Kurt Cobain’s demos and the ethics of posthumous pop music
It’s an unexpected feeling when a Beatles song ties a knot in your stomach, but listen to Kurt Cobain covering “And I Love Her” and you’ll start to feel one coming on.
The rendition in question appears on “Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings,” a new album of Cobain’s very rough demos being released this week alongside the DVD version of “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” a bleak documentary from writer-director Brett Morgen about the rise and fall of the Nirvana frontman that premiered on HBO in May.
With the Cobain estate’s blessing, Morgen culled and curated the music on this quasi-soundtrack. It’s mostly the sound of a young punk rocker loosening his brain and his fingers, mewling along with his guitar until he produces the spore of a Nirvana song (or doesn’t).
The rest of the track list is spackled with weird monologues and play-acted scenes performed in funny voices, sometimes punctuated with belches and onomatopoeic flatulence. In other words, private goofballing that Cobain would never have wanted to see the light of day.
Which means that digging into these recordings — 31 tracks on the album’s deluxe edition — feels as intrusive as it does unfulfilling. Cobain’s demos of “Been a Son” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” might help to confirm that Nirvana’s greatest songs were born out of a confluence of playfulness and rage, but that isn’t enough to justify our voyeurism. To listen is to feel gross. There’s simply no way that Cobain would want the world to be poking around in this stuff.
Morgen doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a tribute to Kurt that his admirers and fans would feel protective of him,” Morgen recently told the New York Times. But, he said, “if you came across a sketch of ‘Guernica’ by Picasso, is there anyone saying we shouldn’t see it?”
Seeing it — or hearing it — is one thing. Selling it is another. And who gets to answer that question? A dead artist? A profiteering executor? A ravenous public?
Maybe it’s time for us to establish a code of ethics for how to deal with the unfinished music of dead pop stars. And maybe it could be really simple.
For musicians, the deal is self-evident. You are mortal, and therefore you’re responsible for the recordings you leave behind when you exit this physical plane. Be proactive. Destroy, delete, burn or bury any recorded music you don’t want the public to hear. If that isn’t an option, instruct the executors designated to negotiate your earthly affairs to handle the necessary erasure. Don’t slack on this. Failure to act means that you’re cool with leaving your unfinished work for all of humanity to muck around in.
But should your demos still manage to survive you, that shouldn’t mean the custodians of your art have carte blanche to rush them off to retail shelves in time for the holidays. (And make no mistake: “Montage of Heck” is being spewed into the universe as a stocking stuffer, not a “Guernica” sketch.)
Unless a late artist’s beneficiaries are in financial need, charging money for uncompleted musical work that was never intended for release in the marketplace is unconscionable. If there’s still a burning feeling that the world needs to hear this music, or that it could help enhance the public’s scholarly understanding of the artist, that’s fine. There are plenty of ways to make sure the public can access the recordings — for instance, through the Library of Congress or through digital media centers such as the Free Music Archive.
And what about the abhorrent business of finishing a dead musician’s unfinished work? We were asked to think about this a year and a half ago when record executive L.A. Reid recruited Timbaland and a few other studio maestros to complete a handful of unfinished Michael Jackson recordings. The songs themselves turned out fine, but they shouldn’t have been packaged and sold as a Michael Jackson album. Michael Jackson didn’t make this album. L.A. Reid did.
By that measure, “Montage of Heck” shouldn’t be sold as a Kurt Cobain album, either. It shouldn’t be sold, period. As fans, we should feel discomfited listening to it, and as human beings, we should feel shame paying money for it.