Before I write anything, I want to say that I am a die-hard Nirvana fan from way back. Being fair, when they released their first album “Bleach” in 1989, I was only 9 years old. Which means, I hadn’t hit puberty yet, I had no inclination whatsoever to “rebel” against anything or anybody, and while I did like seeing their videos on MTV when “Nevermind” came out in 1991, I didn’t get big into them until after 1993’s “In Utero” and 1994’s “MTV Unplugged In New York” were out.
And as any Nirvana fan (or literally anyone with an internet connection) can tell you, The “Unplugged” album was released November 1, 1994, which was about 7 months after Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his own life.
I didn’t really get into them until after Kurt killed himself. It wasn’t morbid curiosity as much as it was simply that Nirvana was all over MTV all the time for at least a year or two after Kurt’s death.
I mean, yeah, some of it probably was morbid curiosity. But this post-suicide mass-media blitz of Nirvana coincided with me first starting to take an interest in playing the guitar. I was 14 when Kurt killed himself, and that was also right around when I first started sneaking out my stepdad’s Martin and messing with it.
And being that Nirvana’s last album was played with (mostly) acoustic instruments, and furthermore being that Kurt was playing a Martin acoustic-electric in that show, well, sitting in the living room with my stepdad’s Martin and watching Kurt’s hands to see if they matched up with my tab book took on a special significance to me. I honestly get teary-eyed just thinking about it.
Nirvana was an awesome band. Their music was loud, kickass, and completely devoid of fakery and pretension. They got up on stage and rocked, and they were damn good at it.
And Kurt Cobain’s willingness to share the “Unplugged” stage with Kurt and Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets was also super badass and cool, because it introduced me to an awesome band that MTV ignored, for the most part.
Had to stop and wipe away tears for a second, sorry.
Kurt talked about other bands he liked in interviews, as well as liner notes of albums. He never came across as a rock star, he was just a dude that liked listening to and playing music. The Vaselines were another of Kurt’s favorite bands, and like the Meat Puppets, they became one of my favorite bands too.
And I don’t know if I should keep writing this, because it’s sort of an angry reaction to the film “Montage Of Heck” that I finally watched a few days ago (August 7, 2022) about 7 years after it was released.
Out of all the Nirvana documentaries I have seen, I hate “Montage Of Heck” the least. I hate it less than the others because it’s more about Kurt and Nirvana’s music, and less about trying to point fingers at Courtney Love and blame her for his death.
But I still hate it, and I don’t recommend it. What I recommend is that if you’re interested in Nirvana’s music, you should listen to Nirvana’s music. Because their music kicked ass.
And it makes me sad, really, that nowadays kids (and/or adults) who are learning guitar are more likely to see documentaries about Nirvana, as opposed to watching them play on TV and trying to play along at home.
During “Montage Of Heck,” there’s an old interview with Nirvana where the interviewer asks the band to explain what their music means, and I think all 3 band members basically replied that it means different things to different people, and that’s fine. They suggested that people just listen to the music and react to the music, instead of sticking a camera in their face and asking them questions about it.
There are multiple times when Kurt (and others) express their distaste for rock journalists. And it wasn’t just because those journalists were writing about unpleasant things in Kurt’s personal life. Kurt and the rest of them disliked getting praise heaped upon them, calling them rock stars or the “voice of a generation” and all that bullshit.
Nirvana – whether you like their music or not (and it does not matter one iota to me if you don’t) – were anti-bullshit.
And that’s why I am writing this. Because “Montage Of Heck” misses some fairly obvious “truths” about Kurt as well as Nirvana, and in the spirit of Kurt and Nirvana’s zero-bullshit approach to everything, as a huge fan of the band, I feel I would be letting them down by not pointing this stuff out. Even though what I am about to write isn’t all glowing praise.
I want to make something clear about these “4 Ignoble Truths” I am about to lay out here: they are not meant to be a stain on Kurt Cobain’s legacy, or on Nirvana’s legacy.
All the bullshit documentaries are a way bigger stain on that than this little blog post could ever be, in my opinion. If there’s ever another Nirvana documentary, it should be concert footage, with maybe a backstage interview or two.
Leave all the other bullshit out, including computer animated comic strips of scribbles stolen from a dead man’s private journals.
Anyway, the reason I decided to call this post “4 Ignoble Truths” is because (as you may or may not know), “Nirvana” is a term borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Here’s the definition of “nirvana” that Google just gave me, when I searched for “nirvana definition”:
(in Buddhism) a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism.
I don’t think Kurt was a Buddhist. I’m not one either. But I would be lying if I said Buddhist philosophy has had no impact on my life, because honestly the effect has been pretty profound.
But getting back to the point, if Kurt had any sort of philosophical reasons for naming his band Nirvana, I think it might have been because (at least when the band was first getting started), he felt that transcendence when he was playing music, and all of the other bad stuff in his life was gone while he was playing music.
For him, playing music produced a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and all sorts of good stuff like that.
Or maybe not. It’s a cool name for a band, whether there was any thought put into it or not.
But since “nirvana” is a Buddhist term, and since there are “4 Noble Truths” of Buddhism, “4 Ignoble Truths” seemed like a good enough way to frame this blog post.
Here are the 4 Noble Truths, simplified somewhat:
1. The truth of suffering (all beings suffer)
2. The truth of the origin of suffering (there is a reason all beings suffer)
3. The truth of the end of suffering
4. The truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.
For Kurt, I think that maybe music was the path that led away from suffering. But that’s just me shooting off at the mouth.
On with the show:
4 IGNOBLE TRUTHS
1. Kurt Cobain’s infamous stomach problems were a direct result of heroin use.
The first song I ever learned to play on guitar was “Pennyroyal Tea.” The chorus of it goes:
I sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
Distill the life that’s inside of me
And so on. Back when I was 14 or 15, sitting in the living room, watching Nirvana play this song on the VHS tapes I recorded from MTV, trying to match my fretting hand to what Kurt was doing, comparing differences between what he was doing and what was in the Unplugged tab book, as well as differences between the Unplugged tab book and the In Utero tab book, I got to wondering what the hell “Pennyroyal Tea” even was.
And maybe I read this in Rolling Stone or Guitar World or something like that, or maybe I looked it up on the internet at school (the internet not being nearly as ubiquitous back then as it is now), but somewhere I read or heard Kurt say that Pennyroyal Tea was something he drank to deal with the stomach problems he had basically all the time.
I remember reading about this back then, also: Kurt went to see all kinds of doctors about his stomach problems, and none of them ever found anything other than minor irritation in his stomach.
This was mentioned in “Montage Of Heck” as well.
And I’m not speaking from direct experience here, but I myself have personally witnessed healthy adults – for whom an alcohol hangover is no big deal – knocked on their asses, calling in sick to work with stomach problems after doing tiny amounts of recreational opiates.
Opiates cause stomach problems. Every doctor knows this, every opiate addict knows this, everyone who has seen the movie “Trainspotting” knows this.
The fact that opiates cause stomach problems is, for all intents and purposes, common knowledge.
But in the case of Kurt Cobain, every journalist and documentarian (and fan) in the damn world seems to have forgotten this.
When Kurt said things like “I started taking heroin, because it’s the only thing that cured my stomach problems,” there’s some sort of collective blindness that prevents basically everyone from recognizing that the heroin was CAUSING the stomach problems.
Doctors couldn’t find ANYTHING wrong with his stomach, other than mild irritation.
And here we have to ask ourselves: did Kurt suffer from some unknown, never-before-seen and totally unique stomach condition?
Or was his stomach condition the same pain and discomfort every single opiate addict EVER has felt?
Which is the more likely explanation?
If it sounds like I am trying to demonize Kurt for being addicted to heroin, I am most certainly not.
I am just calling “bullshit” on the idea that his stomach problems were unique in any way, because they weren’t. They were a direct result of his heroin use, and maybe on some level he knew that, and maybe on some level everybody else has always known that.
But they don’t talk about it in documentaries, and I have never seen anyone in any interview about him say that.
Addiction is a disease, not only because it physically ruins a person’s body over time. It’s also a mental disease, because it causes the victim to assign blame for every negative outcome to everything (and everyone) except the addiction.
Kurt took heroin and had stomach pains afterward. Then he took some more heroin and the stomach pain went away temporarily.
But he never made the connection that heroin was the reason he had stomach pain to begin with.
At some point in “Montage Of Heck,” an interviewer even asks Kurt whether the stomach problems helped inspire his music and art, and he said that it probably did.
And if that isn’t denial, I don’t know what denial would look like.
In “Montage Of Heck,” Kurt’s former girlfriend Tracy Marander talks about how she had heard that Kurt had started using heroin while they were still together, but that he hid it from her initially.
And incidentally, it was around this time when he started having stomach problems. Anyway, this is a good enough time as any to move on to Ignoble Truth #2:
2. Kurt Cobain exploited women.
No, really, get mad.
After you get mad at me for saying this about Kurt, somebody who created music that you and I both love and have strong emotional attachments to, watch “Montage Of Heck” again.
Pay extra close attention to the part where he goes over to the mentally challenged girl’s house and has sex with her.
Notice how when he’s talking about his friends that went to her house to steal liquor, they’re all presented as bad guys, and he was just along for the ride.
But then, when he goes over there alone and has sex with her, he never feels guilty about it at all, at least not in what he wrote about it in private journals.
In those journals, he talks about being made fun of at school for it. He talks about how he was the victim, not her.
If you’re still able to watch that shit without throwing up, find the part where his former girlfriend Tracy Marander talks about how she supported him completely for quite some time, while he sat around playing his guitar and/or painting.
I understand, more than you will ever know: if you don’t have time to create, you can’t create. And sure, the world owes Tracy Marander a debt of gratitude for being Kurt’s patron/girlfriend, while he wrote songs and got his band together.
But the world also needs to remember that Kurt ditched her like she was a used Kleenex when he found somebody he liked better. With no remorse or regret.
While Kurt was drawing “Mr. Moustache” in his notebook, talking about how overly masculine “jock”-type men were teaching boys how to exploit women, he was himself actively exploiting Tracy Marander. Mr. Moustache taught him quite well.
It’s not pleasant to think about, but there it is.
Incidentally, around the time Kurt broke up with Tracy, he also fired Chad Channing, Nirvana’s drummer on their first album “Bleach.”
Which brings me to Ignoble Truth #3:
3. Dave Grohl is the reason Nirvana made it big.
For the record, I don’t think Dave Grohl would ever say that, or even necessarily think it.
But without his aggressive and complex drumming, “Nevermind” would not have happened.
Don’t believe me? Listen to “In Bloom.”
If you’ve never played with a drummer (or a drum machine, for that matter), you might not know this, but when there’s a beat being played, musical ideas occur to you that you would never have had without the beat.
To be clear: I am not a rock star, or even an especially good guitarist. But I have had the privilege of playing with some pretty talented drummers here and there in my life, and I can only describe the experience as transcendent.
The drummer starts playing a beat, your body starts to involuntarily twitch around and move because of the beat, and you find places to put notes and chords that sound amazing, even if what you’re playing on guitar (or bass) doesn’t amount to much.
But you find that sweet spot to strum a chord, and that makes the drummer add something else too. And then you find something else simple to add because of what they just added, and then they add something else, and the next thing you know you’re playing the coolest shit you’ve ever played in your life, even though it’s just a chord or two.
Listen to “In Bloom.” Without Dave Grohl, that song would sound like shit. I would go as far as to say that without Dave Grohl, that song would not have ever been written.
And as I mentioned, I don’t think Dave would ever try to claim that he was the reason for Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough.
But I am here to tell you: he absolutely was the reason they made it big. Just like John Bonham was the reason Led Zeppelin made it big, just like Neil Peart was the reason Rush made it big, just like Danny Carey was the reason Tool made it big, the list goes on and on.
People who don’t actually play music – like many of the rock journalists Nirvana hated – always look at the guy who’s singing and give him all the credit. But I am here to tell you: without a solid drummer, your favorite rock band would suck ass.
And that includes Nirvana. Dave Grohl’s drumming took them from playing shitty underground clubs to playing stadiums. Like it or not, it’s the truth.
And finally, Ignoble Truth #4
4. Courtney Love is not responsible for Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
“Montage Of Heck” doesn’t say that she was, to be fair to that documentary, which like I said I hate the least out of all of the Nirvana documentaries I have seen.
But the last thing that’s talked about is how Courtney almost cheated on Kurt in Rome, right before he swallowed a bunch of Rohypnol and almost died.
“Montage Of Heck” just told what happened, from Courtney’s point of view. Unlike at least a couple documentaries that accuse her of actually murdering him, or hiring somebody to.
And I hate those documentaries way more than “Montage Of Heck,” because they’re all based on bullshit.
And the time in Rome, when Kurt couldn’t get any heroin and got mad at Courtney for talking to some other guy (or whatever “almost cheated on him” means), that wasn’t the first time Kurt tried to kill himself.
In fact, “Montage Of Heck” tells about once when Kurt got good and stoned and sat on the train tracks near his house, hoping a train would hit him. And the only reason the train didn’t hit him is because it was on the next track over from where Kurt was sitting.
There were two train tracks laid out side by side. Kurt sat on one, hoping to get hit, and the next train that went through there was on the other track.
Which means, the only reason Nirvana ever existed is because Kurt Cobain, as a teenager, sat on the wrong train track for his suicide attempt.
So don’t try and tell me Courtney Love hired somebody to stage his suicide. Don’t try to tell me she was faking, when she was squalling on MTV reading his suicide note.
She wasn’t faking, and she didn’t have him killed.
He killed himself. He had tried to do it multiple times before.
Look, I get it. You don’t want to believe that somebody you admire disliked themselves enough to stick a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger.
Nobody wants to believe it, when that sort of thing happens.
But it happens all the time. People get so mixed up emotionally that the only way they see out is death.
And if you or someone you know feels that way, you should know that you’re not alone. There are people who can help you start seeing things more clearly.
There’s a number you can call: 988.
Here’s an NPR story about it.
If you’re struggling, just remember, you can make your life better if you try. And there are people on call all the time, ready to help you remember how to be happy again.
To sum up, I am and always will be a die-hard Nirvana fan. For my money, there has never been a more kickass band, before or since.
But as Aunt Esther always said, “The truth will set you free.”
Here’s to being free. 🙂