What Does Kurt Cobain’s Mixtape Tell Us About Him?

This is one of the only posthumous Nirvana-related announcements worth getting excited about.

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Nov 5 2014, 4:00pm

Hell hath no excitement like the blogosphere when it discovers something new (sort of) about Kurt Cobain. We’ve already ravaged his b-sides and his journals in an attempt to comprehensively ~experience~ him through the stuff (and the people) he left behind, but this week it became universal knowledge that, at some point in his life, he made a mixtape. Naturally, it has become the limp biscuit in the collective circle jerk of the Internet, because ohmigod.

The mix, dubbed “Montage of Heck”, was released by Dangerous Minds last Friday but most people were too busy being Halloween to notice. Once the universal hangover cleared it was pushed out everywhere and pegged as a “new” mix. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t new at all. It’s been up on Live Nirvana since 2006 and apparently they inherited it from a digitalnirvana post from 2002, so technically it’s been knocking about the public forum for 12 years. Classic Internet! Still, only a true cynic would ruin all our fun with something as trivial as facts. It’s fair to say that the majority of people don’t spend their time rummaging around Nirvana archives, so fuck all the stoke extinguishers out there—let’s treat it like it is a new thing.

Reportedly created by Cobain around 1987 (according to ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander), Montage of Heck features a compilation of radio hits, cartoon dialogue and sounds of someone (Kurt?) doing various things to a toilet. It might feel bizarre to anybody who only knows Nirvana by their full-length albums, but to anybody who has dug a little deeper—read his journals, watched every single documentary (even the dubious Kurt & Courtney) or spent time quibbling over meanings of lyrics—the mix simply feels like an extension of somebody they already recognize; somebody who was fascinated by both vomit and The Flintstones in equal measure.

Recorded using a two-track recorder (again, according to Marander), the mix is really fucking annoying in that it only plays about 10 seconds of any given thing, but that’s also why it’s fucking brilliant. Most of us use mixtapes as a way of introducing ourselves, bonding, flirting... we place one track after another like footsteps down a straight path. The frantic and dynamic nature of Cobain’s mix implies a level of care and creativity most of us would never be arsed with. He’s basically taken William S. Burroughs “cut and paste” technique and applied it to sound.

By nature, mixtapes are inherently personal. Montage of Heck is an abrasive, almost psychotic and hilarious scrapbook that provides a near uncomfortable insight to Kurt Cobain’s life at that point. This isn’t something commercial or considered, it’s a different kind of creative project undertaken almost entirely for personal enjoyment. If the dates are correct, it would’ve been put together during the lead up to Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, released in June 1989.

Let’s take a look behind some of his choices, if only to justify to my mom that those two intense teenage years I spent scribbling lyrics all over my bedroom walls in wax crayon and re-reading Heavier Than Heaven were not a complete waste.

The Beatles - “A Day In The Life”

Perhaps the biggest myth about Kurt Cobain is that he didn’t want to be famous. That's crap. He totally wanted to be famous. According to Christopher Sandford's biography, he was the kind of person who would sit in a car for hours waiting for “Love Buzz” to air on the radio and then have a tantrum when it did. He wanted to sell records without selling out. It makes total sense, then, that he hated Paul McCartney but fucking loved the Beatles. Although Nirvana came up through Seattle’s grunge scene, what set them apart from the Melvins, Mudhoney, Alice In Chains and the rest is that they took all the visceral aggression of grunge but restructured it into pop songs. Nirvana’s melodies, hooks, choruses... they’re all pure pop, and you can largely thank the Beatles for that. Having been handed down Beatles records from his aunts, their music became an early and lasting influence, partly because of its simplicity. He would later admit that he wrote “About A Girl” after spending three hours listening to Meet The Beatles!

The Barbarians - “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?”

Can we talk about Kurt Cobain without talking about his sexuality? Probably not. Some people reckon he was gay, others hold the controversial belief that wearing dresses on the regular means absolutely nothing beyond “hey, there was a guy wearing some clothes." Regardless of where you fall, the debate around “masculinity” and appearance was something that featured pretty heavily in his life (he talks about being bullied for supposedly being gay in the documentary About A Son), whether it was wearing several pairs of jeans at once to appear “bigger” or rejecting the Perpetual Hockey Jersey look of the 90s in favour of a dolly dress. He was just as embroiled with feminism and riot grrrl as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna (infamously responsible for spray painting “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a dressing room wall and creating the words that would haunt Nirvana for-fucking-ever). All things considered, this 60s garage track is a pretty loaded inclusion. Or, y’know, maybe it’s just a cool song ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Queen - “Get Down, Make Love”

This isn’t bizarre or surprising. Kurt’s love for ABBA is pretty extensively documented and surely Queen is a logical side-step in a more tasteful direction. Putting aside the fact that every motherfucker loves Queen, don’t tell me you can’t see a glamorous similarity between Freddie Mercury and Kurt Cobain rocking up to interviews dressed like he’s been pulled out of a Mardi Gras.

"Theme from The Andy Griffith Show"

Kurt Cobain was obsessed with 60s TV staple The Andy Griffith Show and its depiction of idyllic small town America. His song “Floyd The Barber,” imagined some of the show's characters—Floyd, Barny, Opie and, Aunt Bea—as completely psychotic murderers who would torture anybody who visited them for a shave. Cult rumor: when Cobain’s body was found, the television was tuned into a station that aired syndicated reruns of The Andy Griffith Show.

Butthole Surfers - “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave”

This is my personal favorite of all three Butthole Surfers tracks featured on the mix, mostly for the complete ego meltdown at the end. They may not have reached the same commercial heights as Nirvana (when you perform completely naked in front of footage of penis surgery while on all the acid known to man, MTV tends to keep you at arms length), but without them, there would be no Nirvana. Not that the two figures are entirely similar (although they did end up in rehab together), but even this mix is loaded with the same gross humor and unrelenting noise that provides the foundation for every single thing vocalist Gibby Haynes has done. In fact, this whole mix sounds like a nightmare mainlined into your ears directly from Gibby’s terrifying imagination. Cult fact: I once saw Gibby Haynes DJ an entire set of Dolly Parton to Brooklyn Bowl and it was great.

Feel free to explore the full track-list and mix below:

"Montage of Heck" Tracklist (not in order):

“The Men In My Little Girl’s Life” by Mike Douglas
“The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” by The Beatles
“A Day In The Life” by The Beatles
“Eruption” by Van Halen
“Hot Pants” by James Brown
“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” by Cher
“Go Away Little Girl” by Donny Osmond
“Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver
“Everybody Loves Somebody” by Dean Martin
“The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis, Jr.
“In A Gadda Da Vida” by Iron Butterfly
“Wild Thing” by William Shatner
“Taxman” by The Beatles
“I Think I Love You” by The Partridge Family
“Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” by The Barbarians
“Queen Of The Reich” by Queensryche
“Last Caress/Green Hell” covered by Metallica
“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin
“Get Down, Make Love” by Queen
“ABC” by The Jackson Five
“I Want Your Sex” by George Michael
“Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden
“Eye Of The Chicken” by Butthole Surfers
“Dance of the Cobra” by Butthole Surfers
“The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave” by Butthole Surfers
“New Age” by The Velvet Underground
“Love Buzz” by Shocking Blue
Orchestral music from 200 Motels by Frank Zappa
“Help I’m A Rock” / “It Can’t Happen Here” by Frank Zappa
“Call Any Vegetable” by Frank Zappa
“The Day We Fall In Love” by The Monkees
“Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath (intro)
Theme from The Andy Griffith Show
Mike Love (of The Beach Boys) talking about “Transcendental Meditation”
Excerpts of Jimi Hendrix speaking at the Monterey Pop Festival
Excerpts of Paul Stanley from KISS’ Alive!
Excerpts of Daniel Johnston screaming about Satan
Excerpts from sound effects records
Various children’s records (Curious George, Sesame Street, The Flintstones, Star Wars)

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