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13 October 2022

The many myths of Kurt Cobain 

The Nirvana singer portrayed himself differently in his journals, his lyrics, and on stage. Will we ever figure him out?

By Pippa Bailey

Towards the end of Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film Last Days – about a fictional musician called Blake, based on Kurt Cobain – the protagonist hunches over a guitar and sings. His murmured words are almost entirely impossible to make out, except for the repeated line: “It’s a long, lonely journey/From death to birth.”

“Death to Birth” is not a Nirvana song – it was written by Michael Pitt, who played Blake, and later released by his band Pagoda – but the lyric speaks both to Cobain’s obsession with the corporeal (babies, birth and deformity featured heavily in his artwork), and to the evolution of his legend: his birth after death. Kurt Cobain the Myth – as he is written about, imagined and reimagined – was born the moment Kurt Cobain the Man died in April 1994. 

Cobain’s latest resurrection takes the unlikely form of an opera, adapted from (and also titled) Last Days, which ran for four sold-out nights at the Royal Opera House in London this month. Blake, under the direction of Matt Copson and Anna Morrissey, is played by a woman: the French model and actress Agathe Rousselle, best-known for the Palme d’Or-winning Titane

Rousselle’s blake is androgynous, engulfed in a huge, Grinch-green coat (a high-fashion interpretation, I imagine, of Cobain’s green mohair MTV Unplugged cardigan; the costumes are by Balenciaga). A bottle-blonde shag of hair conceals the parts of her face not hidden behind white “clout goggles”, like the ones Cobain made iconic in his 1993 shoot with Jesse Frohman. 

Last Days is a speculative account of Cobain’s lost final days and, like the film version, is largely devoid of plot. A listless Blake floats and mumbles around his wood-panelled home (here, the Seattle mansion becomes a single room, complete with garden furniture, stacks of Lucky Charms boxes and, over it all, a gun on the wall). He has isolated himself, and fends off circling vultures: housemates; a pair of proselytising Mormons; his manager, whose voice, heard only over the telephone, is that of a cattle auctioneer. Oliver Leith’s score is discordant, its emphases unexpected, and almost liturgical in its repetitiveness.

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Agathe Rousselle as Blake, based on Cobain, in Last Days at the Royal Opera House. Photo by Camilla Greenwell

In Van Sant’s film, shots are held just long enough for the viewer to feel discomfort. The camera barely leaves Blake, but follows him at a distance – he is just out of earshot, out of reach. The effect is that he is unknowable, prematurely ghostly. In Copson’s libretto Blake is similarly incomprehensible (Rousselle’s is a non-singing part), but while Van Sant’s Blake seems to almost wilfully resist interpretation, Copson’s Blake has his innermost thoughts spelled out in supertitles – and with them, much nuance is lost.

Charles R Cross, who wrote the definitive Cobain biography, Heavier than Heaven (2001), told the New York Times that he hated the film Last Days because it depicted the musician as a “depressed, lifeless waif… That was absolutely not who Kurt Cobain was.”

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Kurt Donald Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1967, and had what appears to have been a happy childhood until his parents divorced when he was nine, after which he became angry and withdrawn. When Cobain turned 14, his uncle Chuck asked whether he would like a guitar or a bike for his birthday. He chose a guitar. Six years later he founded Nirvana.

Cobain was full of contradictions. At the start of Journals, a published collection of his notebooks, is a page that says. “Don’t read my diary when I’m gone,” immediately followed by: “When you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.”

Cobain was an anti-star who refused to take a limo to Nirvana’s Saturday Night Live performance – and the man who called a college radio station to ask why they hadn’t yet played the band’s first single, “Love Buzz”, which he had dropped in earlier that day. He hated the “voice of a generation” label that was applied to him – and he told Rolling Stone he was “playing to kids in general… We have the same problems and we all basically have the same thoughts.” His widow, Courtney Love, told those at his memorial: “He always said he was going to outlive everybody and be 120.” And yet he took his own life at 27.

The 2015 documentary film Montage of Heck, which was made with the explicit aim of uncovering Kurt Cobain the Man, shows a rock-god with a dark and twisty mind and an emaciated, sore-covered body, spaced out on heroin while holding his baby daughter. But it also shows a man who was funny and warm and who, in parts, enjoyed life; who was empathetic and sensitive, and who was “embarrassed to death” by his parents’ divorce.

Of course, most of the narrative about Cobain is filtered through and distorted by his own self-mythologising. In his much-studied journals he writes about suicide, self-hatred and feeling phoney, like a real-life Holden Caulfield. “I feel like people want me to die, because it would be the classic rock and roll story,” he says in Montage

Heavier than Heaven documents in pathological detail how Cobain sold tall stories to gullible journalists, including that he lived under a bridge as a teen, as immortalised in “Something in the Way”. In an audio clip in Montage, one of many taken from more than 100 previously unheard cassettes, Cobain talks about an early suicide attempt after he was ridiculed when word spread that he had tried to lose his virginity with a disabled girl. Later, several of his classmates refuted this account, and Love admitted she didn’t know if the story was true.

Understanding who Cobain was rather depends on the version of him you choose to believe: the version in his journals, or the version he projected on stage; the one in his lyrics, the one he sold to journalists, or the one his friends and family recalled.

Last Days, both the film and the opera, explores an archetype rather than an individual: the misfit teenager who rebels through music, only to find that fame is both mainstream and crushing, and turns inward into self-loathing and addiction. He is another romanticised sacrifice on the altar of pop music. You could substitute Blake for a character inspired by Jim Morrison, or Ian Curtis, or Amy Winehouse and Last Days would be little changed.

It doesn’t answer the question of who Kurt Cobain was – how could it? I doubt that even Cobain himself could have done. Or, at least, he would have answered it differently day to day, hour to hour, as we all would.

[See also: How Nirvana’s Nevermind spoke to an alienated generation]

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