'Who Courtney knew was a very different person to who they intimately knew' - Frances Bean on Kurt Cobain exhibition curated by his mother and sister
Kurt Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor is recounting a story about her son to illustrate what he was like as a child; ‘the sweetest, funniest little devil’.
“He’d come in the kitchen and say, ‘Hey mom!’ and he got me every time with this - he’d take thread and thread it through his fingers and pull the string and make his hand go back and forth, and I’d turn around and go, ‘Aaargh!’ and it would make me sick to my stomach. He just loved doing it!” she laughs.
Kurt’s younger sister Kim remembers all the kids doing it, “We’d take the rough skin, just the first layer. I don’t know what our deal was in the seventies, stringing our fingers together,” she laughs.
Wendy, Kim, and Kurt and Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s daughter with Courtney Love, are in conversation with RTE broadcaster Dave Fanning at the Museum of Style Icons in Newbridge to launch Growing Up Kurt Cobain, an exhibition of his personal belongings including hand-written lyrics, his 1965 Dodge Dart, clothes, awards, but mostly items from his childhood – photos, sketches, notes and stories, toys, and some home video.
Brett Morgan’s 2015 documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck touched on his childhood and his burgeoning creative genius and the exhibition builds on that, painting a picture of him as a fun-loving, talented kid.
The items have been lovingly selected by Kim and Wendy in the hope of providing some balance in the narrative of his life, which, having ended abruptly with his tragic suicide on April 5, 1994, at the height of Nirvana’s success, has been viewed through that dark prism in the intervening years.
“This was really beautiful, to go and see our childhood that we had together,” says Kim.
Although Frances (25) had no part in curating the items for the exhibition, she wanted to support her grandmother and her aunt on their trip to Ireland, as she says she found it a “healing place” to visit as a child.
“This is the first time they’ve ever really extended themselves in such a way that they curated it and creatively informed their idea of Kurt and who they knew him to be and that to me is the purest form of him, because everything we’ve heard or seen is a saturated version because it’s a part of mythology,” she says.
“We love to think of him as this mysterious, dark poet laureate and he was but he was also quite funny and warm and a brother and son and I think this is more reflective of that. And I think it’s important to the narrative to recognise that those were equally as important aspects of his personality as the darker serious poet laureate we know him to be.”
Having the exhibition open in Ireland (it’s at the Museum of Style Icons until September 30 before heading to Santiago, Chile) was important to the family.
“I think that it was important for all of us three to come to Ireland. This is where our roots are. It’s a very healing place,” she says.
“I’ve been here before and it was super healing for me as a child and I wanted to come and be a part of this experience with them. I don’t know if we could recreate the energy of this specific trip again. The reason that this is so healing is because it’s in Ireland. That’s a huge component of it I believe.”
Kurt believed his ancestors had come to the United States from Cork, but in recent years Courtney traced the family's Irish roots to Tyrone and a man called Samuel Cobain who emigrated on a ‘graveyard ship’ with his wife Letitia and brother Kevin in the late 1800s.
As Frances reads a text message from Courtney with this information she laughs, “This information may not be accurate!”
As the child of famous parents, Frances was famous even before she was born. She does not remember her father as she was just 20 months old when he died. She has lived a nomadic life – living in 27 houses in 25 years and dropping out of high school in tenth grade ‘because standardised curriculum just didn’t mesh with my brain’.
“I really reverted into myself and really became obsessed with horror movies and comic books and drawing, “ she reveals of that time. “I defaced my room, all the walls and doors and ceiling. I defaced it.
“That was kind of me attempting to take back a sense of self, by creating my own environment I could go into every day and feel as though I was like in my own world, because oftentimes for me fantasy has felt more like reality. Escaping into my own head space has been more comforting than having to deal with my reality at times.”
She has battled her own addiction issues and in an Instagram post earlier this year she revealed that she has been sober for two years.
“The most gratifying thing about making that post was getting messages from people not only saying they understood and related to what I was going through, or they themselves were dealing with it, but the most powerful thing was people telling me that via that post and via me expressing that and having the capacity to share that with the world, that that had encouraged them to face their own addiction issues,” she says.
“That is super. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than that, somebody saying, ‘you helped me reclaim my life’. It’s an amazing superpower.”
She says she always take accountability for her actions, because she “grew up in a circumstance where accountability wasn’t really a thing, like it was always really disregarded as somebody else’s fault even though it wasn’t always somebody else’s fault.”
Of her struggles, she adds, “It’s given me a sense of empathy and compassion that I would never have had any other way, and it’s one thing to observe that kind of behaviour but it’s another thing to live a similar kind of behaviour because you have a different kind of understanding of what it is that informed other people’s behaviour.
“It’s given me connectivity to people in my life that I didn’t think I would connect to again. It’s given me a sense of empathy I didn’t know I had.”
She says she uses the phrase, 'peace, love, empathy', which her father used in his suicide note, "often, because I want to reclaim the peace, love, empathy thing as something that's meant for health and for compassion and for true peace, love, and empathy.
"Yeah, the association comes from a super dark place. Referencing that is kind of screwed up but at the same time taking the power back is my way of dealing with it."
It’s clear that her grandmother Wendy has been a hugely positive and stable influence in Frances’ life. Wendy becomes emotional when speaking about how Frances never knew her father and how important it was for her to let her know who he was. As a child Frances would visit the farm in Olympia where Wendy lived and “healed” following Kurt's death, working in the garden.
“Nothing was consistent in my day to day life at all but when I would go to the farm in Olympia it was like the most grounding experience,” says Frances, who reveals that when people now comment on how well adjusted she is she puts it down to the stability Wendy and Kim provided for her throughout her childhood.
“The reason I got to the point of being well-adjusted is because I had roots in something normal and healthy," she says. "It’s given me a sense of what I want my day to day life to look like outside all the hubbub and BS, how I want my day to day life to look like with normalcy with consistency and love. That is super important. I don’t think I would know what that looks like without them.”
Wendy admits it was hugely difficult to take a step back when Frances was going through her self-destructive phase, but says she had learned from her previous experiences with Kurt and Courtney.
“Absolutely I knew she would make it, but it was very hard not to over insert myself into the whole... when it was not good. That was the hardest part,” she says. “I knew that I had to do that, I had to step back and kind of let it run its course.”
She adds, “It was really hard for me because I can be really pushy. It was so hard for me to keep my peace and not start pounding on her, ‘this is what you have to do, this is what you have to do’. Everybody was mad at me because I wasn’t doing what they thought I should be doing. I said, ‘no, she will come to me. I know who’s inside.”
Frances did come to her. She says, “I think that she learned with Kurt and Courtney, when she tried to insert herself it made them isolate more and as a reaction of her not inserting herself and kind of letting me do my self-destructive thing and be an asshole she allowed me the room to come to her when I needed her and that means that I felt comfortable expressing what I had been through and what I was going through outside of that at that point. I’m really appreciative that she allowed me to heal myself first.”
Frances says Courtney is “supportive” of the exhibition as she “recognises that it’s their version of Kurt and this is not reflective of her husband – it’s reflective of her son and her brother. Who she knew was a very different person than who they intimately knew.”
She adds, “I also think Kurt tended to put on a facade with Courtney a little bit. He tended to play up certain aspects of his mystery and his darkness because it was trying to match her mystery and her darkness, and that’s awesome and that’s what they had.”
However, she says “he didn’t get to choose” which Kurt his mother and sister saw, “With my grandmother and my aunt that was just who he was and who they knew him to be. It’s important this exhibition is reflective of that. This is his childhood and it’s coming from a pure place.”
Growing Up Kurt Cobain runs until September 30th at the Museum of Style Icons. Tickets can be booked now at www.newbridgesilverware.com/tickets.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.