The summer of 1991 came around. I got a tattoo from J.B. Jones at Fine Line. It was a picture of an image from Buddhist mythology. I left the gauze pad from its creation on my ex-girlfriend’s bicycle as a bloody parting gift, then went down to the sculpture lab at the college to see what was going on.
Randall Chavez, Luke Hudson and Alex Ariza were welding. Randall and Luke were decent skaters and badass artists. Alex could shape metal like Vulcan himself. He owned a badly behaved Australian Shepherd dog named Chucho. That day he also had a cassette tape with him. He played it over and over in the metal shop on a shitty old cassette deck with broken volume knobs and crackly speakers. The Sub Pop recording, already two years old, was called Bleach; it was by a band called Nirvana.
The first time the tape ended, silence followed. Everybody in the room took turns staring at one another. Alex walked over to the player, raised his eyebrows. We all nodded; “Blew” started up again. As the building was about to close for the day, by the studio lockers, I asked Alex to borrow that tape. I spent the rest of the day nursing my wounds, making copies of something to lift me out of the past and propel me into the future.
That’s just one Nirvana story. Perhaps the greatest of all comes straight outta the visionary work of Kurt Cobain himself, albeit filtered through the lens and organizing abilities of director Brett Morgen. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a documentary film focused on the myth of a trio of American musicians who made their mark on our culture in a matter of a scant few years.
In the aftermath, one of them drifted willfully into obscurity, another embraced superstardom, while the third died painfully, was resurrected as a member of a pantheon of sorts, worshipped, reviled, passionately listened to and purposely ignored by millions of humans all over this planet.
Ironically, far from hagiography, Morgen’s film—available on HBO on Demand and to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Nov. 6—humanizes the rocanrol god Cobain in ways that are poignant, humorous, dangerously clever and deeply tragic; it’s like Hamlet for our age.
In Montage of Heck, the artist’s frailty and dysfunction are not questioned so much as they are provided to the audience as a means of displaying the cruel and casual nature of life common to all of us. How—in at least one case—such slings and arrows led to a creative life and output that sought to overcome darkness through musical expression is a question the film answers plangently yet brightly.
From Cobain’s inspirational encounter and subsequent punk rock discourse with King Buzzo to his black-tar stained courtship and marriage to Courtney Love, the band’s ineluctable rise to superstardom and Cobain’s ultimate self-immolation are covered gleefully yet with appropriate gravitas. Montage of Heck makes use of Cobain’s personal artifacts to tell a tale that rises up from the world of rock music and comes to reside in the realm of American culture as a portrait of one our nation’s great makers. The film is a must for anyone who’s ever uttered the word rock, anyone and everyone who’s ever pressed the play button and turned up the volume afterwards, in the hope of discovering a stony, star-strewn revelation.