The disturbing commodification of Kurt Cobain’s home recordings

The eternal ca-ching.

Feb 29, 2020, 3:49 pm*

Streaming

Audra Schroeder 

Audra Schroeder

Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck is, at its foundation, an audio document. The soundtrack comprises home recordings Cobain produced in the late ’80s while living in Olympia, Wash., some of which would later go on to provide material for Nirvana.

With the newly released Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings, we get a look at the material Morgen was allegedly given access to by Cobain’s widow Courtney Love in 2007. He found 108 cassettes in a storage unit and combed through more than 200 hours of material for the doc, and now the public can consume it on Spotify or as a 31-track box set, 12-inch/CD combo set, or 13-track CD, courtesy of Universal Music.

Yes, you’re right to feel icky about that echoing ca-ching.  

Much of Montage of Heck feels a little too intimate: the home videos of Kurt and Courtney; Cobain nodding off while holding daughter Frances Bean. Cobain’s home recordings work in tandem with the animated sequences that inform many scenes in the doc. But removed from that context, it’s difficult to find enjoyment in these songs, in which Cobain is obviously trying to figure out melodies and structure and purpose. Much like the home videos, these were private endeavors that are now very public, repackaged for mass consumption nearly 30 years after being put to tape. 

When we spoke after the SXSW debut of the film, Morgen underscored that he wanted the tapes to be heard; he believed fans needed to experience these sonic experiments, many of which did not end up in the film: 

There was all this incredible spoken word and his audio autobiography of his youth. His cover of the Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her.’ Just this incredible stuff that really, to me, is what elevated the film, because Kurt was an artist first. And like all artists, he left behind this autobiography in this life. The fact that he worked in both visual and oral media meant it was one of the most complete visual and oral autobiographies.

The critical chorus has been loud: The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne called the doc “90% … bullshit” after it was released. Writer Chris Weingarten claimed the recordings did more harm than good. Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot said of the album: “Most of it might fascinate for a listen or two, but presenting this as new work at top-end retail prices is the type of barrel-scraping exploitation that would’ve made the ever-wary Cobain retch.” Fans on Amazon aren’t happy either, calling Morgen out for exploiting Cobain’s legacy.

Asked about the album back in May, Morgen told Bedford and Bowery it “will feel like you’re kind of hanging out with Kurt Cobain on a hot summer day in Olympia, Washington as he fiddles about. It’s going to really surprise people.” Before the album was released, Morgen ensured the New York Times that he wasn’t trying to exploit Cobain. He understands fans “would feel protective of him,” but he’s really inviting listeners to “sort of observe.” He added: “If you came across a sketch of ‘Guernica’ by Picasso, is there anyone saying we shouldn’t see it?”

But Picasso this is not. It’s hard to imagine an audience that would want to shell out anywhere from $17 to $130 (!) on tracks that are essentially works in progress, stop-start songs: During “Burn the Rain,” Cobain stops playing to answer the phone and take a message for his then-girlfriend, Tracy Marander, and then the tape cuts off. Opener “The Yodel Song” is a typical Nirvana chord progression with aimless yodeling over it. “Aberdeen,” which is used to great effect in the doc, is a spoken word account of Cobain’s first sexual experience and a subsequent suicide attempt, but one wonders if Cobain wanted anyone to hear it. Many of the tracks are just goofy audio experiments (“Montage of Kurt”) or the riffing of someone who’s obviously trying to entertain himself (“Beans”). 

That doesn’t mean it will entertain you. This isn’t a focused or illuminating collection. A couple of the Montage of Heck tracks were floated online leading up to the release—Beatles cover “And I Love Her,” “Sappy,” and a demo of “Been a Son”—and each time, Cobain or Nirvana trended on Facebook, even though the mixtape has been floating around the Internet in some form for nearly a decade. The Web has a very short memory. 

But this is part of the commodification of legacy, which the Internet’s short memory facilitates. Musicians and comedians are being brought back as holograms. TV shows are being rebooted at a frightening pace. Deluxe reissues of deceased musicians’ songs often outnumber the albums they put out while alive. The recent Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, came out around the same time as Montage of Heck, and now a biopic is being discussed. As Pitchfork pointed out, the deification of Cobain and Winehouse is quite different:

If Amy proves anything about the life and times of Winehouse, it’s that newscasters, tabloids, and even respected media outlets reported on her shortcomings with enough thinly-veiled aggression to weaken what little resolve the drugs hadn’t already sapped. Cobain’s struggle with drugs, meanwhile, was all but an open secret while he was alive, whispered about or written around in order to maintain good graces and access to the superstar and his band.

This isn’t the first time the Nirvana/Cobain legacy has been reissued, branded, or exploited, and Morgen knows there are now two or three generations hungry for anything their idol created. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that his music transcended various generations,” Morgen told us in March. “He provides comfort through his music to people who feel alone. I think it will hopefully carry forth for several generations.”

The fans are important, sure, but there’s plenty of Nirvana material available online already. So what are we really getting for shelling out money for Cobain’s Petri dish? As Osborne said in his piece for Talkhouse, Cobain was a “master of jerking your chain.” Is the joke on us?

Illustration by Max Fleishman 

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*First Published: Nov 20, 2015, 11:00 am