In 1987 or 1988, Kurt Cobain made a mixtape called Montage of Heck. The Guardian has the backstory.
The tape itself is a surreal, often psychedelic insight into the mind of the 20-year-old Cobain: cut-ups of 60s, 70s and 80s TV shows interspersed with the sound of the toilet flushing and people vomiting, bits of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin interspersed with troubled Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston screaming about Satan, and white noise so intense that when Simon & Garfunkel's Sound Of Silence starts up it comes as physical relief.
There are snippets of a few unreleased Nirvana songs, too, among the tumult and screaming and dead-end repetition, amid the excerpts of William Shatner, The Partridge Family, Queen, Queensryche, Butthole Surfers, James Brown. In many respects, Montage Of Heck echoes and predates turntable culture, the ubiquitous YouTube mash-up and the Beatles' experimental sound collage Revolution No 9.
Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain at the age of 27. Many have written of the anniversary, but I liked Dennis Cooper's piece published in Spin a few weeks after Cobain's death.
Cobain's work nailed how a ton of people feel. There are few moments in rock as bewilderingly moving as when he mumbled, "I found it hard / It's hard to find / Oh well, whatever / Nevermind." There's that bizarre, agonized, and devastating promise he keeps making throughout "Heart-Shaped Box": "Wish that I could eat your cancer when you turn black." Take a look in his eyes the next time MTV runs the "Heart-Shaped Box" video, and see if you can sort out the pain from the ironic detachment from the horror from the defensiveness.
Everything was going along fine in our living room until the song got to the break-the low, murky part-at which point Alexander called out to me, "Daddy! It's scary!"
Nirvana's music, in its anguish and energy, is scary. "Nevermind" is scary. But the break in "Drain You" is especially scary. I either had to turn it off or find a way to make this work. I didn't want to turn it off. Instead, I turned it down an infinitesimal amount and addressed my son's concerns.
"Alexander," I said, bending over to talk near his face. "This is the part where they are in the swamp. The water is dark and murky, and the trees are low. They're walking through the wet mud in the dark underbrush of the swamp."
He looked at me with wide eyes. The colored lights added to the discotheque-meets-haunted-house mood. I worried that he would have nightmares, and that I would rue the night I played "Drain You." People would shake their heads and say, "What were you thinking?"
"Right now, it's very dark, but they are trying to find their way out of the swamp," I continued.
When Nirvana appeared on Top of the Pops in 1991, they were asked to only sing the lead vocal over an instrumental track. The result was perhaps the most unusual performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit ever, with the band barely playing their instruments in sync with the music and Cobain doing his best Ian Curtis/Morrisey impression.
I loved every little bit of this letter that producer Steve Albini sent to Nirvana before the recording of In Utero, the band's final studio album. In it, Albini clearly and succinctly lays out his philosophy about recording music and has specific suggestions for working with Nirvana. But the last few paragraphs, about his payment, are awesome. I've reproduced the selection here in full:
#5: Dough. I explained this to Kurt but I thought I'd better reiterate it here. I do not want and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music. It's the band's fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it's a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band.
I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it's worth. The record company will expect me to ask for a point or a point and a half. If we assume three million sales, that works out to 400,000 dollars or so. There's no fucking way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn't be able to sleep.
I have to be comfortable with the amount of money you pay me, but it's your money, and I insist you be comfortable with it as well. Kurt suggested paying me a chunk which I would consider full payment, and then if you really thought I deserved more, paying me another chunk after you'd had a chance to live with the album for a while. That would be fine, but probably more organizational trouble than it's worth.
Whatever. I trust you guys to be fair to me and I know you must be familiar with what a regular industry goon would want. I will let you make the final decision about what I'm going to be paid. How much you choose to pay me will not effect my enthusiasm for the record.
Some people in my position would expect an increase in business after being associated with your band. I, however, already have more work that I can handle, and frankly, the kind of people such superficialities will attract are not people I want to work with. Please don't consider that an issue.
Spin magazine's recent list of the best albums from the last twenty years (as well as MSNBC's alternate list) got me thinking about what my favorites list from that era might look like. Since I'm not Spin and my musical opinion doesn't carry any weight, I felt free to list what I like, influenced me, continue to find enjoyable, and will still listen to in the future instead of what's actually good...whatever good means.
In rough chronological order and briefly annotated:
Nevermind, Nirvana - As I've mentioned before, I was a late bloomer musically. Nothing outside of Casey Kasem and his Top 40 countdown existed for me when I was a kid. And when you're listening to music like that, it's hard to get excited about music in general...I was pretty much apathetic about the whole thing. My freshman year in college, a guy on my floor got a nice stereo system for Christmas and when he threw on Smells Like Teen Spirit, that was it. I'm sure the bands and songs that opened your mind to the possibilities of music and life were a lot better, but you can't really choose how/why/when/where that happens.
Rave 'Til Dawn, Various - This is the worst album on the list but may be the most influential in terms of my future listening habits. For a kid who grew up in the country and went to college in a small Iowa city, hearing rave music for the first time was a complete revelation for me. I had no idea people were making music like this, so fast, so joyous, so unlike anything that anyone I knew would enjoy listening to. I loved it immediately and have been a huge fan of electronica ever since.
The Chronic, Dr. Dre - Introducing Snoop Doggy Dogg, probably my favorite rapper. So smooth. And Dre's beats are among the best in the business.
Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins - College junior, couldn't get laid...isn't this what I was supposed to be listening to?
The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails - I still tell anyone who will listen that Closer is one of the best pop songs ever made. Pretty Hate Machine was probably the better album, but I fell in like with this one first.
Entroducing..., DJ Shadow - One of the most solid debut albums in the past 20 years.
Orblivion, The Orb - Little Fluffy Clouds is my favorite song from The Orb, but Orblivion is the album I'll never get tired of. Saw them spin/play live in Minneapolis once and when Toxygene came on, it was almost religion.
Homework, Daft Punk - Around the World is my answer to the question, "if you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one song with you, what would it be?" I've probably listened to it about a thousand times in the past 8 years and I'm still not sick of it.
OK Computer, Radiohead - Somehow it wasn't until mid-2000 that I heard this album (old habits die hard), but it didn't take long to become a favorite. Still their best...although I haven't given their earlier stuff the attention everyone I know says it deserves. Radiohead = favorite band.
Bedrock, John Digweed - Cheesy trance music, but I love it. This album reminds me of my (then) new Jetta and fine times in Minneapolis.
Agaetis Byrjun, Sigur Ros - I found Sigur Ros while poking around on Napster looking for an advanced copy of Radiohead's Amnesiac. Boy, I thought, this Amnesiac album is going to be fantastic, but what happened to the vocals? Oh, heh.
Boards of Canada, Geogaddi - I can't remember how I found out about Boards of Canada. Online somewhere probably, downloading mp3s off of Limewire or something. After hearing a few songs, I immediately procured Geogaddi and Music Has The Right To Children from my nearest CD shop. Fantastic stuff...they make me wish I could make music.
Give Up, The Postal Service - Might be too early to tell, but I think this is a classic.
Conclusions: I seem to like all sorts of music, but the common thread is the mainstream-ness of these albums; they're typically the most popular examples of a particular genre, style, or time period. Gangsta rap wasn't that mainstream at the time, but The Chronic went multi-platinum. Nevermind was grunge for the mainstream, and The Downward Spiral was one of the few industrial albums to make it big. The same for Rave 'Til Dawn, Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sigur Ros, if to a lesser extent.