Back in the 90’s, I nearly wore out my Aiwa boom box (along with its’ trademarked mega-bass-boost button) with the Melvin’s Houdini CD. The box was a rugged piece of equipment and I was convinced it would last forever. It followed me from my dorm room on Washington Square Park, to a tenement building on Avenue C, then across the country for an action packed-black-tar-filled sojourn on Haight Street. It only succumbed some years after my return to the student hellhole known as Allston Massachusetts. Despite the mileage, I’m convinced it was Houdini that ultimately did the mega-bass button in.
Consider reading the first installment of a new fictional piece I am writing Kurt Cobain Lives In 1994 Kurt Cobain faked his own suicide. 22 years later he’s ending his self-imposed exile.
More to the point, my mind was blown when I was introduced to the Melvins. It was so heavy! The sound was so much darker than most of the heavy metal I was aware of at the time. It’s hard, but has a slippery tempo that makes it difficult to put your finger on, still guitar-based, but with drums and vocals used so differently from anything else I’d yet heard. It’s still vaguely punk, but fucking evil as well. I loved it! This was the shit you imagined destroying boom boxes, although truthfully that particular Aiwa boom box lasted longer than it had a right to.
The Melvin’s sound is dark and the front man, Buzz Osborne can be a, let’s say, difficult personality. He’s one of those people that doesn’t have time for little niceties that pad many human interactions (“Have a nice day!”). He’s not known for sugarcoating things. Which is fine. He’s clearly intelligent, he’s made great music for many years and he’s generally an interesting and critical thinker. He’s also proven to be in possession of a wicked sense of humor. Still he doesn’t make it easy. His prickliness is part of his appeal I suppose.
Which is why I was so happy to see the headline for Buzz Osborne’s review of the Montage of Heck documentary. Reading the typically brusque and highly quotable headline, “Buzz Osborne declares Montage of Heck is 90% bullshit.” I said to myself, “This will no doubt be interesting.”
Kurt Cobain is a subject Buzz can speak about with authority. He was there from before the beginning. He turned Kurt on to punk rock. He also claims, and I believe him, not to be prone to romanticizing the period when Nirvana became rock gods. “I don’t have a lot of happy memories about any of that stuff,” he says, “and the nice things I do remember are clouded by a deeply depressing fog of pointless misery. Look how it all ended.”
It’s a bitch of a thing, suicide is. The act pretty much automatically turns a person’s legacy negative. Justifiably so, of course, but it’s not the whole story either. In this case because – as many will attest – a lot of the time Kurt Cobain was a pretty fun dude. He had a great sense of humor. He was goof. He got to be friends with Bobcat Goldthwait for god’s sake. He even had Goldthwait warm up the crowd for a number of Nirvana shows. There aren’t many better jokes than having that guy warm up a punk rock show.
Yes, Kurt was often morbidly depressed, but he also liked to fuck around and pull jokes on people. In interviews he’d say outrageous shit with a straight face just for the hell of it. He’d casually mock the seriousness ascribed to Nirvana’s fame and popularity. In another example of his rambunctious nature he infamously made a prank phone call to boy-toy Evan Dando pretending to be Madonna’s assistant.
That kind of immature glee gets left behind in the wake of suicide.
And that aspect of Kurt’s personality, refreshingly, is what Buzz goes out of his way to defend. He summarizes his take on this aspect of Kurt nicely toward the beginning of the review when he says, “That’s the one thing no one gets about Cobain — he was a master of jerking your chain.”
Perhaps the most significant new material in Montage of Heck are the animated segments, one of which has Kurt discussing an unsuccessful attempt to lose his virginity to a mentally challenged girl. In another Kurt narrates an aborted attempt at suicide on some railroad tracks. Buzz claims flatly that the stories are bullshit.
He smacks those stories down so authoritatively I nearly guffawed “of course!” Buzz says, [re: the virginity story] “That’s too good a story to have gone this long without me hearing about it, especially if, as he suggests, the girl’s father freaked out about it at the high school. In that small-town shit-hole, exciting news of that nature would have been common knowledge before the sun set. It never happened.”
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you’ll know the sensibility in that statement is irreproachable.
If we were talking about a reliable narrator then you’d have to give the “retard fucker” story at least a shot at credence, but we aren’t. Buzz continues, “And the trying-to-kill-himself-on-the-train-tracks story is bullshit as well. It never happened either. There it is, though, told in a recording of Kurt’s own voice so it must be true…right? Wrong.”
The truth of this reasoning is obvious to me. It’s kind of the greatest – albeit incredibly morbid – joke ever. It’s Kurt fucking with us from beyond the grave!
Reading Buzz’ words I realized I had taken those stories – Kurt’s stories in the movie – as wholesale truths! But no! Buzz is right! This is Cobain we are talking about. He loved to fuck with people! That’s what he did! What a relief! Of course Kurt wasn’t a retard fucker! He was an incredibly empathetic person – he wouldn’t try to get over sexually on some woman with a reduced mental capacity.
What a revelation. One of my favorite people in the world IS NOT a retard fucker! And it took King Buzzo to set me straight on that. Thank you Buzz.
Which leads me to the statement that I think Montage of Heck presents a truthful look at Kurt’s life. It’s a sad, truly miserable portrayal, but it’s what you get when you add up the material Brett Morgen was provided with. It’s also a portrayal that’s influenced by his collaborators, Wendy Cobain (Kurt’s Mom) and Frances Bean but most importantly Courtney, notoriously unstable, unreliable and self-serving Courtney Love.
I’m actually not a Courtney hater – nor am I partial to the idea that Courtney had anything to do with Kurt’s death – but I do not believe her to be a reliable arbiter of the facts about Kurt’s last days or his life more generally. All of us, not just Kurt, are multifaceted and unknowable. Us humans, we are walking tube-socks of discrepancy and contrary desires, doubly, triply so for a genius like Cobain.
Kurt left a lot of depressing shit behind. So I don’t think it’s so unreasonable to build a portrait like Montage of Heck, but as fucked up as Kurt was I really doubt – and don’t want to believe – that he was a “retard fucker.” And I say that most likely we will never know for sure one way or the other. I for one though, will continue to believe he’s not. Thank you Buzz Osborne for slapping some sense into me!