I still listen to new music all the time but I think the period of my life is over where music has the power to impact on me so hard that it’s like being in love or becoming politicised or finding out a truth about yourself. Feelings of that intensity probably won’t happen now just from hearing an album. It’s a bit sad to think about it that way but I’m fine with it. I know who I am a bit more these days and there are things in life just as important as music, and some even more so.
In 1990 that was not true. I was twelve and pin-balling between two great albums released the year before; ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ by De La Soul, and ‘The Stone Roses’. I was young with not much frame of reference but music gave me a sudden and profound understanding that there was a much bigger and better world out there, with an astounding soundtrack. (I am living in it now, thank God).
That young period of my life has expanded in my memory, maybe because in the ‘90s all I cared about was music and in those days you had to wait for your music. You waited for Top Of The Pops, you waited for The Chart Show, you waited till you had enough money to buy a record, you waited for the record shop to open or you waited for your records to arrive in the post, you waited for the inky weeklies and the glossy monthlies, you waited for the radio to play the right song, you waited and waited. Perhaps that’s why it feels as if I’d already been listening to music for a long time when ‘Teen Spirit’ landed in September 1991. I was thirteen and a half then and I can’t overstate how much my sister and I loved that record and how much we loved Kurt on sight. We should have been afraid or unnerved, at least by the dark gorgeous video that constantly looped on MTV, but because Kurt looked so frail and indie yet sounded so heavy it hit you from both sides and never stopped.
Henry Rollins said ‘Nirvana slayed the hair bands’ and whether you agree or not, at the time the heavy guitars we craved seemed like the province of Guns N Roses (who we loved and then discarded – they seemed ludicrous post-Nevermind) and their sexist West Coast soundalikes. It’s possible I heard the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa the week before ‘Teen Spirit’, or at the latest immediately after, and I got Trompe Le Monde on release in ‘91, so I was at least moving in the right direction, but Nirvana blew everything up in minutes. Even now I find it hard to credit that a band whose impression on me was so overwhelming and has been so enduring were only around for two years in total from ‘Teen Spirit’ to the final double A-side of (the overrated) ‘All Apologies’ and the poignant, brilliant, bookend re-imaging of ‘Teen Spirit’ that was ‘Rape Me’. Kurt was gone four months later.
When you walk into a film like Brett Morgen’s Montage Of Heck you are sad already because there’s no getting away from the ending you already know, but Morgen has offset that anxious anticipation of loss with such weird artistry and lingering intimacy, moments of absolute comedy, and such a brilliant devoted use of Nirvana’s music, re-imagined, stripped down or slowed down, orchestrated or left raw, that you are in Kurt’s grubby and funny and hurt world for longer than one album ever allowed, and it’s overwhelming and addictive – two adjectives which were pretty much the blessing and curse of Nirvana and Kurt.
Montage Of Heck is a film about Kurt and watches its subject in as isolated a way as it’s possible to do in film without making something abstract. There are no discussions, per se, not about the legacy, nothing about the Seattle scene, the word grunge is never mentioned, Dave Grohl is not included, Courtney only speaks a few times (and for one of the world’s greatest music interviewees makes a bland showing) – this is all about Kurt from birth to death and sets his life and writing and personality against fame and pain and the power of his songs. When ‘Territorial Pissings’ hits the speakers it is such a spectacular kick in the guts that it’s hard to sit still. I thought people might stand up. I wanted to. Conversely, the arrival of ‘Teen Spirit’ is handled with a genius understated stroke (but stay for the very very end of the credits for some emotional comeback).
Among the stories about Kurt you might never have heard, and certainly the footage you won’t have seen of tiny Kurt becoming the kind of messy movie-star-handsome man you want to instantly be friends with, there are two moments that left me heartsick. One is the cut between footage of baby Kurt and baby Frances, who could be twins. The second is a grown up Kurt visibly nodding out with Frances in his lap and a drawling Courtney trying to cut the baby’s hair. It’s truly pitiful, and whatever Kurt went through as a child, at least nobody did that to him. Frances co-produced the movie and I wonder what it was like to see that footage for the first time. It’s almost certainly heroin and it’s very hard to watch.
Where footage and photos run dry, animations take over and I understand that some people won’t be into that aspect but the aesthetic of it seems so right for the time, referencing the zine/poster look from the ‘alternative’ world of that period, and it never turns Kurt into something you feel he’s not. It feels authentic. In addition, the continuous animation of his notebook lyrics and artwork is probably my favourite aspect, aside from the music. The feeling of an invisible hand and a blank page coming alive with the non-stop weirdness that would eventually become known world-wide is a powerful tribute to Kurt as a writer.
If you’ve read other reviews it’s no spoiler that the film doesn’t focus on the method or circumstances of Kurt’s death, and certainly not on any conspiracies around it, though it does seem to accept the Rohypnol near-miss in Rome as a suicide attempt so is not entirely a fence-sitting piece. At two and quarter hours it might be the longest amount of time you’ve spent in Nirvana’s company for a while so prepare to feel it all again. You’ll be glad to recall there were so many highs and only one big low that I guess we’re all still going through. I had a ticket to see Nirvana play at the Manchester G-MEX in March 1994. I'd just turned sixteen. After the Rome incident they re-scheduled the gig for April but by the time the re-scheduled date came around Kurt had already been dead for a week. I came that close to seeing them. I have my unused ticket still. When they cremate me or turn me into an apple tree or whatever, it will probably be in my pocket.