True or False? 8 Myths About Nirvana's 'Nevermind'




Loudster Co | September 09, 2011 - 1:13 pm
 In September 1991, DGC Records released Nirvana's Nevermind, one of the most influential and revered albums of the past two decades. But much of what the general public thinks they know about the record is wrong — or at least slightly skewed. Here's the real scoop, from Kurt Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross.

MYTH NO. 1: NEVERMIND WAS KURT COBAIN'S FIRST CHOICE FOR AN ALBUM TITLE.
Kurt Cobain was a notorious planner, and his journals are filled with track listings for albums he never made. His first idea for a title for Nevermind was Sheep. He went so far as drawing an ad in his journal with typically cryptic, Cobain-esque copy: "Sheep: Because you want to not, because everyone else is," it read, with the tagline of "Abort Christ." Krist Novoselic offered up his explanation for the title: "We were thinking about calling it Sheep because we were so cynical." But that plan was abandoned by late 1990.

MYTH No. 2: NEVERMIND WAS RECORDED IN 1991.
Nirvana essentially made Nevermind twice. The session that began in April 1991 with producer Butch Vig at Sound City studios in Van Nuys, CA, was remarkably similar to a session the band had in April 1990 with Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, WI. They recorded eight songs with the producer in 1990 in Madison, and five of those ended up on Nevermind, though most were new recordings and takes. The major difference between the Madison sessions and the recordings made in Van Nuys was Dave Grohl. So while most of the album was recorded in '91, the genesis of Nevermind began a year earlier. (Bonus trivia: On several songs, Grohl played Vig's Yamaha snare — the same one used on the Smashing Pumpkin's Gish.)

MYTH No. 3: DAVE GROHL IS THE ONLY DRUMMER ON THE ALBUM.
Vig was a drummer himself, and the crisp drum sound he captured from Grohl for the album — think the start of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or the chorus in "Drain You" — was a key ingredient to the record's sound. Vig used a "tunnel" to record all of Grohl's work at Sound City, except for "Something in the Way," where he struggled to make him play quietly. But Grohl isn't the only drummer on the album: Nirvana's Bleach-era drummer Chad Channing is featured on "Polly." This was the one track that emerged from the original Smart sessions unscathed. Channing isn't credited on the original release of Nevermind — and he didn't earn royalties from it, either.

MYTH No. 4: "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT" WAS WRITTEN ABOUT A DEODORANT.
Everyone knows that Cobain wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit" about a deodorant. Well, sort of. Kurt's friend, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, did indeed write, "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit" on Kurt's bedroom wall as a kind of taunt, and that was where the song title came from. But it wasn't until after the album was released that Kurt discovered there was such a thing as a Teen Spirit deodorant. Kurt wrote the song about a line of graffiti, not an antiperspirant. (Bonus trivia: Sales of Teen Spirit deodorant skyrocketed after the record came out.)
MYTH No. 5: NIRVANA ORIGINALLY MADE A CASSETTE DEMO OF "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT" TO PROVE THEY HAD A HIT.
Nirvana first recorded "Teen Spirit" onto a boombox at a rehearsal, which is included on the forthcoming Nevermind box set. But even though the band liked the riff, no one in the group knew it would be an immediate hit. Butch Vig said he knew it was one the moment he heard it in early '91, when Cobain sent him a copy of their new material. But the real reason Nirvana started recording their demos on a boombox, according to Grohl, was because they kept forgetting how to play several songs they'd written. "So many songs got thrown away, until we finally said, 'Maybe we should start recording them on a cassette,'" he said. (Bonus trivia: The tape began with Kurt saying, "Hey Butch. We've got a new drummer, his name is Dave Grohl, and he's the best drummer in the world.").
MYTH No. 6: COBAIN WROTE NEVERMIND ABOUT DRUGS.
Drug references do spring up in several songs, but Kurt's muse was complicated, and his full-scale drug addiction didn't start until after the album was recorded. Before Nevermind, he had experimented with heroin, but he wasn't a full-blown addict. Most of the record was written about his friends, neighbors, or girlfriends. His initial plan was to break the album up into a "boy" side and a "girl" side. The "girl" side would consist of songs like "Teen Spirit," "Drain You," and "Lounge Act," most inspired by Cobain's unrequited crushes of that time. The "boy" side would contain a variety of songs, including "In Bloom," which was written for his best friend Dylan Carlson. (Bonus trivia: "Breed" is a rewrite of a song off the Smart sessions titled "Immodium," which was inspired by the intestinal problems of Tad Doyle of Tad.)

Kurt Cobain recording in Hilversum Studios, Netherlands in November 1991 (Photo: Michel Linssen/Redferns
MYTH No. 7: THE COVER OF THE ALBUM WAS COBAIN'S IDEA.
Kurt did come up with the cover idea for Nevermind, but his initial idea bore little resemblance to the final image of a baby floating naked in a pool. He had seen a late night television show on underwater birthing, and wanted a photograph of a baby's head right as it began to exit the vagina — he went as far as to sketch out the image in his journal. Yet when Kurt tried to license the gory and bloody photograph, he was rebuffed. The naked baby photo was the back-up plan. Spencer Elden, the baby pictured on the cover, has since joked that he's the world's "biggest porn star" because so many people have seen his penis.

MYTH No 8: NEVERMIND IMMEDIATELY MADE COBAIN A RICH MAN.
There is a common misconception that Cobain became an overnight millionaire with the album's success. But the album didn't score Gold Record status until a month after its release, and the bulk of the sales arrived in 1992 or later. Most record companies only pay royalties twice a year, and payments lag sales by several months. As a result, Cobain earned almost no money from Nevermind in '91. His income that year totaled $29,541, and almost all of that was from a fall tour. When Cobain returned home to Olympia, WA, after recording the record in the spring, he found his belongings sitting in boxes by the curb: He had been evicted. He spent that first night sleeping in his car, while his record label completed the finishing touches on an album that would sell over twenty-five million copies.

WATCH: Cobain and Novoselic on Headbanger's Ball in 1991



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