Searching for Kurt
This story originally appeared in the April 23rd, 2015, issue of Rolling Stone.
Three days before the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Courtney Love, the widow of Nirvana singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, and Frances Bean Cobain, the couple’s only child, watched the final cut of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck in a private screening room in Burbank, California. Brett Morgen, who wrote, directed and produced the documentary, was also present. It was an uneasy occasion. Frances, 22, had already seen Montage of Heck; she is an executive producer. Her mother – who set the project in motion eight years ago but had no role in its production – had not. Frances says Love “asked me to see it with her, because she had been putting it off for months and months.” In the screening room, the two sat together on a sofa – Frances in her mother’s lap. Love, 50, had first approached Morgen about a Kurt documentary in 2007, 13 years after the Nirvana leader took his own life in April 1994 at his home in Seattle. Love, a big fan of Morgen’s 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, offered him unrestricted access to the storage facility housing Kurt’s archive of artwork, journals and private recordings.
But production stalled as Love fought what she now calls “a tsunami of financial and legal insanity.” In 2010, Frances – who was 20 months old when Kurt died – turned 18. That year, in a confidential agreement with Love, Frances became more involved in the management of her father’s estate. That soon included joining Morgen in the resurrection of his documentary. Love was eventually interviewed by Morgen for Montage of Heck but had no editorial or consulting voice.
Love and Frances’ volatile relationship – complicated by unresolved grief, tensions with Kurt’s family, Love’s struggles with drugs and her roller-coaster career in music and films – has spilled, at times, into gossip columns and courtrooms. Frances says now that she and Love “have resolved a lot of our issues. I grew up. And she grew up too.” But Love remembers that day in the screening room as “really intense. We were kind of spooning on this big couch. And we were both crying.”
At two hours and 12 minutes, Montage of Heck, which premieres on HBO on May 4th, is a visceral, breakneck account of Kurt’s 27 years – his chaotic adolescence, rocket-force fame, heroin addiction and descent into hopelessness – mostly in his own art and words: song demos and audio experiments (the film is named after a famous 1988 cassette collage); animated treatments of Kurt’s drawings and journal confessions; taped recollections and interviews, such as my October 1993 encounter with him for a Rolling Stone cover story. (I was not paid for its use.) There are family movies from Kurt’s childhood, rare stage footage of Nirvana and acute reflections from a small circle of intimates, including his divorced parents, Don Cobain and Wendy O’Connor.
Frances enters the film in the last half hour, as an infant and toddler. In one home video, she is happily splashing in a bathtub with Kurt. In a later sequence, Frances is perched on his lap, getting a haircut. She cries; Kurt looks worn and dazed, barely able to keep his eyes open. There is a prominent sore on his forehead. “I’m not on drugs, I’m tired,” he protests in a drowsy whine. The lie in that sentence is chilling. So is the truth.
“My mother held me, cried on me and just said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,'” Frances says, recalling that day in Burbank, as they watched the haircut scene. “Just kept saying it over and over. But then she said, ‘Do you realize how much your father loved you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I do.'”
“Kurt did love her,” Love says again when we speak. “The film shows that. But after the Rome thing” – Kurt’s failed suicide attempt on pills in March 1994, during Nirvana’s final tour – “it was like a light went out.”
Love and Frances attended the Sundance premiere of Montage of Heck with O’Connor, Kurt’s younger sister Kim and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, all of whom are interviewed in the movie. Frances did not sit through the showing. “I didn’t want people to watch me cry watching the film,” she says. But that private viewing with Love “was one of those tender, rare moments I had with my mom.”
Frances also confided something to Morgen after the screening: “Frances said it was the first time her mom had apologized for anything relating to her youth.”
Frances is a compact bundle of eager, effervescent welcome as she opens the front door of her Los Angeles home, on a quiet street rising into the Hollywood Hills. Before dropping onto a living-room sofa, lighting the first in a chain of cigarettes and jumping into her first major interview – the only one she is giving on behalf of Montage of Heck – Frances rushes to the kitchen to make me some coffee, then returns, sheepishly admitting she couldn’t find a proper sugar bowl. She has put the sugar in a red shot glass with a plastic spoon.
At five feet five and 103 pounds, Frances has, she says, “my dad’s frame, but man shoulders from my mom.” She has broad, attractive features iced with wide, penetrating blue-green eyes – a striking blend of her parents’ looks. Frances has added her own gothic strokes and punk attitude to that mix: maroon lipstick and long black hair that falls past her shoulders, a black T-shirt with Mao Zedong on the front, and a pendant that reads IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE.
“[My parents’] relationship was toxic. [I was] a fix-it baby, but my dad did love me.”
That extends to the living-room decor. Currently taking college-level courses in philosophy and drawing, Frances is a visual artist – she has exhibited her work in L.A. – with a fondness for horror movies, “good at distortion, making things creepy,” as she puts it. An enormous model of the head of H.R. Giger’s monster in Alien is on top of a piano, and a full-size human skeleton sits on the bench, looking ready to play. A Spice Girls doll set, still in its shrink-wrap, leans against a wall next to a framed piece of art by Charles Manson. (When Frances originally walked through this house, looking to buy, she had a strange find: The previous family, she says, “had kids. And in one of the rooms was a Kurt figurine.” She moved in anyway.)
“Here is the thing that’s interesting about me and this film,” Frances says. “I’m the only person on Earth who is emotionally invested in the film but can watch it like an audience member. I have no memory of Kurt. So I can be analytical. I could tell Brett what I liked, what I didn’t, what I thought was beautiful – but also recognize, ‘Oh, that’s me on the screen.’
“What really surprised me,” she goes on, “was watching my parents’ love story. Because they were so close to my age now.” Kurt was 22 when he first met Love, in 1990. She was 25, in the band Hole and a child of divorced parents. They married in February 1992; Frances was born that year, on August 18th.
“It was like friends falling in love – I did not expect that,” Frances admits. “I always knew their relationship was toxic,” referring to the couple’s early bond over drugs. “And I don’t promote having a fix-it baby, which is what I was – to fix their problems. But I know from the video footage and letters that I have that Kurt wrote me, from my mom’s interpretations and my grand-mom’s experiences – my dad did love me.”
“You feel you were a fix-it baby?” Morgen, who is sitting nearby, asks in surprise.
“In the sense that their own families were so chaotic,” Frances replies, “that they wanted to create their own family as soon as possible: ‘If we create our own family, it will be nothing like our families were.'” Frances stubs out one cigarette and lights another. “It ended up being a million more times chaotic.”
In nearly three hours of conversation, as the late afternoon sunshine coming through a sliding-glass patio door fades to gray, Frances talks about Kurt at length and on the record for the first time, with dizzying energy, in a deep, slightly grainy voice that inevitably recalls Kurt’s on my 1993 cassettes. Frances drops frequent f-bombs for colorful emphasis. There are moments, too, of still-girlish delight and curiosity. When I tell Frances that she and I have met before – Frances was one year old, charming the Nirvana entourage backstage in Chicago before my interview with Kurt – she smiles and laughs. “Nice to meet you again!” she says brightly. Later, Morgen mentions to Frances that I am recording her on the same tape recorder I used that night in 1993. “That’s awesome,” Frances says, grabbing her cellphone. “Can I take a picture of that?”
Morgen recalls his first meeting with Frances about Montage of Heck, shortly before he restarted production in 2013. The director had a deal with HBO for a Kurt Cobain film. “I go to her house,” Morgen says, “figuring I’m going to explain what I’m doing. I didn’t realize she could kill the project, which later I found out she could. We sit down in her breakfast nook, and before I can say anything, she presented me with her take on what a film on Kurt should be.”
Frances, Morgen continues, “wanted a film that dealt with Kurt as an artist and was honest. She said, ‘For 20 years, my dad has been like Santa Claus, this mythical figure. People come up to me and say, “Your dad’s so cool.” And I don’t know him. I want to present Kurt the man.'”
Morgen was relieved. “When she was done,” he says, “I told her, ‘You just pitched me my movie.'” They shook hands. Then Frances told Morgen something else. “She said, ‘I just shook your hand, and already I know you better than I knew my father.'”
Love says Frances, as a child, did not ask a lot of questions about Kurt – what he was like and how he acted. “More later,” Love goes on, “like, ‘What kind of habits do I have that are like my dad’s? What do you mean, I bite my nails like my dad?'” Frances says that Montage of Heck is the first time she has seen Kurt’s life “collectively, chronologically.” For years, especially as a teenager, she learned about Kurt in odd, intimate flashes.
She recalls a trip to Aberdeen, Washington – the logging town where Kurt was born – and visiting the old Cobain family house with her grandmother. At one point, in Kurt’s bedroom, O’Connor lifted up a floorboard where her son used to stash his weed. Frances was startled to see, on one wall, an Iron Maiden logo that Kurt had drawn when he was 15; she had recently defaced her bathroom door at home in California with the same graffiti. “Genetics,” she says, rolling her eyes, “is fucking weird.”
Kurt’s mother and sister and Novoselic declined to speak about Montage of Heck for this story. Love isn’t sure she can watch it again. “It made me really raw,” she claims. “It’s like opening up a stab.” But the film, Love notes, “gives me a little more peace with my daughter.” And she does see a change in Frances’ relationship with her father’s memory.
That process actually began soon after Morgen and Frances shook hands, when the director accompanied her to the storage facility to look through Kurt’s archive. Frances had been there once before – “a weird experience,” she groans, involving lawyers and inventory. This time, with Morgen, she opened boxes and, in particular, a guitar case “filled with his art supplies. He had this paintbrush – this pink thing that looked like the kind you’d get with a Barbie paint kit – and dried-out oils.
“It smelled like he smelled,” she recalls. “I had this teddy bear, and it smells like him. So I do know his smell. Holding that brush – he became humanized to me. He actually painted with this and touched it.”
“Oh, oh,” Love says, with deep sighs, when she hears Frances’ story. “I didn’t know that. She didn’t tell me.”
“Want to hear some stuff?”
Morgen sits at a table in his sparsely furnished office in Los Angeles, facing a pair of computer screens loaded with MP3s, where he is compiling a soundtrack album for Montage of Heck. The record will not have any Nirvana tracks. It will be drawn from the massive collection of home demos, songwriting tapes and sonic bricolage that Morgen used as the primary source for Kurt’s voice in the film.
Scrolling through his computer, Morgen plays a few raw, nutty, delightful and foreboding performances – “all Kurt singing at his place,” the director says. There is a full, anguished rendition of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” heard in part in the movie during scenes of Kurt and Love at home, kissing. An original piece, provisionally titled “Rehash,” is a Black Sabbath-like guitar riff with a shredded falsetto vocal; Kurt shouts “solo, solo” and “chorus, chorus” in the unfinished bits. A charming acoustic-guitar instrumental is suddenly disrupted by a barrage of weird mouth noises. “This is how he assembled things – one long series,” Morgen says, “stopping, starting, stopping again, starting something new.”
On one trip into Kurt’s archive, Morgen found a box just labeled “Cassette.” Inside were 108 tapes, more than 200 hours of audio, including Kurt’s original handlabeled copy of “Montage of Heck.” “That stuff would be invaluable in getting to an unfiltered Kurt,” Morgen says. In one section of the movie, animated like a graphic novel, Kurt describes in a startlingly neutral voice his first attempt at suicide – when he was in high school.
“When I got to that tape, I hadn’t gotten to the journals yet,” Morgen explains. He eventually found Kurt’s entry on that failed try. “He wrote the story, then went to his microphone and recorded it – stop, do a retake.” The shock, Morgen suggests, is “not that he discusses suicide.” It is the reason Kurt left on that tape for the attempt: “I couldn’t handle the ridicule.”
Morgen was born in 1968, a year after Kurt, and grew up in the Los Angeles area. As a boy, like Kurt, Morgen endured the pain of divorce; his parents separated when he was nine. “I related to Kurt’s experience at home immensely,” Morgen admits. He also saw Nirvana live in 1990, at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and in 1993, at the Forum in L.A.
“Brett is very fastidious, pores through the most minute details,” says Stefan Nadelman, who animated Kurt’s drawings and journals for Montage of Heck. “I’ve never seen anyone pay this much attention to detail.” Nadelman also says Morgen never relayed any comments or criticism of his work from Frances, Kurt’s family or HBO. “He didn’t show them any of the animation until he approved it. And once he approved it, there were no changes.”
Morgen was in production when, at Christmas 2013, he got a holiday text message from Love with best wishes and a question: “How’s the film going?” Morgen replied with a single sentence: “At this point, I’m making the film for Frances.” Frances, in turn, assured Morgen access and independence. “My role, I thought, was to go see the film,” she says, “when it was done.”
But Frances’ association was vital in other ways, such as the hunting and gathering of rare photographs and interviews. “One of the challenges,” says Jessica Berman-Bogdan, archival producer for Montage of Heck, “was reaching out to noncommercial sources” – freelance writers and photographers who were friends of Kurt’s. “To let people know Frances was behind it allowed them to feel comfortable” about contributing unedited tapes and full contact sheets. “A few people who did interviews said, ‘Please make sure Frances sees this. I want her to have it. I always meant to send it.'”
The childhood movies came from his mother. “She had saved everything,” Morgen says of O’Connor, still amazed. “I mean, ticket stubs from his first time at an Aberdeen High School football game, when he was four years old.” Kim Cobain, who has also worked as a bartender, earned her credit as “photo and ephemera coordinator,” identifying places, dates and personal context as images and artifacts were collected and organized. “It was nice,” Morgen adds, “to have someone close to Kurt I could talk to over lunch and get whatever I could through osmosis.” But Morgen says Frances was “the connective tissue. Who’s going to say no to the daughter?”
One piece that didn’t make the film: Morgen’s interview with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, which was delayed until December by Grohl’s Sonic Highways. By then, Morgen had what he felt was the right edit of Montage. He says he tried to cut Grohl into the movie but “at that point, I had to say, ‘It’s over. This is the film.'”
Frances saw Montage of Heck for the first time last year, at Morgen’s office, in a longer cut without the animation, which was unfinished. He brought her a stack of tissues, then left the room. Morgen says that when he came back in, “she had filled the trash can with Kleenex.” She also “signed off on the spot.” Her favorite part of the movie, she told him: “when it cuts to black.” Montage of Heck ends with Kurt singing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV’s Unplugged in November 1993, then a black screen with a message in white: “One month after returning from Rome, Kurt Cobain took his own life.” There is no coda of mourning and tribute. He’s just gone.
“Brett had access to all of the media coverage, the focus on his death,” Frances says, “and he didn’t use any of it. The death is 99 percent of the romanticism and mythology.” It’s time, she says fiercely, “to put it in check.”
For Morgen, his eight years on Montage of Heck finished a few days before Sundance, in a postproduction suite. “We got to the last shot of Unplugged, and I just removed myself, walked into a bathroom and collapsed – deep, deep crying,” he confesses. “It wasn’t the end of the movie, that he was dead. It was that I wasn’t going to work with him anymore.
“And this is someone I never met,” says Morgen. “I understand why people are so protective of him. There are questions I wrestled with for years: ‘Would he want this film to be made? Do I have the right?’
“But, the director says, “That’s not his choice anymore.”
On April 10th, 2014, Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the ceremony in Brooklyn, Grohl, Novoselic and guitarist Pat Smear played Kurt’s songs with different female singers, including Joan Jett and Lorde. Love gave Grohl a hug of peace at the podium. Kurt’s mother and sister also attended.
Frances was not there. Love told the crowd she was sick. That was true. “Also, it was a family reunion, televised,” Frances says in her living room, explaining her absence. “And I wasn’t part of Nirvana. Everyone on that stage had more to do with Nirvana than I ever did. I didn’t want to accept anything on my father’s behalf that wasn’t my business.” Her only regret about staying away: “Not meeting Joan Jett. Because I love Joan Jett.”
In one way, Frances is exactly like her father: struggling to resolve her drive to achieve with what she calls “this innate sense of privacy.” Frances puts it another way, quoting Kurt from a 1993 MTV News interview: “I wanted to have the adoration of John Lennon but the anonymity of Ringo Starr.”
Frances is blunt about her inherited celebrity. She refers to herself, with a wicked smile, “as Kurt Cobain’s spawn,” and has a phrase – “the K.C. jeebies” – for the effect she has on strangers and, at times, even those close to her. “They look at me, and you can see they’re looking at a fucking ghost.” Last year, Frances went to ComicCon in San Diego. “I was wearing a cardigan and had blond hair at the time. Some-one turned to me and went, ‘Great Kurt Cobain costume.'”
She is also proud of the standards that were set for her. That includes her mother. Frances cites Love’s 1994 album with Hole, Live Through This, released the week Kurt was found dead. “People didn’t buy that album because they felt bad for her,” Frances insists. “They bought it because it was a fucking good album.”
Frances is like her father in another way: her nomadic childhood. Just as Kurt shuffled between households after his parents’ divorce, she grew up, by her count, “in 28 houses” with, at different times, Love, O’Connor, other relatives and a succession of nannies. Frances remembers a “foundation of normalcy” with O’Connor, “watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer every day, eating home-cooked meals, throwing snowballs at my aunt.” For one summer, when Frances was 15, she worked as an intern for Rolling Stone in New York.
“Then I’d go back to Courtney,” she says. “Courtney is my mother. I love her.” But, Frances adds gingerly, “she was very busy.”
Love is terse but frank about her own state during Frances’ teenage years. “She has had some shitty breaks,” Love says. “Until she was about 13, things were pretty idyllic. Then I just fell apart.” Her voice trails off. “I came around, fortunately.” Love’s recent television work includes roles in Sons of Anarchy and Empire, and she is on tour in May, opening for Lana Del Rey.
Frances is a varying mix of honest and circumspect about her private life, then and now. She is reportedly engaged to Isaiah Silva, singer-guitarist of L.A. rock band the Rambles, but only refers to him during our interview, sweetly, as “my man.” Yet when asked about her own experiences with drugs, Frances quickly responds with one word – “pot” – then expands: “I was exceptionally lucky to have Courtney as an example of what not to do. She knows that,” Frances adds, with a warming tone in her voice, “and has accounted for it.
“I read every day,” Frances says of her home routine, “and try to paint weekly. I’m one of those people who needs to look at my art with fresh eyes, every couple of days.” But she sums up her ongoing role in Kurt’s estate as limited – by choice. “I try to be involved as they request me to be. I can’t dedicate my life to Kurt’s legacy.”
“She’s not going to be one of those kids,” says David Byrnes, an executive producer on the film and a lawyer who works with Kurt’s estate. “Frances is a visual artist, so that’s something [about Kurt] she is interested in.” But a full-time career in the management of Kurt’s image and canon, Byrnes suggests, “is not going to be her thing.”
When asked how Montage of Heck – working with Morgen, seeing the movie to fruition – has changed her, Frances answers plainly: “It hasn’t, really. It’s changed my perception of who Kurt was. I’m a lot less angry at Kurt. I have more empathy and understanding.”
But Morgen says he has seen a difference in Frances since their first meeting two years ago in the breakfast nook. The director recalls an e-mail Frances sent him a few days after she saw the early cut. “I was floored,” he says. “She articulated her experience with Kurt over the years and how the film was very liberating.”
Love affirms that: “I’ve definitely noticed that she’s stronger and can walk a little taller.” Frances, Love says, “is at a crossroads now, where she can do anything she wants – and be successful.”
Late in our interview, Frances finally concedes that Montage of Heck “does close a chapter for me. I’ll never escape how gigantic Kurt is. And that’s OK. I accept that. But this movie gives me the chance to say, ‘We’ve provided you with a service, with a piece of art I feel Kurt would be proud of. And now I have my own life to pursue. And it doesn’t involve Nirvana. It doesn’t involve Kurt. It doesn’t involve Courtney.’
“I’m lucky I have that ambition from my parents,” says Frances. “But I want my successes to be my own.”