Kurt Cobain was a screamer. A new documentary about his life, Montage of Heck, is told through Cobain’s uncovered recordings. They’re full of monologues, weird sound collages, scraps of songs and general fucking around on the mic. Cobain was the coronated savior of 90’s disaffected youth and his rallying cry was his scream. His music came from his gut, literally. He struggled with a bad stomach that many have reasoned lead to his drug use. In the film, he even says that his songs came out his stomach pain. He worried he wouldn’t be as creative without it.
But what if Kurt had gone to Primal Scream therapy? Largely out of fashion now, Primal Scream was founded by Arthur Janov in the 70’s as a way for patients to exorcise their childhood trauma through screaming, John, Yoko and Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones were practitioners. Cobain too would have made the ideal candidate. He was bounced between family members and was bullied endlessly. If I’m putting together a Dream Scream Team, I think they nearly round out my starting five. Maybe throw in Janet Leigh and her Psycho shower scene for good measure.
A good scream can’t simply add up to volume. Leigh was the master scream queen and there are any number of posers from countless horror movies but that’s all manufactured fear to the point of parody. What I’m looking for in a honest scream is weight, fury, conviction. It’s both joy and anger.
Writer Denis Johnson describes the greatest scream ever in one of his most famous stories, Car Crash While Hitchhiking. A woman has entered a hospital after a horrible car accident to learn that her husband has been killed. Her scream emanates something beyond simple passion that reaches into the divine. The narrator (known only as Fuck Head) describes the moment this way:
“The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
When you’ve been in places of real tragedy like Fuck Head you also know the most wretched sound isn’t the scream but its reverberations. Being in tornado ravaged Mississippi, I know the worst sound isn’t the wind ripping your home apart, it’s the echo of that sound in the weeks and months after.
Perhaps the most famous scream is Edvard Munch’s painting. Munch said that the painting came to him from a real event, one he describes in a poem written on the back of the canvas:
“I was walking along the road with two friends—the sun was setting—suddenly the sky turned blood red—I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence—there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city—my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
Munch’s painting has resonated through generations without making a sound. But then again, like Cobain, sometimes you just need to scream it out.