gifted and occasionally contradictory man. We’ve taken a few of these insights, and added a couple more you might not know about.
1. It all started with Ritalin
Shortly after his sister Kim was born, Cobain’s mother took him to see a paediatrician. The reason: he was going, in her words, “at 90mph”. After doing what could be, at best, described as basic tests, the doctor prescribed what she believes was the controversial nerve-control drug Ritalin. The first administration caused Cobain to go “off the rails”.
2. He attempted suicide while at school
One night, as a teenager, having been ridiculed at school for sleeping with a girl in the ‘special ed’ class, and under the influence of marijuana and alcohol, he headed to the local train tracks. He weighed himself down with concrete and waited for a train. The train passed him on the next set of tracks. It was enough to snap Cobain out of his stupor and he resolved to rehabilitate himself.
3. The first instrument he took up was the drums
He struggled with lessons and only got back into playing music when he was given his first guitar aged 14, in 1981. He taught himself how to play and began practising chords to Another One Bites The Dust, Back In Black and Louie Louie.
4. He started out like Banksy. Sort of
Cobain became a petty vandal in his late teens, breaking into buildings and spraying slogans including “ABORT CHRIST” and “GOD IS GAY” on walls; he was later caught and fined $180. A sticker on his guitar once read: “VANDALISM – BEAUTIFUL AS A ROCK IN A COP’S FACE”. He later spent eight days in jail for drunkenness and trespassing, and claimed he bought his first amp through the sale of firearms, belonging to his mother’s boyfriend, that were fished out of the Wishkah River.
5. He really liked making lists
Cobain loved listing his favourite records in his journals – early countdowns included Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and ELO. His most definitive list, titled “Top 50 By Nirvana”, included Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth and, unsurprisingly, Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World and Leadbelly’s Last Sessions. His top five was Philosophy Of The World by The Shaggs, The Vaselines’ Son Of A Gun, The Breeders’ Pod, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and, at number one, Raw Power by Iggy And The Stooges.
6. It looked like fatherhood might save him
Cobain was a full-blown heroin addict up to the birth of Frances Bean (and Courtney took it early in the pregnancy). But when concerns came out, the court ordered them to employ a nanny and to take urine tests to show that he was drug-free. Just over six months before his death, he said, “Since I’ve been married and had a child my mental and physical state has been improved almost 100 per cent. I haven’t felt this optimistic since right before my parents’ divorce.”
7. His first ever recording was called ‘Organised Confusion’
It was on a cassette tape recorded at his aunt’s house in 1982. Percussion was achieved by banging on a suitcase. He formed Fecal Matter three years later with Dale Crover, producing a four-track recording that Krist Novoselic heard and led to his joining the band. During early rehearsals they renamed themselves The Stiff Woodies and then The Sell-Outs.
8. His favourite film as a child was Over The Edge
If you haven’t seen it, Over The Edge is a 1979 film starring Matt Dillon about the most delinquent schoolkids you could imagine. Its most infamous scene involves a meeting in which parents are brought to the school to be told how sh*tty their kids are. Proving a point, the kids lock the adults in the school before terrorising them, smashing up the building and blowing up cars.
“I tried [to do that],” said Cobain in a recorded conversation with his friend, and lead singer of the Melvins, Buzz Osborne. “I wanted to be a vandal and I wanted to hold everyone captive in the school.” Cobain quit high school two months before graduation.
9. Kurt was a workaholic – but only for his art
Cobain did have jobs while Nirvana were starting out, working as a handyman and a janitor, but this didn’t last long and he soon became a ‘kept man’, living off his then girlfriend Tracy Marander’s income. But he didn’t lack effort or professionalism when it came to his creative output, constantly churning out songs, recordings, paintings, comic books, notes, diaries. This provides the richest source of material for the film.“He’d always have to do some kind of art,” says Novoselic. “Usually defacing something. He never had idle hands. It just came out of him. He had to express himself.
“He was also focused. In one letter to drummer Dave Foster, he complained about the stickman’s geographical location causing problems for the band.
In order for a band to become great, he explained, a band needs to practise five times a week. He also pushed them to make demo tapes and created press kits for the band.
10. He couldn’t take criticism
In one notebook, Cobain lists some self-observations. The final one is: “I am threatened by ridicule.” A throwback to his childhood? Whatever the reason, it stuck.
“I remember the first review Nirvana ever got was for the Love Buzz/Big Cheese single we did,” says Novoselic. “It was in this hip magazine out of Michigan that these scenesters were doing, and they gave us a bad review. They said it was like Lynyrd Skynyrd without the flares. Kurt was really hurt by that. I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it, they’re just scenesters, they’re hipsters, screw them’ or whatever. Kurt hated being humiliated. He hated it. If he ever thought he was humiliated, then you’d see the rage come out.
He was very careful and stubborn about how the work was presented because he didn’t want to be humiliated. I could be humiliated, not Kurt. No.”
11. He had a $3million dream
Cobain first tried heroin in 1987, in order to beat the pain, and claimed he used it around 10 times in the next three years. This level of use, obviously, was to go up.
“I’d sing and cough up blood… No way to live a life. I decided to self-medicate."
“He had a fantasy,” says Courtney Love in the film. “His fantasy was, ‘I want to get to $3m and then I’m going to be a junkie.’”
12. He craved family life
Cobain’s childhood was a disaster. After his parents divorced when Cobain was nine, he was passed from pillar to post. His behaviour, according to his mum, caused her to send him to his dad’s, where he found himself resenting two step-siblings and a half-brother. “I think there’s one thing I said at one time, that I was never going to get married again… and I think he took that for word,” explains his dad Donald Cobain. “Then I met Jennifer, we got married and he had a stepbrother and sister and our son, Chad.” He rebelled, bullied his siblings and was then thrown out. He stayed with uncles, aunts, both sets of grandparents, his dad again, his mum again...
“He wanted normalcy,” says his sister, Kim, “but then he didn’t, because he fought against it. He fought against what he really wanted.”
“I had this relationship with this woman where I wanted to build a home… because my home had fallen apart when I grew up,” says Novoselic in the film. “I think Kurt wanted that, too. He wanted a home because his home and his family fell apart.”
13. He had a tattoo
Albeit a tiny one: a small shield surrounding a K on his forearm, the logo of K Records, an independent label synonymous with the local underground DIY punk scene. He may have got it to impress then-girlfriend Tobi Vail, a musician and writer who coined the phrase “riot grrrl” and formed the movement’s defining band, Bikini Kill. It was lead singer Kathleen Hanna who inspired the title of Nirvana’s biggest hit by spraying “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on Cobain’s apartment wall.
14. Fear of Courtney cheating triggered his demise
“He was so sensitive that the one time that I thought about cheating on him… he must’ve been psychic or something,” says Love. “I thought about it. I didn’t do it, but I thought about it… he knew it. I don’t know how… The response to it was he took 67 Rohipnols and ended up in a coma. Because I thought about cheating on him.” Cobain recovered, but a month later, aged 27, he killed himself.
Cobain: Montage Of Heck is at cinemas nationwide from 10 April
Kurt on Kurt
The brutal wit and unflinching wisdom of an icon
On the band
“We’re musically and rhythmically retarded. We play so hard we can’t tune our guitars fast enough.”
On his fans
“I’d like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists and racists in our audience. I know they’re out there and it bothers me.”
On making albums
“You only need a couple of catchy songs on an album and the rest can be bullsh*t Bad Company rip-offs.”
On Smells Like Teen Spirit
“I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away. I can’t pretend to have a good time playing it.”
“Jocks have completely taken over music... and just to get back at them, I’m going to start playing basketball.”
On his singing
“Most of the time it’s from my stomach, where the pain is. I’m always in pain – that really adds to the anger in my music.”
(Images: Allstar, Getty)