Focus on his words in Kurt Cobain about a Son and on his face in Unplugged in New York
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SONIC REDUCER For too many, Thanksgiving is all about high-priced, high-stress flights home for the holidays, foul fowl, sad slipcovers, and relatives who rove the spectrum from irksome to inspirational. Why the last? I have to say that one miserable Turkey Day spent on the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa, meeting a squeeze's enraged and estranged parents while his jock brother dented my Geo Metro during a show-off game of tag football brought me closer to thoughts of suicide than ever before. Thanksgiving: the most annoying event before and since Oracle OpenWorld (only with a tad fewer leering conventioneers)? Discuss.
So it's fitting, then, that soon-to-be uncomfortably bloated thoughts once again turn to the late Kurt Cobain with the Nov. 30 theatrical release of Kurt Cobain about a Son and the Nov. 30 droppage of Unplugged in New York, the DVD release of Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance. I watched both 14 years to the day after the band's Unplugged taping, on Nov. 18. If I weren't already terrified of tying on the turducken, I'd be totally spooked by the synchronicity: are you sure Halloween is over?
AJ Schnack's doc About a Son reads like a ghostly document: Cobain's disembodied voice floats over its entirety, drawn from tapes of 199293 interviews conducted by coproducer Michael Azerrad for his book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (Main Street, 1993). Beneath the songwriter's thoughts, Schnack chooses to float images of everyday romance and poetry captured in Cobain's northwestern haunts: power lines shoot across the sky, dead birds rot beneath burnished sunsets, kids play music in alleyways. Relying on an evocative score by Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard and songs by Queen, David Bowie, and others that are related to the interviews, Schnack eschews Nirvana's music and even their photographic image until the very end. He prefers to immerse the viewer in the edited, intimate thoughts of Cobain, who can genuinely touch and surprise a listener with stories of how he felt abandoned by his father and his honesty about his misanthropy (coworkers "get on my nerves so bad I either have to confront them and tell them I hate their guts or ignore them"), heroin use (of his $400 per day self-medicating efforts to stem his chronic stomach pain, he says, "I was healthier and fatter than I am now"), and hatred of the media ("the most ruthless life form on Earth"). By turns moving and excruciating, About a Son raises as many questions as it answers.
Eerily dovetailing with About a Son by way of a cover of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and a Queen joke regarding exGerms guitarist Pat Smear, the Unplugged performance has long been loaded with the stuff of quintuple-putf8um legend and fan speculation regarding Cobain's death, which occurred just four months after the program aired on Dec. 14, 1993 on MTV. How else to parse the lyrical references to guns, the white lily set decorations (Cobain's idea), and the set list's intermittent aura of doom? In any case, Nirvana completists will want to snag this for the unedited 66-minute concert, which includes two numbers excised from the original 44-minute broadcast: Nirvana's "Something in the Way" and the Meat Puppets' "Oh Me." The mistakes and occasional sour notes remain. I was surprised by the general lack of energy in the band; the ordinarily forceful Dave Grohl sounds painfully unsure on brushes. But the conviction, seriousness, and soulfulness of Cobain's vocal performance make this entire endeavor worthwhile despite the gritted-teeth grin and protruding tongue that follow the first few songs.
You strain to hear the dialogue between the band members and betwixt Cobain and the audience. When the band seems to dither over the last song, one female audience member yells, "<0x2009>'Rape Me'!" "Is that Kennedy?" someone asks, referring to the noxious alterna-VJ of the day. "I don't think MTV will let us play that," Cobain replies with an insouciant, knowing air. If you're still looking for that classic Gen X cynicism, look no further than MTV, which seems to have ditched music programming in general.
So why did Cobain sing for his TV dinner in the first place? Was it simply because In Utero (DGC, 1993) wasn't selling well? Just months before his passing, Cobain already looked like another pop idol prepping to die young and leave a gorgeous corpse. Or not. Nonetheless, here, bird-boned with downcast eyes, he edges closer to that beautiful boy outlined in Elizabeth Peyton's paintings, ready to assume his place in a pantheon of perpetually doodled, iconographic heartthrobs, right after Jim Morrison and James Dean. Nirvana was a great band but as so many know who were there, cognizant, and occasionally coherent when Nevermind (Geffen, 1991) hit, there were lots of great bands. Ever the authentic article, Cobain knew this as much as any other, which is why he always gave a hand to forebears, bringing on the Meat Puppets (much to the disappointment of MTV, according to an accompanying DVD short) and sporting a T-shirt of the SF all-female art-punk combo Frightwig for this performance. Did it simply take Cobain's dramatic death to, as an MTV executive dork opines in the short, turn an "interesting, eclectic performance" into "a masterpiece"? Neither of these spooked offerings really fits that descriptor, but for the faithful they might do till another comes along. *
KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON
Opens Nov. 30
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