The strange thing about memory is the way in which certain moments can be lost to you for years, even decades, until something or someone reminds you of them, and you feel their sudden presence with a stupid, piercing longing. Stupid because those moments seem too minor, not to mention too long gone, to think back on with any sort of earnest yearning; piercing because despite this, the thirst for them is, as they say, real: Indeed, it feels nearly sexual in the palpable pangs it arouses.
It’s not cool to fall prey to nostalgia—what the writer Svetlana Boym has cited as the “hypochondria of the heart.” It marks you as backward-looking rather than forward-thinking—conservative, sappy, old. Knowing all of this full well, however, doesn’t help much when viewing Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the affecting new documentary about Nirvana’s frontman, directed by Brett Morgen. I couldn’t keep my foot from moving to the music. I couldn’t keep myself from mouthing the words. I couldn’t keep the sobs from rising in my throat.
All of this is embarrassing to admit, but since embarrassment is the central affective mode I remember from being a teenager, it might be appropriate. After all, I was 15 in 1991, when Nirvana released their major-label debut, Nevermind, its combination of sonic ferocity and wistful sweetness blowing my mind and cracking my heart. In his music and lyrics, Cobain traced a utopian arc—suggesting that a world of authentic, unencumbered energy and feeling could be possible—while simultaneously signaling that such a world could only be sensed briefly, not fully accessed. Something—disappointment, oppression, corporatism, self-hatred—was always in the way. In this, Nirvana felt nostalgic even on first listen. Remember when we glimpsed that moment, how good it was, but how fleeting?