The Mad Marchioness and I watched the great new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck last week and, as a good movie will do, it unleashed a flood tide of thoughts and impressions. This isn’t a review of that film (who needs another one of those?) but rather a conglomeration of some of those thoughts and impressions.
I think I’ve heard it said (although I can’t find any specific reference to it online this morning) that the broader strokes of who you will permanently be as a person are defined in your 20s and 30s. After this, everything is so much “these kids today”. The crucial juncture for me was the 1990s (as it was, I think, for the Marchioness, one among a thousand things we bond over).
And so I have this tension in my life, between an abiding interest (historical entertainment, rooted in populism and optimism and a tacit acceptance of the status quo) and my generational outlook (absolute, utter nihilism).
I’m roughly the same age as Kurt Cobain was (he was about a year younger than me). Watching all these old clips from a vantage of 20 years later, you can see so much in clear relief. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, and that is just what that moment felt like. I think the death of socialism was a bigger trauma than any of us have dealt with. Even if you hated the Soviet Union (as I always did and was taught to do) you have to acknowledge that on some level, at least at the beginning, it embodied (or purported to embody) the best of human aspirations. Who can argue with the ideals of full employment, an end to hunger and ignorance, etc? I’m talking about the IDEAL, not the reality, which is inevitably totalitarianism. If mankind is unfit for socialism (as all empirical evidence in the petrie dish of history indicates that it is), then what precisely is the human project? What is there to hope or strive for? Folks on the religious right think they have the answer, a similar plan for Utopia, but that plan too has been tried and failed — we call it the European Dark Ages. So what we are left with is capitalism, or more properly speaking mixed economies that lean on the engine of capitalism — a kind of soulless vacuum with no higher end in sight than our own prosperity and our own pleasure. You’re damn right it’s fuckin’ depressing — at least it is you’ve got any kind of heart or brain or substance. (Plenty of people don’t).
It’s the vacuum that’s depressing. Reagan had put paid to one competing model of living. The vision he offered to replace it (he had one at least) was and is anathema to at least half of all Americans. But what happened next was worse. After the fall of the Soviet Bloc there was a very short window for America to be…something, anything. To re-make the world somehow. Or fail at some noble attempt rooted in our history. Instead we remained boorish (but now reactive and rudderless) in foreign policy, and bickersome and selfish in domestic policy. And with Michael Dukakis as the Democrats’ candidate for president in 1988, I don’t know why we all didn’t blow our heads off. (Did I just say that?)
I was shocked and saddened at the news of Cobain’s death, but after it sank in, I found myself more irritated. I thought of it as a tired show business and artistic cliche. He even did it when he was 27, like the other rock stars. Being older than him , while I loved his music a great deal and was in awe of his talent (and was even influenced by him, which we’ll get to) I didn’t look up to him as a hero. You don’t look up to someone younger than you as a hero. In sum, I wasn’t devastated; I was pissed. It seemed like a stupid waste, and ironically, a shallow thing to do.
In time, I grew to feel differently. Montage of Heck brings you amazingly close to Cobain, a misfit and recluse and troubled soul almost on the order of Daniel Johnston. It’s a portrait of a guy who just loved making art, with perhaps a vague idea that he would like to achieve some acceptance somewhere down the line. What he didn’t count on was his message and his voice striking such a chord with millions of people (not just kids) who felt the same way, so much so that ironically he himself would become a commodity, a contradiction. Self-loathing was inevitable. And the very sort of people who never would have given him the time of day before were now swarming around him like a thousand Uriah Heeps. John Lennon talked about this predicament in his 1971 Rolling Stone interview:
…it was a fuckin’ humiliation. One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what The Beatles were, and that’s what I resent. I didn’t know, I didn’t foresee. It happened bit by bit, gradually, until this complete craziness is surrounding you, and you’re doing exactly what you don’t want to do with people you can’t stand — the people you hated when you were ten.
Cobain had other things going on — not just his times, not just his outlook, or the eternal dilemma of the rock star — but issues, serious abandonment issues. First his parents’ divorce, then his mother kicked him out, then his father kicked him out, then his grandparents and all his other relatives kicked him out. In response, to compensate, he appears to have striven to have become the perfect human being (or at least the perfect rock star (aren’t they the same thing?).
He seems to be a synthesis of so many others who came before him: John Lennon (although astonishingly in this film he does an incredible version of McCartney’s “And I Love Her” that demonstrates his appreciation for a melody), he has an ear-splitting voice like Johnny Rotten but a clownish attitude more like Sid Vicious (it’s interesting that Cobain was purportedly so sensitive that he couldn’t stand ridicule, when he was so often putting on ridiculous costumes, wearing a woman’s wig etc), he was a poet and a “voice of a generation” like Dylan (although his morbid nature strikes me more like Leonard Cohen, whom he also mentions in the film), he had much in common with the aforementioned Daniel Johnston as well as the mentally ill millionaire recluse pop star Brian Wilson), he had a genuine voice for communicating truth and pain like many a blues man (he said he loved Leadbelly and was heading in an accoustic direction when he died) , and lastly, he was gone seemingly seconds after he arrived, much like James Dean. (And not to mention the obvious club of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison, which is why I was so cynical as to call his death a cliche. It seemed calculated. But his pain was genuine).
On first hearing, Nirvana’s music didn’t sound revolutionary to me. Sounded kind of like metal — like Motorhead or somebody. What really was different was the uncompromisingly bleak and angry lyrics…and the marriage of those downbeat words with a sound that was simultaneously ear-splittingly obnoxious….and very tuneful and catchy. This is what made Nirvana the American Sex Pistols. The first wave of American punk had been born at the same time as British punk in the 1970s. There were huge differences between them however. Unlike British punk, the American punk of the 70s didn’t get anywhere NEAR the top of the singles charts. (Patti Smith was an exception, and Blondie, but only by making disco records). And unlike British punk, the American version seemed to focus much more on aesthetics (i.e., ultimately entertainment) than on political or social revolt. The Ramones “Wanna Sniff Some Glue”; whereas the Sex Pistols “Wanna Be Anarchy”. American punk of 70s had not had the same level of despair and nihilism as had the British. It wasnt until grunge that the phenomenon made its way to America, let alone the American pop charts. Ranting against conformism had been around since the 50s and 60s. That aspect felt muted and well-trod. What was new was the despair. (Cobain seemed to have nothing but contempt for the 60s. I always think of that moment when he mocks the Youngbloods “Get Together”. To him the sentiment it expresses seems to be some sort of foolish, pollyana-ish waste of time).
It took an ASTOUNDINGLY long time for such an expression of despair to make it to the top of the American pop charts. I guess that says something about our national character — cheer, optimism, a capacity to lie to ourselves and each other? To have gone through this long string of horrors: assassinations and riots in the 60s, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, then the evisceration of the American worker and the middle class in the 80s…and still people kept listening to…I dunno, John Denver, ABBA, Huey Lewis and the News? I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the music of those three musical entities. But let’s all acknowledge that it’s escapism.
According to the documentary, Cobain didn’t really get exposed to the classic punk records until amazingly late – -about a decade after they broke. This is why his music still freshly reflects their influence in the early 90s.
The influence of punk…despair…the end of history.
Man! How do you square that shit with VAUDEVILLE?!
Well, I’ll tell ya.
My heavy exposure to punk came very early. In 1982 my friend Colin came back from Detroit after having lived there for a couple of years. And he had completely transformed. He wore a black leather jacket, an earring, a shaved head. And he had these stacks of records by the Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedies, the Damned, Klaus Nomi, the Jam, Nina Hagen, the Clash, the Lords of the New Church etc etc etc. And we formed a band called the Happy Machines and played punk covers and chased everyone out of the basement. I loved it, but it was never my WHOLE thing. I loved the Ramones a great deal more than British punk groups, and I preferred garage rock (as I’ve written about here) and I really liked contemporary new wave, synth-pop, “New Romantics”: the B52s, Devo, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Big Country, all those British groups who had hits in the mid 80s.
In 86 I stepped decisively into theatre and after that was only dimly aware of anything current, either mainstream or underground. But Nirvana broke through and I played Nevermind and the MTV Unplugged record a zillion times.
I bring all this up because I am in a period of retrenchment, reassessment, calculation of next moves. I’m looking at where I started, where I am, and where I want to go. Inevitably, this film made me think about the launch of my company Mountebanks and the American Vaudeville Theatre, which happened just a couple of years after Cobain’s suicide. I announced these projects in 1995 but didn’t move on producing anything until 1996. But what I am recalling is that the outlook, the aesthetic of my early vaudeville shows were very much informed by grunge. I had been working at Big Apple Circus….but other things that inspired me included mostly countercultural stuff: Coney Island USA (which was a rock and roll place as much as a freak show), the Katherine Dunn novel Geek Love, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, and Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.
In the initial months I mounted shows in cabarets like Rose’s Turn and the Duplex, but I hated it, it wasn’t my culture, and so I launched a version at the performance comedy mecca Surf Reality, and that was my principal home between about 1997 and 2001. The atmosphere at Surf was outre, outlandish, frequently angry, often just as weird and neurotic (or worse) as it was “funny”. There were S&M themed comedy shows. Comedians who made you laugh more because you were appalled than amused. The couple who ran it met on the set of Troma’s The Toxic Avenger. Rob Prichard is still a friend; his ex-wife Jen is the lady who played the S&M comedy hostess Mistress Elsa. And you can get a sense for what the place was like by the people who are still around, performing in a kind of Surf diaspora: Faceboy, Rev Jen, Tammy Fay Starlite, Michele Carlo (a.k.a Carmen Mofongo) and her then-husband Gothic Hangman, Dave Jeness (a.k.a Barry Agida) and his band the Sacred Clowns, Gilda Konrad and her small green companion Mr. Towel etc etc, etc, about a hundred like that.
And I really reveled in the freedom of the place. It was kind of a mix between a club and a theatre, with no line of demarcation dividing audience, stage or the bar. The atmosphere was like being in some acid-head’s rec room. And I could do what the hell I wanted. It was a regular gig, I self-produced, I usually made my nut (the room rental was quite cheap), the shows all co-promoted each other. I booked acts in a variety show framework. Some were vaudeville acts, some stand up comedians, some pop and folk singers. And I especially loved to present freaks — not sideshow freaks per se but Gong Show freaks, the psychologically outre and bona fide weirdos. I like to yank the audience’s chain in an Andy Kaufman kind of way.
My own personal aesthetic was backward-looking, but it was also wild and free. Beers were drunk, onstage and off. I and my comedy partner Robert Pinnock did lots of original comedy sketches, I did comedy monologues as host, and lots of original songs, which were probably the biggest head-scratcher for the audience. My personal musical style is some kind of rock-folk-grunge-punk-pop thing. At the same time I was doing the Surf shows, I was running an open mic night at the Charleston Bar & Grill on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. I inherited the Open Mic from Johnny Hoppe, and I modeled it very much on Lach’s Antihoot at Sidewalks — except I was wearing a topcoat, top hat and greasepaint. And I was very much influenced by the musical acts who came through there, all of whom were much more plugged into contemporary music than I was. One of them (one of the ones I got closer to) was Arlan Fieles, who had actually cut a record produced by Dave Grohl of Nirvana. But anyway, I’m not too interested in singing some old vaudeville song or even a song that sounds like some old vaudeville song. I’ve written some songs of that type, and it was was an interesting challenge, but it’s not my default position by any stretch of the imagination. My “Trav S.D. Theme Song” is straight up grunge, created as a sort of parody of Nirvana’s unplugged set.
Anyway then…stuff happened. September 11 sapped me of my will to produce so frequently (it had been every single week). Then I got a contract to write a book about vaudeville and my marriage broke up. When I re-emerged to produce again, things were very different. Surf had gone under. And anyway, now that I was a “vaudeville authority” I felt this need to produce shows that were either educational, or bigger, or possessed period authenticity of some sort. And so I did shows and programs at major cultural institutions like museums or libraries, or I did major productions at much bigger venues. And I would work my own comedy in as best I could, but I felt hampered…by bigger budgets, and bigger payrolls and thus a need to be more accessible and not as weird or self-indulgent which also means not nearly as fun, or even what I really want to be doing. My last vaudeville program per se was the Marx Brothers themed one at the Players Club last year. The last big one was at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2012.
But anyway, just a little autobiography. I remarked to the Marchioness the other day, “What an excellent career choice for a misanthropist — populist theatre!” Montage of Heck struck me not just as nostalgia but as self-orientation, and an opportunity for a little course correction. Back to basics. Anyway….I’m chomping at the bit to express myself as always. I think I will be much less cranky if I go about it in my own way.
There’s a crowd now who’s into the escapism of period authenticity. They like to put on period costumes and go to parties and pretend its the 19th century or the 1920s — they want to play that kind of music, or dance to that kind of music, and wear those clothes and say “23 Skiddoo” or whatever. And sometimes they seem a little quizzical when I say that’s not my bag, since I’m “into vaudeville and all”. This article explains why it’s not my bag. I don’t want to take the trouble to put on a costume and I don’t want to have to behave like somebody who ought to be wearing the costume. I started wearing a top hat so I’d be “the guy in the top hat”. Now that everyone’s in a goddamn top hat…I have to figure out a new hat. A bigger, better, brighter hat, that’s my own, that carries with it no expectations of fitting in with the Top Hat Crowd.
(I didn’t just take a movie about Kurt Cobain and turn it into a thing about me. Be true to yourself. That’s the moral)