When I was first hired by American Recordings in 1992 — right as Seattle’s “grunge” explosion was just starting to hit on a worldwide scale — my old boss Mark DiDia used to tell a funny story during our marketing meetings at the label.
“You know, ever we since we hired you, Boyd,” DiDia used to say in that tone of feigned indignation I got to know so well during my two years in the “big-time” in Los Angeles at American, “all of our artists’ sales have gone straight into the toilet. While all your friends back up there in Seattle got shit hot pretty much the day after you left to come here.”
It was all a joke of course.
Sir Mix-A-Lot had his biggest record ever with American that year in “Baby Got Back.” He never really had another record like that, of course. But I still sleep quite well at night knowing that I played a big part in that success, thank you very much.
But DiDia actually had sort of a point in at least one respect. While the whole grunge thing was going on right underneath my nose in my hometown of Seattle, I was actually somewhat oblivious to it.
Working in the music community in Seattle at the time, I of course knew what was happening. I had friends in that scene, and I even made it out to see bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden back when they were playing shitholes like the OK Hotel and the old Rckcndy. I also had good enough ears to know that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a once in a lifetime sort of record.
Still, I was way too involved with Sir Mix-A-Lot and the other rap artists at Seattle’s “other” independent label at the time — Nastymix was actually selling more records than Subpop was back then — to fully grasp what was going on. It was happening right under my nose, but I just didn’t fully “get it” back then.
By the time I moved back to Seattle just two years later in 1994, it was just in time to hear the news that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had killed himself. And for a moment there at least, I had to flash back to DiDia’s prophecy about the so-called “Boyd Curse.”
I also got that eerie sort of feeling. What is it that they say about the world being your oyster? For Kurt Cobain it seemed that particular shell had slammed itself shut.
Knowing, as I do now, that not only was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a once in a lifetime record, but that Kurt Cobain was also a once in a lifetime artist, is what makes viewing AJ Schanack’s About A Son, a semi-sort of documentary about Cobain, that much more of a moving, poignant, and even painful experience.
Kurt Cobain was by no means a perfect human being, or even a perfect artist. But he did capture the spirit of a generation in a way no other artist has since the days of guys like John Lennon. This is a film which in many ways leaves you walking away from it with even more questions than it answers.
About A Son matches interviews that Cobain originally did for Michael Azzerad’s book about Nirvana, Come As You Are, with stirring, and even surreal images (at least when put in their modern day context). You see Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington as well as Seattle, the big city about 60 miles to the north up Interstate 5 that later made him an internationally known rock star. The soundtrack to these images consists of the bands Cobain grew up loving and idolizing — from Bowie, Cheap Trick, and Queen to the Melvins and Scratch Acid.
What this movie does more than anything else is provide insight into the mind and soul of a somewhat tortured artist. Did Cobain have those rock star aspirations — and ego — at one point? Of course he did. There is no way guys that talented cannot. It’s part of the DNA.
But did that same sort of stardom come way too suddenly and way too soon for a guy whose inner psyche — never mind his ego — was as fragile as Cobain’s was?
No sooner had Cobain found what he probably saw as his one sure way out from the various physical and mental demons that had plagued him since childhood than an entirely new set of devils had just as quickly reared their ugly heads. The odd, unpopular kid from a small, depressed logging town just never quite came to terms with becoming everything that he once hated growing up as a social outcast.
The contrasts are mind-boggling to say the least, as this incredible film reveals.
It is ironic that for Kurt Cobain, the very escape from mediocrity and conformity he sought in punk rock became the very prison he once so dreaded. What I’m not sure he ever realized was that there were so many other kids out there just like him. And how he could have used this platform which he earned by virtue of his own talent to uplift them, without ever compromising his own integrity.
Like John Lennon did.
But that’s the thing. Watching About A Son, what becomes most apparent is that Cobain felt that in the act of becoming the rock star he once so dreamed of being, he also felt that compromise had already been made.
Misguided as it was, you have to admire that sort of integrity. It’s just too bad Kurt Cobain never understood the platform he had could be such a positive.
This is a great film.