I watched Montage of Heck, the Kurt Cobain documentary, over the weekend. The film is well done, but I didn’t leave feeling like I learned anything new about its subject. I may have learned a little bit about myself, though.
I guess I should start with a confession: I was never really on the Nirvana bandwagon. My introduction to them happened one night at Bob’s Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, where a young woman asked me if I was going to go see them at the Palace that night. I said no, and then she spent the next ten minutes telling me how amazing they were. The whole conversation annoyed me. I just wanted to play Black Sabbath’s “Never Say Die” on the bar’s jukebox, but as long as she was talking there was a chance I might get laid. Priorities.
A few months after that (or maybe a year, I don’t know) “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew up on MTV, and Nirvana were everywhere. I regretted skipping the Palace show, but mostly for the “I was there” bragging rights of seeing them in a 500 capacity club.
Their songs were good, but I couldn’t understand what the phenomenon was all about, why everybody thought Kurt was so special. He struck me as not much different than any other guy my age: angsty, self-absorbed, cynical, grandiose, sarcastic, sensitive, defensive. The same list of adjectives described me. They described my friends, too, and my peers in art school — they described pretty much every kid walking down Melrose or Hollywood Boulevard. And then all that “spokesman of his generation” shit started. I remember writing “when did we vote on that” in my journal the first time I heard the term.
I was sad when he died. I’m sad when anybody dies, but I wasn’t gutted. The month previous when Bukowski died, that one hurt. Cobain was more of a “saw that one coming” sensation.
Let’s yada yada yada over a few years. I was embarrassed looking through my old sketchbooks. My adolescent understanding of drafting, anatomy, composition, perspective — all of that good stuff — was terrible. I drew like a child, and not a particularly talented one. It wasn’t until the end of my second year of art school that I gained any kind of control, and even then I didn’t have much. My journals were even worse, filled with rambling, barely literate gibberish in a childlike scrawl. Between the sketchbooks and the journals my fragile self esteem took what felt like the final death blow. I didn’t know why I ever thought that I was an artist, so I quit trying.
When I read Cobain’s Journals, I felt exactly the same way about his work (or “work”) as I did my own. There was no great insight, just barely literate gibberish and childlike drawings, but with Kurt nearly ten years gone, the book’s publication was greeted as some kind of peek into his genius. There wasn’t any genius — just a boy and a notebook. Want to see genius? Look up Diego Rivera’s boyhood work.
So here we are, another decade gone, and Montage of Heck reinforces all of those feelings. There are no great secrets in his poorly rendered drawings, nor are there flashes of brilliance in the journal pages that flit across the screen. Kurt Cobain was a very average guy my age who caught a few breaks, both lucky and unlucky. He wasn’t a genius, nor was he the spokesman for my generation. That’s all “cult of the dead celebrity” talk.
But the music? Yeah, the music was great.
I don’t know what any of this means, honestly. It’s just more babble. I guess in the end Kurt had an opportunity to make a couple of great albums that reached millions of people, but he never had the chance to develop his drafting skills or learn to put together a coherent sentence. He’s forever stuck in an era of teen angst — his drawings and journals more alive than he is.
On the other hand, I enjoy the luxury of comparing those artifacts from my past to my present. Simply by staying alive for the last 20 years, I’ve managed to move a little way down the road. My life’s work will never mean anything to anyone beyond my children, but at least I’ve survived long enough to move past that angsty, self-absorbed, cynical, grandiose, sarcastic boy that Kurt and I both were.
I still have a long way to go on the sensitivity and defensiveness, though.