Soaked In Bleach, Montage Of Heck Paint Varying Portraits Of Kurt Cobain
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“The name Kurt Cobain has gone through my mind 3–400 times a day for 20 years…It gets a little old after awhile thinking Kurt Cobain, Kurt Cobain, Kurt Cobain.” — Tom Grant, private eye hired by Courtney Love to find Kurt Cobain before his death
Two very different Kurt Cobain documentaries have come out in recent months, and both paint different, and oftentimes, conflicting accounts of Kurt Cobain the man, his life and his death. The mainstream press, which Kurt despised, has given rave reviews for Brett Morgen’s Montage Of Heck, produced the Nirvana estate, while belittling or ignoring Benjamin Statler’s Soaked In Bleach.
Consequence of Sound called Heck “excellent.” But Soaked In Bleach is merely “chatter from the ‘conspiracy theories’ camp.” Rolling Stone never mentions Soaked, but when it comes to Montage Of Heck, “You get the sense that Kurt woud have liked this.”
Spin favorably covered Heck, interviewing Morgen. When it comes to Soaked, “the film looks pretty absurd.”
Vice’s journalist “loved” Heck and the site dedicated a number of articles to the documentary. As for Soaked, Vice deemed it “ridiculously crass” based on its trailer alone. They did an interview with Brett Morgen you can see here.
At least when it comes to the music press, opinion is pretty divided on Heck, which receives praise, and Soaked, which, when the music press does cover it, is oft belittled. There might be something we can learn from Kurt’s distrust of the press to sort through this.
[Update: Once Courtney Love sent a cease-and-desist order to the theaters showing Soaked, the documentary went viral.]
Heck paints a negative view of the media from Kurt. In response to a Vanity Fair article on Cobain and Love, Kurt wrote vitriolically: “Dear empty TV, the entity of all corporate gods, how fucking dare you embrace such trash journalism from an overweight cow who severely needs her karma broken.”
The two documentaries offer a different perspective on who Kurt is. While Heck seems to highlight Kurt’s inner-battles, starting with his parents going to the doctor for a ritalin-esque prescription to calm Kurt down which only made him more wild, to both of them separately admitting the other could not handle Kurt, Soaked focuses on a more balanced Kurt, one which his friends remember as not being much unlike them. Mitch Holmquist, Ben Berg and Ryan Aigner are childhood friends of Kurt.
“I didn’t see him as being particularly different emotionally from any of us,” remembers Aigner in Soaked. “I don’t see Kurt as being depressed, I see him as being optimistic.”
“He gave me a lot of hope, to hopefully one day get out of this area with my music,” shares Berg.
While Heck focuses on Cobain’s inner turmoil, Soaked paints a picture much more inline with his numerous interviews, found on YouTube, where he talks about future plans, and comes across as an empathetic, normal guy (albeit under immense pressure), who thought about his own future.
“It’d be nice to eventually start playing acoustic guitars and be thought of as a singer-songwriter rather than grunge rocker. Because then I might be able to take advantage of that when I am older and sit down and play acoustic guitar like Johnny Cash,” he says in Soaked.
In Heck, Courtney Love paints a different picture of Kurt’s vision of his own future. “‘I’m gonna get to three million and be a junkie’, those are his words,” she claims. According to Courtney, this was Kurt’s “fantasy.” Frances Bean, Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, also seemed to give Kurt reason to live.
“Every time I see a television show that has dying children or seeing a testimonial by a parent who recently lost their child, I can’t help but cry,” Kurt says in Heck. “The thought of losing my baby haunts me everyday.”
While Soaked details the beginnings of a divorce between Kurt and Courtney, in Heck Courtney doesn’t make mention thereof. “If I had had more time I am telling you I woulda had more kids with him,” she says. Heck producer Morgen said that “Kurt Cobain died of a broken heart,” while doing press for the documentary.
“If it came down to a custody battle I’d win in a second,” Tom Grant recorded Courtney Love telling him before Kurt’s body had been found. She also told him Kurt had written her a letter from Rome saying he was leaving her. Rosemary Carroll, the Cobain’s entertainment lawyer, was privy to the possibility of an approaching divorce, as Courtney had demanded she find her the most awful, vicious divorce lawyer, while Kurt asked her to take Courtney out of the will.
Then there is the discussion of Kurt’s stomach problems. While both documentaries bring up the malady, only Soaked mentions that Kurt had found the cure, while Heck focuses on writings by Kurt talking about the pain being a constant source of agony. After finding the right treatment, all of the symptoms were gone, as Soaked documents where Heck fails.
But there comes a diverging plot-line between Soaked and Heck. Where Heck comes across as, in part, a loose collection of Kurt’s journals, drawings and demos, with little more motive than to give fans an “inside peak” into the late Kurt’s life, Soaked entails a thesis and hence a more rigged storyline. This is where numerous experts appear in Soaked to question the reliability of the Seattle Police Department. Among the gravest of concerns? Many experts agree: there was never any proper investigation into the death of Kurt Cobain.
John F Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley among them, over the past fifty years as a medical forensic consultant Dr. Cyril H Wecht has done 18,000 autopsies, and overseen 38,000. Vernon Geberth, retired Lieutenant-Commander of the New York City Police Department, wrote the textbook Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures And Forensic Techniques. Norman Stamper was the Seattle Chief of Police from 1994–2000, and says, if he were Chief today, he would re-open the case. These individuals are among the medical, legal and forensic experts who appear in Soaked and questions the validity of the suicide ruling in Kurt’s death.
“They knew nothing about the drug level, fingerprints, anything else at the time except they found [Kurt] and a shotgun,” says Wecht.
The importance of death investigations “is that we don’t want to prematurely make [deaths] suicides, homicides or accidents,” explains Geberth.
“These cases usually take more time. Official statements on cause or manner of death do not come from police or homicide detectives,” says Wecht, as was the case in the death of Kurt.
In Soaked, Norman Stamper explains that Lead Detective Cameron on the Cobain case quit before being fired for colluding with another detective to replant evidence that had been stolen by a homicide detective at a homicide scene.
What else worries the expert panel included in Soaked? Kurt Cobain was cremated six days after being discovered; thirty days passed before the shotgun was checked for fingerprints (none were found); Seattle PD gave Courtney the gun to have melted down, and allowed the greenhouse to be torn down and destroyed. Why was the investigation such a mess?
“The news media do poison the atmosphere and I have been involved in cases in which it was almost impossible to overcome the beliefs created by the community because of the way in which that particular death had been reported,” says Wecht.
“This is a classical example of how an investigation should not be done,” Wecht says of how Seattle PD handled Kurt’s death.
Cobain family friend Cali was the only one at the house in the day around the death of Kurt Cobain. At one point on tape, Courtney tells Grant that she, like him, knows Cali knows something about Kurt’s death. She agrees to bring Grant the coroner’s report.
“You owe me a big fucking apology when this is over by the way,” she tells Grant in a recorded message.
“And believe me you’ll get it if i’m wrong,” he ripostes. He never gets the coroner’s report nor the chance to speak to Cali.
John Potash, author of Drugs As Weapons Against Us: The CIA’s Murderous Targeting of SDS, Panthers, Hendrix, Lennon, Cobain, Tupac and other Activists, as well as The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders, used Tom Grant’s work as a starting point for his own look into the death of Kurt Cobain in Drugs As Weapons Against Us.
“I think Tom Grant did many years of excellent selfless work on exposing much around Kurt Cobain’s death,” Potash told me in a written interview. “He effectively gives taped evidence of people close to Cobain to show how they believed Cobain wasn’t suicidal and Courtney Love was involved in Cobain’s murder. He presents evidence of Cobain’s credit card being used after his death. He shows how police tried to ignore him. He showed how police didn’t check for fingerprints, nor develop photos of the crime scene. He presented how Courtney got away with making numerous false police reports, et cetera.”
Potash does draw slightly different conclusions from Grant’s.
“My conclusions only differ from Grant’s work in showing some of the police motives behind their foul play, and why the FBI never investigated this case despite its intense international attention,” Potash says. “I concluded that Courtney Love didn’t only orchestrate Cobain’s death for the money since he was divorcing her, but also because it fit a pattern of actions that U.S. Intelligence has also carried out over years with the CIA’s Operation MK-Ultra.”
There is a historiography into such research, as Potash follows on the heels of Ernest Hemingway’s longtime editor, A.E. Hotchner, who wrote in his book Blown Away that CIA agent Robert Lashbrook tried to get as many musicians in London using LSD as possible under the MK-Ultra program.
In their book “Who Killed Kurt Cobain”, Ian Halperin and Max Wallace, featured in Soaked, document how Love brought a thousand hits of LSD to Manchester when she was a teenager.
“Love’s father, Hank Harrison, told me that a CIA agents traveled with her from Dublin to Manchester,” Potash told me. “Harrison also said Love was a heroin addict and prostitute at 16, with clients that included former Assistant Secretary of Defense, David Packard.”
“Love’s first husband, James Moreland, said Love told him she was sleeping with army generals in Alaska, who said ‘The wars are good for us,”’ Potash says. “This is just some of the evidence on her.”
When it comes to Courtney, Potash finds other aspects of her personality interesting which are not mentioned in Soaked.
“I also learned that her mother said she thought Love was abused in childcare as an infant. Love said she was sexually abused by her therapist as an infant, and they gave her Tuinals and Seconals, both psycho-hypnotic drugs used by MK-Ultra to manipulate people and have them carry out their operations,” he says.
“Love’s bandmate, Eric Erlandson, was last person seen with Kristen Pfaff when she appeared to get a ‘hotshot,’ a known CIA murder technique to make a murder look like an accidental death. It happened to Janis Joplin. Pfaff hated Love and was supposed to form a new group with Cobain before his death.” As Soaked makes clear, Cobain had three times the lethal dose of heroin in his system.
“Love used heroin with several other Seattle musicians who overdosed on the heroin. She also beat up many musicians with virtually nothing happening to her in court of law, as if she’s untouchable,” Potash says. What does John think of Heck?
“Good music, but it was made to cover-up the murder of Kurt Cobain.”
Heck is the Nirvana estate produced documentary, which includes Courtney Love. Love has been a controversial public figure over the past twenty years since Kurt’s death.
Courtney once stormed off stage leading a crowd in a “Foo Fighters are gay” chant; Courtney once insinuated that Dave Grohl made advances towards her daughter Frances Bean, which Bean instantly rebuffed, speaking positively of Grohl, and stating that Twitter should ban her then-estranged “biological mother.”
In a lawsuit, her other partners in Nirvana estate accused her of being “irrational, mercurial, self-centered, unmanageable, inconsistent and unpredictable” in professional dealings, asking for a mental exam to determine whether or not she was psychologically fit to manage the assets. In 2006, she sold a substantial share of Nirvana publishing rights.
Then there was the time, before Kurt’s body was found, when Courtney filed a false missing person report claiming to be Wendy O’Connor, Kurt’s mother. The media ran with the story that Kurt’s mother had filed the report. During that time, Tom Grant remembers Courtney as “coming across as very controlling and very angry.”
Her suspicious and paranoid outlook on life is highlighted in awkward recordings of Kurt and Courtney together, as Courtney shows off her naked body, pouting her lips for the cameraman. (Oftentimes throughout Heck, you get the impression it made Love uncomfortable when the attention wasn’t on her)
“You can’t trust men in general,” she tells Kurt.
“I understand what you’re trying to say but I don’t agree” Kurt responds.
Still, some people close to Kurt see it differently than Soaked. Although Dave Grohl does not appear in the film, Krist Novoselic (Nirvana bassist) recalls that, “In 20/20 hindsight you’re like, ‘oh my God why didn’t I see that or I shoulda said something…’”
Heck pairs the turbulence of Kurt’s art with his music and recollections of his family life which give a very discombobulated look into his life. It shows some of Kurt’s random thoughts scribbled into notebooks: “Your government hates you”; “Assassinate the greater and lesser of two evils”; “Punk rock means freedom” among numerous drawings and sound-bytes which does give the audience some insight into the inner-workings of Kurt.
The film does pass off what seems to be, at least in part, a fiction story of Kurt having sex with a handicapped girl as a true experience of Kurt’s, which makes one question the fact-checking behind the film. One of Kurt’s close friends, and singer of one of Kurt’s favorite bands The Melvins, Buzz Osborne, called this story “complete bullshit”. He thought similar of the entire film: “I suppose this movie will be interesting for Nirvana completists, because it certainly reinforces their already twisted view of the man. I found it to be mostly misguided fiction.”
Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind
“I’m tired of people trying to put too much meaning into my lyrics..a lot of times when I write lyrics it’s at the last second because I’ve been really lazy,” Kurt says in Soaked. The film highlights a Rolling Stone article in which Kurt says that the song “I Hate Myself And Want To Die” is meant as literally as a joke can be.
Heck portrays what seems to be an inherently artsy side of Kurt, riddled with an unrelenting sense of humor, through the lens of Brett Morgen, who might, in the end, take Kurt a bit too seriously and paint him as the cliche tortured musician a bit too finely.
Soaked portrays Kurt as having, despite immense pressure, handled life in the spotlight pretty well, as Dylan Carlson, one of Kurt’s friends, tells Tom Grant before Kurt’s body is found. With the added research into the investigation into Kurt’s death, one is given an entirely new perspective on Kurt’s real life, one that at times contradicts the version in Heck.
In Heck, a recurring topic is how much Kurt hated being humiliated. After watching both Soaked In Bleach & Montage Of Heck it makes you wonder which is doing the humiliating.
The conflicting Kurts in the two documentaries are not easy to reconcile, as highlighted by the intense controversy around Kurt’s death. It might be a good time, once more, to heed Kurt’s own words:
“I don’t have the right to make an opinion on anything that I read or see on television until I go to the fucking source myself personally,” he says in Soaked.