Behind the Veil
Kurt Cobain’s ‘Montage of Heck’ Secret Demos Reveal the Humanity of a Legend
A new box set containing never-before-heard home recordings reminds us of the humanity of a legend who’s too often reduced to cautionary tale or rock god.
Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings is a collection of demos written and recorded by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and released as sort of a companion piece to the acclaimed documentary of the same name. Cobain has remained an endlessly fascinating figure, even as the music he championed fell out of fashion and the rock genre overall has become something of a niche interest as opposed to the dominant voice of a generation. His broken childhood, meteoric rise to fame, crippling addictions and ultimate fate are as ingrained into our cultural consciousness as his music, and The Home Recordings reminds us of how these things influence how we see Kurt Cobain in retrospect.
As a documentary, Montage of Heck offers a sometimes-uncomfortable glimpse into the late rock legend’s world, complete with moments of childlike whimsy, crippling physical and emotional pain and stark loneliness. Any Nirvana fan knows that these elements of Cobain’s personality have both been on display since he emerged as a star and they’ve been endlessly dissected since his suicide. But the film—and the music—delves deeper than standard idol worship or “tortured artist” fetishizing.
Jokey odds and ends like “The Yodel Song” and “1988 Capitol Lake Jam Commercial” are a bittersweet showcase of Cobain’s irreverent sense of humor, the kind of thing that came so easily to him but seemed in short supply in the last year of his life. It’s been floating around on various compilations since the ’90s, but the demo version of “Beans” finds Cobain singing in a sped-up voice that’s nestled somewhere between predecessors like the Butthole Surfers and followers like Ween. “Montage of Kurt” is the sort of sonic experiment one would expect to be littered around the vaults—which doesn’t exactly mean it’s interesting.
And for all of his well-documented admiration for John Lennon, “The Happy Guitar” sounds like the sort of throwaway instrumental that would’ve been right at home on a Paul McCartney album in the early 1970s. The Beatles don’t loom too large over this bootleg collection, but the big draw here for many fans was the haunting demo of Cobain singing the Fabs’ 1964 ballad “And I Love Her.” “Scoff” is fairly routine, but the simple instrumental “Retreat” is oddly effective. Even with its rudimentary arrangement, it’s an evocative little tune that was just begging to be reworked and fleshed out by Cobain and his band. It ends with Cobain’s clipped breathing and is eerily melodic and beautiful, but melancholy. It’s quintessential Cobain.
The spoken word piece “Aberdeen,” which also provided narration in the documentary, gives another glimpse into Cobain’s personality. He writes about his insecurities, what he feels is macho posturing in his hometown and an awkward would-be sexual encounter with a mentally disabled young woman. It was one of the saddest and most revealing moments in the film, and it remains so in the context of the writer’s home demos. Kurt’s life seemed to be a parade of questionable intentions and failed executions in many ways—even if the failure was sometimes only measured against Cobain’s intentions.
But there are moments where Cobain’s half-mumbled, unfinished lyrics and the sloppy chords of his guitar yield shades of lo-fi brilliance. “Burn the Rain” is one of the better sketches in this set, with those minor chord changes and downbeat melodies that made him one of the better songwriters of a generation. The demo of “Clean Up Before She Comes” isn’t very revelatory—the final track was recorded during the Bleach sessions and wound up on the band’s 2004 self-titled compilation. The mythical “re-recording” from 1994 has yet to surface anywhere. Blistering and angry, “Rehash” sounds fairly similar to “Blew,” one of the standout tracks on Bleach and is another moment that approaches the proximity of Cobain’s standard genius.
These recordings are comprised of early and raw cassette recordings made by Kurt alone; for fans of Nirvana, this set is a welcome addition if you have everything that Nirvana has recorded but still want to hear more of Kurt behind-the-veil. For non-obsessives, it’s not exactly essential listening, but it is still fascinating. As fascinating as Cobain himself and as engaging as his music ever was, Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings reminds us of the humanity of a legend who’s too often reduced to cautionary tale or rock god. It’s best to remember him like this; a brilliantly, tortured artist who had so much more great music to give us.
It’s a fitting way to honor him.