Between Nirvana and Hell

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The songs, the band, and the fame were mere facets of Kurt Cobain’s complicated story. They were not the essence of it, or even the center of his very brief and twisted life. Cobain’s greatest enduring struggle, before he shot himself in 1994 at 27, was with the person he was, or wanted to be, or more important, wanted not to be. What finally led him to do it, after years, decades, of contemplating it for all sorts of different reasons, might have been the sudden and outrageous insistence of millions of people — many with tape recorders — to constantly ask him how that struggle was going, why it seemed to be so abundant, and how it related to them. Indeed, in the end, it was the music that finally killed him, as least as much as it sustained him. If not for it, he could be a shy schoolteacher living today on a decent prescription drug plan in Aberdeen, Wash.

To those millions, Cobain, founder and front-man of Nirvana, which in the early ’90s became one of a handful of rock bands in history to alter the course of popular music, was the voice of his generation. And that generation was generally pissed off. In a sense, they all grew up together in the 1970s and ’80s, living though deficits, divorces, and the finale of the Cold War. But unlike Cobain, most of his fans mellowed out and got regular jobs.

Today they’re 40. He is a memory, but a well-preserved one. His plaid shirt, sad eyes, and powerful songs form the lasting image of a brief era, an unwitting encapsulation of its art and its ethos. That’s why, in A.J. Schnack’s haunting and beautiful new documentary “Kurt Cobain About a Son,” which makes its New York premiere today at the IFC Center, Cobain is just a voice, detached from the endlessly reprinted visage, speaking calmly and clearly about how, in spite of recent fatherhood and terrific artistic success, this life just didn’t seem capable of making him truly happy.

Mr. Schnack struck a veritable gold mine last year when he met the journalist Michael Azerrad, author of the well-regarded “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” and Mr. Azerrad revealed that he still had about 25 hours of unreleased audio tapes that he had collected while interviewing Cobain for his book. Cobain, who, with wife and fellow rocker Courtney Love, had sought out Mr. Azerrad to write the authorized biography of Nirvana as a way to counter damaging media reports describing the couple’s habitual heroin use (Ms. Love, allegedly, while pregnant) and purported substandard parenting, was unusually candid in the interviews.

Mr. Schnack resolved to make a film from Cobain’s solitary voice, and to leave the rest of him out of it: The title character does not appear at all in the film until the final few moments. It’s a clever way to keep the man and the myth distinct. And it’s not just him. There are no historians or bandmates in “About a Son,” no groupies, ex-girlfriends, rock critics, uncles, high-school teachers, or cleaning ladies to tell us what being Kurt Cobain looked, sounded, or felt like.

Instead, Mr. Schnack took his cameras to Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle — where Cobain was raised, cultured, and knighted, respectively — and took long, scenic shots of the places where Cobain lived his life: his father’s old logging yard, his elementary school, the benches he slept on, the clubs he played in, as well as beautifully rendered views of the dewy greens and rusty browns that color the stillness of the working-class Pacific Northwest. As Cobain’s disembodied voice narrates his route to 1993, from a broken home where he was an outsider and didn’t get enough attention, to the peaks of celebrity where he got way too much, one gets more of a sense of what it looked like from inside Kurt Cobain. Mr. Schnack’s spare and hypnotic series of tableaus, which does more to marry images with words than any documentary you’ve seen in a while, molds a shared experience with the subject rather than an examination of him.

The experience is as painful as it is invaluable for understanding a strangely American life at the close of the 20th century. Cobain’s 26-year-old voice in “About a Son” is wearied, from the chronic back and stomach ailments that drove him to self-medicate, to the unremitting media scrutiny and fan kowtowing that left him unsure, as a man of teetering self-esteem, why he should hold any of them in high regard. He undoubtedly loved music, but what he seemed to strive for was a maddeningly elusive plateau of comfort, not a transcendent artistic platform. He’d sell his music to any sucker willing to buy it and fought for more of the proceeds that Nirvana generated because he was responsible for most of the output. As Mr. Azerrad prompts him to consider his life, Cobain sounds like a man trying to think up reasons not to kill himself.

Appropriately, there are no Nirvana songs in the film; rather, Mr. Schnack has populated the background with the bands that Cobain absorbed through the years and shaped the artist he’d become — Bad Brains, the Melvins, Scratch Acid, the Vaselines, and others. The growth of his own band — the part people remember — is left to the margins, and discussed only as it pertains to the growth of a fiercely intelligent and conflicted man.

One of the very few things that remained constant throughout Cobain’s life was his overwhelming, even desperate, aversion to being “average.” It’s a word that comes up repeatedly in the interviews. Cobain couldn’t live with being a “typical” kid or an “average” musician. He burned with a frequently professed hatred for “normal” people — people who weren’t interesting enough to be anything exceptional or unique, fans included — maybe because he seemed to believe with a large part of his soul that he was normal himself, and couldn’t endure the embarrassment of being laid bare before the public. That strange and crippling humility might have been his saving grace, but ultimately to him, the most normal thing would have been to go on living.

“Kurt Cobain About a Son” begins an ongoing run today at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave. at West 3rd Street, 212-924-7771).

The New York Sun

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