The following is a reasonably accurate reproduction of our conversation after seeing the movie, Kurt Cobain: About a Son.
Justin: So what’d you think of the movie?
Meri: I feel dirty for having seen it. I like Kurt Cobain way less now and I think I even like his music less and I’m really pissed about that.
Justin: Really? Why?
Meri: In light of his problems with publicity, I couldn’t help wondering how permissions were gotten. He wouldn’t have been happy that this film was made.
Justin: I thought it was brilliant in that it took this icon and made him human. Showing Seattle and the surroundings, the kids in the high school, any one of them could have been a Kurt Cobain.
Meri: I liked that the images were disconnected from the voiceover. But as soon as I realized my emotions were being played with by the withholding of the very images the movie is about, I felt manipulated. It became clear about halfway through that there was no way the filmmakers could deny us the image of Kurt. And from then on, all I could think of was when will the movie finally concede to that inevitability.
Justin: Exactly. It completely pointed out our need for an icon, our desire for the raw image, the object of worship. Kurt Cobain was humanized by the effect of his own voice, speaking candidly, if hypocritically, about his life. While we were shown everyday images of the world around him. Aberdeen, Olympia, the faces of real, ordinary, unfamous people.
Meri: He didn’t come off very well.
Justin: God, no. He sounded like a whiny, spoiled child.
Meri: There were moments when it seemed like he was hit by reality. Like when the interviewer Michael Azzerad says, “So is yours a sad story?”
Justin: Yeah, and in those moments of perspective, when Kurt admits he is a millionaire rockstar, that hypocrisy must have really crushed him. He got glimpses of it and he couldn’t stand it. I mean, Nirvana was all about not being mainstream. They used to complain about the attention they got, insisting the mainstream came to them, not the other way around. At the same time, Kurt, on some level, clearly set out to accomplish that, and seemed to like being rich and even to some degree being famous. But he also felt guilty about it. You can almost hear him realizing his own hypocrisy and being crushed by it, even though he freely admits he’s a hypocrite.
Meri: Yeah, but it sounds like lip service. The indie party line, so to speak. And as for Courtney, she agitated his worst defects, like his weaknesses for paranoia and self-pity. She treated him like a child, while behaving like a bald-faced fame-seeker.
Justin: Kurt was ambivalent. He wanted it but he didn’t want it, or at least felt he shouldn’t want it because it wasn’t cool in the punk-rock scene, or at least in his understanding of the punk rock scene. He says as much, when he rails against the indie scene of Seattle and how there was this belief that if you were a real musician, you spit in the faces of the record companies.
Meri: That story about Nirvana meeting the Sub Pop guys for the first time is a good example. How Krist had to get shit-faced to deal with the disloyalty he felt just to even consider signing a record contract.
Justin: When Kurt looks back on it, he sort of realizes that it was a lot of pressure to put on bands.
Meri: The Vanity Fair article that set off the whole conflagration, where Courtney admitted to using heroin while she was pregnant with Frances, questions the dictum that all press is good press. For the fame whore that Courtney was at the time, she learned a hard lesson. You can’t actually control all your publicity. You can’t have it both ways.
Justin: That was another interesting part, where he says it was ok for him to do drugs but not for “average” people. Over and over he referred to himself as somehow different, even better, than average people, which was kind of part of his downfall. He had a very average delusion about drugs. He seems to have thought: “I’m special. I can handle it.” Makes it seem like if he hadn’t have killed himself, he probably wouldn’t have lived much longer, definitely not been around at this point anyway.
Meri: Yeah, that was some of the ugly side it revealed. A naiveté encouraged by Courtney.
Justin: There’s no way they would have stayed married.
Meri: You think?
Justin: The way things were, the stage was set for the impossibility of him ever reaching a point of clarity in his crazy world. He never could have grown up, gotten off drugs for real, and survived.
Meri: That sounds like a lead-in for the whole Courtney-killed-Kurt theory. Kurt’s only way out being to eschew fame, but Courtney was too invested in keeping him doped up and a prisoner of fame.
Justin: That’s one way to look at it. He didn’t have to stay famous. He could have walked away from it all, like Perry Farrell advised him to do. Or he could have just not toured. Though there was something about it he clearly loved, despite shots of him at live shows where he looks like he’s just hating it.
Meri: It makes me wonder, being as it’s pretty obvious that Kurt wrote a lot of Live Through This, what any future collaborations would have been like.
Justin: They should have just formed a band together.
Meri: Somehow I can’t imagine that happening. The post-feminist world that existed during Courtney’s adolescence certainly shaped a lot of what she did, who she is. I’m pretty sure it would have been unthinkable for her to join a band with her husband. She came of age with riot grrrl. She needed to prove her worth, her independence, her accomplishments as a musician in her own right. Kurt and Courtney, the band, would have been seen as a weakness on both their parts. Though the music would have been amazing! Again, the all-powerful press looms large in that hypothesis. And given how Kurt and Courtney were unable to have a realistic relationship with them, to basically defang them, I can’t imagine them enduring the negative press that might have ensued. I just don’t think they were strong enough for that. I mean, today, yeah, Courtney has a fuck-you attitude toward it all, but Kurt certainly could never totally muster one, if this film is any indication. They believed their own press. Very dangerous.
Justin: Say Kurt had lived, left the limelight, and just became a behind-the-scenes songwriter for her.
Meri: Smells like Sonny and Cher.
Justin: Kurt Cobain for Congress, 2008.