I had wanted to sign off on all things NIRVANA back when the documentary “Montage Of Heck” was released theatrically. After all, to most of my friends, colleagues and associates, I’m known as the “NIRVANA” guy. (Or at least I was up until college. I suppose in the last decade, I’ve been labeled as the “horror” guy, but anyways…) It’s been hard for me to wrap my head around the way “Montage Of Heck” made me feel. Back in high school, Nirvana were my all-time favorite band. After several failed attempts to play instruments, Nirvana was the band that gave me the confidence to start my own band. And through sheer will, and genuine enthusiasm, I somehow was fortunate enough to find myself in the audience of the now infamous MTV taping for their Unplugged performance. Little did I know it at the time, but a mere 5 months later, Kurt Cobain would be dead, and Nirvana would be over.
They remained my favorite band through all those years, occasionally relinquishing the crown to acts such as SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE, or FAR. But after Kurt's death, they became something much more than just a great rock band. Kurt’s demise gave him some sort of strange martyrdom. He became this tortured artist that couldn’t handle fame or depression in the eyes of the general public, whereas I just missed those goofy guys that would play pranks, make out with each other live on Saturday Night Live, or sing Teen Spirit one full octave lower on a Top Of The Pops appearance to sound more like Morrissey. The humor that came with Nirvana somehow got lost in the shuffle of the tragedy that followed the untimely end of the band. And only sporadically would we be reminded of their brilliance, such as when the self-titled “best of” collection came out and included the never before released final Nirvana track "You Know You’re Right." which in itself feels extremely sad and melancholy rather than celebratory, as it should be.
Documentarian Brett Morgen was granted exclusive access to years of archival material to put together a definitive documentary that focused solely on Cobain, the “genius” artist, as opposed to Nirvana, the really awesome band. And I guess it’s this perception over the years that has bothered me. Before I get into my thoughts about “Montage Of Heck,” I wanted to recommend perhaps what I consider the best ever documentary about Nirvana, and that’d be “Classic Albums: Nirvana Nevermind.”
It was a VH1 series where each episode would focus on one specific classic album, and break it down, track by track, with the key people involved in its creation. Nevermind is now over 25 years old. But at the time of this doc’s release, it was only 10 years after the fact, and we got to hear directly from Dave Grohl, Krist Novesellic and recording engineer/producer Butch Vig. Because of Kurt’s absence, the trio focused specifically on the actual damn songs! Back when Nirvana were actually around, getting a serious response from Kurt seemed damn well impossible, so hearing this perspective was tremendously refreshing, and inspiring.
Take, for example, this break down of the track “In Bloom.” Once you hear Butch Vig break down the individual instruments, and playing Cobain’s isolated vocal track with Dave’s backing vocals (which are buried in the final mix), you’ll never hear the song the same way again! And it’s a reminder that in this day and age where musicians go into a studio and punch in bits of songs with Pro-Tools, or “auto-tune” their voices for perfect pitch, this was an album that 3 guys went into a room, recorded, and rocked. Plain and simple!
Don’t get me wrong. Of course, Cobain was an insanely talented artist in every capacity. An incredible vocalist, singer and songwriter. His lyrics were pretty mind-blowing, even if they don’t all seem to make coherent sense. That's the beauty and poetry in his words. All of it worked towards making Nirvana what it was, but I also believe it was these 3 key people that made the band work at exactly the right time. Dave Grohl has proven with Foo Fighters and the dozen other side projects he's participated in over the course of the last 20 years just how incredibly versatile and talented a musician he is. There’s no doubting that. But Nirvana wasn’t just Kurt. It was the combination of Kurt, Krist and Dave that made it work. Otherwise, they would’ve hit big with “Bleach!” It took the right combo, and the right timing for Nirvana-mania to happen the way it did. And I only bring this up as a way to illustrate that I’m not 100 percent on board with any narrative that paints Kurt as an artistic genius that would’ve been huge no matter what. It took these 3 to make Nirvana the Nirvana that we still hear on the radio (or Pandora) today.
“Montage Of Heck” is a fascinating film, and a good documentary, but one that I don’t find completely honest or genuine in its execution. The best bits are all the unseen footage of Cobain as a child. Getting insight into what kind of kid he was is a wonderful snapshot at a certain moment in time, even if it doesn’t fully explain why Nirvana was the cult phenomenon it was. But then again, teenage Kurt is still an enigma. I don’t believe any of the stories he tells that were presented in the doc as animated sequences. He was never even remotely serious in interviews during the band’s run, so why would he confess to some of these elaborate stories, like losing his virginity to a mentally handicapped girl from his high school? Lifelong friend and Melvins frontman Buzz Osbourne called the doc out for its inaccuracies, and I kind of believe him. I’m sure if Kurt was alive today, he’d probably be unhappy with the depiction we see in the latter half of the film where he’s nodding off, high as fuck, while trying to hold his baby daughter in his hands. It’s pretty rough.
I guess what bothers me is they skip over the Nirvana part in this Kurt Cobain documentary, and go straight to the “Kurt and Courtney” years, which, to be frank, are rather difficult to sit through as well. Did I learn anything new that I didn’t already know? Not really. Did it change my view of Kurt as a person or artist? A little bit. The candid footage with him and Courtney revealed a willing participant in the rock star lifestyle he publicly would constantly shame. And that’s the bummer part.
The positive? The book version inspired by "Montage Of Heck." I was a little disappointed that Kurt’s father Donald Cobain was finally interviewed for the first time publicly about his son, and he has maybe one line of dialogue in the finished film, whereas Kurt’s mother, who bears a striking resemblance to Courtney in personality, is very, very prominent all throughout. However, the book version of “Montage Of Heck” is the full transcripts from the 5 people closest to Kurt. His mom, his girlfriend, his sister, Krist and his father (and his wife). Getting to read those full interviews painted far more interesting a picture than the doc itself managed to do. And here’s the thing. I was hoping that repeat viewings would change my view on the actual doc, and accompanying album… but it only got worse and worse.
The “Montage Of Heck” CD promised never-before-heard Kurt Cobain compositions; long lost songs! But quite frankly, it’s unlistenable. As a musician myself, I do a lot of rough demos when it comes to figuring out songs. Sometimes it’s just a riff or a melody I have in my head that I put down on my tape recorder, and it’ll take me months to convert it into a functional, listenable song. Point being, I would never, ever want anyone to listen to those early sketches. And the “Montage Of Heck” album is all that. Private bits that should never have been released. The most coherent of the bunch s a cover of The Beatles “And I Love Her.” The rest? Just plain awful. So, why release it? Because it’s a Nirvana release where they don’t have to pay the other members of Nirvana, because it’s released as a “Kurt Cobain” album! At least, it could’ve featured the lullaby version of Nirvana songs by “Rockabye Baby!” (which I ended up buying separately), or the Vitamin String Quartet orchestrated version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that features so prominently in the documentary. But alas, none of that is here.
The best bit of getting to see “Montage Of Heck” on the big screen here in Los Angeles at the Arclight, Hollywood was getting to see it with a Q & A moderated by filmmaker Scott Derrickson, right before he went off to shoot DOCTOR STRANGE, with director Brett Morgen. Since I'd been following Scott since the pre-SINISTER days, I knew he was a huge Nirvana fan, and in full Nirvana mode leading up to this particular screening. I decided to craft a 3 disc Nirvana box set to gift to him. Well, and also for myself.
You see, I’ve always been pretty disappointed in the officially released Nirvana box set “With The Lights Out.” Over the years, long before the days of Napster and the Internet in general, I used to make weekly trips into New York City, and hit up all the record shops in search of bootlegs. Between all the import singles I found, bootleg releases, and rare LP's, I could craft my own little mini-albums solely made up of all the B-sides or unreleased songs. So, I’ve always imagined that at some point, someone would officially release all this material. While a lot of the stuff on “With The Lights Out” is, in fact, versions or takes of tracks I’d never heard before, they left out so, so much.
So, I made my own box set, in 3 discs.
Disc One is all the officially recorded, but never properly released B-sides. It includes all the leftovers from “In Utero,” “Nevermind” and even some odd tracks from various compilations such as their long-lost KISS cover of “Do You Love Me?” and the original studio version of “Spank Thru,” recorded by Jack Endino (who also recorded Bleach) and ended up on the SUB POP 200 comp. So, Disc One is a whole new album of Nirvana songs you didn’t know existed!
Disc Two? Well, this one is compromised from all the bootlegs over the years and let me tell you, it is something special. As I mentioned earlier in this write-up, when Nirvana were actually around, they were hilarious. I think people forget just how funny, sharp, and satirical they could be on the fly. So, I pulled my favorite bits from the vast library of bootlegs I owned. Everything from a guy screaming like a lunatic for them to “sing about fucking girls!” to which Kurt replies, “This song is called About A Queer” before launching into their track “About A Girl.” There’s the accordion malfunction before “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam” at one show, which prompts Kurt to suggest, “throw it in the smash pit!” Or the live electric version of their David Bowie cover of “The Man Who Sold The World,” which absolutely rocks.
The third disc is an oldie but goodie. Basically, I closed it out it off with my “Case For Nirvana” mix as the final disc. To refresh your memories, a while back, my friend and colleague Joe Maddrey and I got in a big Nirvana versus Pearl Jam debate. By the end of it, we decided we were going to make each other CD mixes of their best tracks to prove who was the better band. The one rule was “no singles!” It had to be on the merit of songs that weren’t generally known. And so, we exchanged our mixes, I wrote about it in this blog here, and quite frankly, I think I won that debate.
In using this pre-existing mix, however, there's a tiny bit of cross over between the 3 discs, but I'd like to think it's not too noticeable.
Without further ado, below is the full track listing for my 3-disc epic Nirvana box set:
DISC ONE - ALL THE B-SIDES:
1. Verse Chorus Verse (No Alternative comp)
2. I Hate Myself And I Want To Die (Beavis & Butthead Do America Soundtrack)
3. Moist Vagina (All Apologies B-Side)
4. Marigold (Heart Shaped Box B-Side)
5. Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip (In Utero import)
6. D-7 (Hormoaning EP)
7. Return Of The Rat (Fourteen Songs For Greg Sage and The Wipers)
8. Oh, The Guilt (The Jesus Lizard split)
9. Curmudgeon (Lithium B-Side)
10. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (from Mark Lanagan's 1st solo album "The Winding Sheet")
11. Spank Thru (SUB POP 200 comp)
12. Do You Love Me? (Hard To Believe: A KISS Tribute)
13. Pen Cap Chew (Demo)
14. Blandest (Demo)
15. Clean Up Before She Comes (Demo)
16. The Extreme (Wipeout demo)
17. Everything and Nothing (alternate Verse Chorus Verse demo from Wipeout)
18. Here She Comes Now
19. Dumb (Radio Appearance)
20. Drain You (BBC Sessions)
21. Something In The Way (BBC Sessions)
DISC TWO - BEST OF THE BOOTS:
1. Negative Creep (Acoustic Version from Outcesticide 2)
2. Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam (from More Live Tits)
3. School [Live] (from Bleach reissue)
4. Aneurysm (from Europe 1991 - 91.11.16)
5. About A Girl "About A Queer" (from Out Of The Blue)
6. Help Me, I'm Hungry [with Tad] (from Out Of The Blue)
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit (from Europe 1991 - 91.11.16)
8. Polly [Electric] (from Europe 1991 - 91.11.16)
9. Lithium (from Europe 1991 - 91.11.16)
10. Rape Me (from Seattle Sound, Sounds Great)
11. In His Hands (from Ourcesticide 2)
12. Serve The Servants (from Make Me Sick, Live At Roseland)
13. Scentless Apprentice (from Make Me Sick, Live At Roseland)
14. The Eagle Has Landed [aka Torrettes] (from Outcesticide III)
15. Milk It (from San Francisco 1993)
16. Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam (from Meltdown)
17. Improvisation [Including Drum Solo] (from Live In Rome)
18. Where Did You Sleep Last Night (from New Year's Eve)
19. The Man Who Sold The World (from New Year's Eve)
DISC THREE - THE CASE FOR NIRVANA:
1. Breed (Nevermind)
2. Aneurysm (Incesticide)
3. Drain You (Nevermind)
4. School (Bleach)
5. Turnaround (Hormoaning/Incesticide)
6. Oh, The Guilt (The Jesus Lizard split)
7. Very Ape (In Utero)
8. Territorial Pissings (Nevermind)
9. Son Of A Gun (Hormoaning/Incesticide)
10. Negative Creep (Bleach)
11. Curmudgeon (Lithium single)
12. Milk It (In Utero)
13. Lounge Act (Nevermind)
14. Return Of The Rat (Fourteen Songs For Greg Sage & The Wipers)
15. Marigold (Heart Shaped Box single)
16. Spank Thru (Sub Pop 200)
17. Talk To Me (Europe 1991 bootleg)
18. On A Plain (Nevermind)
19. Something In The Way (BBC Session)
20. Opinion (With The Lights Out Disc 2)
21. Do Re Mi (With The Lights Out Disc 3)
22. You Know You're Right (Nirvana)
So, “Montage Of Heck” is kind of a bust. But what else should you watch?
Well, again, my top pick is Classic Albums: Nirvana Nevermind. It’s by far the best Nirvana related documentary. Not quite as great, but featuring some of the best, most infamous Nirvana gags, you should also check out “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!” You’ll get glimpses of a lot of their high jinx on that disc. If you’ve never seen “The Year Punk Broke,” that’s another documentary that follows Sonic Youth on their Goo tour with Nirvana supporting. Even though they’re secondary in the doc, Nirvana steals it every chance they get. With a stellar version of “Negative Creep,” to Kurt pretended he’s Kevin Costner meeting Madonna to Kim Gordon backstage, “The Year That Punk Broke” is filled with a lot of pure fun.
Live-wise, there are two definitive shows that encapsulate Nirvana at their peak for both the Nevermind and In Utero albums. For Nevermind, it’s the “Live At The Paramount” gig. This is the show they used footage from for the “Lithium” music video. It was shot in 35mm film and it looks spectacular. It’s also from right before “Nevermind” exploded as big as it did, so it was the band at their best as a 3 piece act. Then, for “In Utero,” there’s the “Live And Loud” MTV special which aired on New Year’s Eve 1993. The full show, which features additional touring guitarist Pat Smear is a magnificent look at a band finally coming into their own as a successful rock group. Granted, it didn’t last beyond the few months after this performance, but it’s still a great, satisfying watch.
Well, there you have it, whether you asked for it or not, there’s my 2 cents (and 2000 plus words) on Nirvana. Take it or leave it! Or you know, whatever… never mind.