24 sep 2021

7 Things You (Maybe) Don’t Know About Nirvana

Two years after the phenomenalsuccess of Nevermind, the third and last album of the band Nirvana, less known but just as successful, In Utero, was released. As this record celebrates its 30th anniversary with an expanded reissue of unreleased live recordings, released this Friday, October 27, 2023, let’s take a look back at the hidden corners of the career of the cult grunge band led by Kurt Cobain, who changed rock and pop culture as much as the way we dress.

1. Nirvana’s Nevermind: an unexpected explosion in the world of rock


When Nirvana released their second album,  Nevermind,  in 1991, grunge was not yet the powerful aesthetic it would become. And above all this music mixing punk, metal and indie rock by essence anti-establishment was anything but commercial. In fact, the band’s label, Geffen Records, wasn’t expecting such dantesque sales figures. Bleach (1989),
debut album, had sold no more than 40,000 copies before the Seattle sound explosion. If Nevermind had sold 250,000 copies, like Sonic Youth’s

Goo (1990), also released by Geffen, the label would have already considered itself lucky. Except that Nirvana’s album will achieve a real feat by speaking, as no one had ever done, to a youth as idle as its leader. By perfectly embodying the vague soul of the kids of the 90s, Nevermind, made with a budget of 65,000 euros, sold more than 30 million copies, dethroning one year after its release the Dangerous (1991) of 
Michael Jackson
at the top of the charts. Except that what could have been excellent news for an average band will mark the beginning of the end for
Kurt Cobain
, a tortured and shy former teenager who never imagined himself as the herald of an entire generation. And certainly not, in his words  “as a consumer product broadcast in heavy rotation on MTV.

2. A close link between Kurt Cobain and feminists


Not only did he wear dresses in public, but Kurt Cobain – who was married to rock icon and powerful woman
Courtney Love
– did not hesitate, at every opportunity, to castigate homophobic and sexist remarks. The singer once said: “If there are people among you who hate homosexuals, people of another color or women, please leave us alone! Don’t come to our concerts and don’t buy our records.”  In this spirit, uncommon at the time in a very macho milieu – that of rock, the album Nevermind maintains a very strong link with riot grrrls, these feminist punk musicians of the 90s. Several songs (including “Drain You ” and “Lounge Act“) were inspired by Kurt Cobain’s former girlfriend Tobi Vail, who was part of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. As for Smells Like Teen Spirit, the phrase was whispered to her by Kathleen Hanna, leader of Bikini Kill and girl power icon. After a late-night discussion with Kurt Cobain about anarchism and feminism, she tagged on a wall: “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit.” She was not referring to adolescence, but to Teen Spirit, a brand of women’s deodorant worn by Tobi Vail.

3. The controversial cover of Nevermind, at the center of a complaint


In 2021, the “Nirvana Baby“, Spencer Elden  (who was seen as a baby on the cover of Nevermind)  wanted to file a lawsuit against the use of his image – without his consent – against Nirvana. The court closed the case “without further action” in 2022. But the cover had already worried the record company Geffen, in the early 90s. The label’s bosses and record stores had suggested adding a black sticker on the child’s genitals. Kurt Cobain would then have replied, that in this case, the mention should also be added: “If it shocks you, it’s because you’re a pedophile who doesn’t know you.”  According to legend, the singer was obsessed with aquatic births (and pregnancies) and initially wanted to illustrate the album with an image of childbirth that would have been even more controversial.

4. Influences that are a little too pronounced


The dark riff of Come As You Are rocked the teenagers of the 90s. But those who have known the new wave well of the 80s were struck by its resemblance to a track by the British gothic band Killing Joke called Eighties (1985). Following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the band gave up taking the case to court. In 2003, Dave Grohl, ex-drummer of Nirvana, leader of the Foo Fighters and big fan of Killing Joke, agreed to play for free on an album of the band. Other influences from Nirvana include The
, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., The Vaselines and the Pixies.

5. Nirvana’s Nevermind punk release party


At the Nevermind release party organized by their label, Nirvana should have been the big stars of the evening. Except that the festivities that took place in 1991 in a small bar in Seattle quickly became complicated. Tipsy, the group engaged in a food fight, including a watermelon filled with dressing. Embarrassed by the worldliness, the trio was finally escorted to the door. A punk twist that reflects the band’s non-conformist spirit. At the height of their success, the trio continued to show that they did not agree with the idol status they were given by smashing guitars in crowded concert halls.

6. Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box Song Sparked a Row Between Courtney Love and Lana Del Rey


In 2012,
Lana Del Rey
covered a Nirvana song,
Heart Shaped Box
, from the album In Utero (1993), at a concert in Sydney. Except that this tribute is far from pleasing Courtney Love. The ex-girlfriend of Kurt Cobain and singer of Hole explained on Twitter (now X) about the track : “Did anyone tell Lana what the song was really about?” With no response from the American singer with whom she will nevertheless show herself in public, like friends, Courtney Love is annoyed : “You know the song is about my vagina, huh? Throw away your umbilical cord so I can climb it again (sic).” The rockstar adds : “In addition, I wrote some of his lyrics about my vagina  (…) The next time you sing this song, think about my vagina, ok? Laughing out loud.”

7. Kurt Cobain was a talented painter (like his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain)

We owe him the angel on the cover of In Utero (1993) and the fascinating collage on the back of the album. Kurt Cobain painted, drew and made many tortured collages. In 1992, he had even come close to quitting his career in music to devote himself to a pictorial career. The 31-year-old daughter of Nirvana and Courtney Love singer Frances Bean Cobain is taking up the torch today. Very discreet, the woman who turned down a role in a Tim Burton film and was a muse for Marc Jacobs has already exhibited (under a pseudonym) paintings as deranged, dark and successful as that of her genius father.

Nirvana – In Utero 30th Anniversary (2023), available as a vinyl box set and CD on October 27, 2023.