All this week, we've been sharing parts of our preview of the Experience Music Project special exhibit "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses," which opens at the Seattle museum on Saturday (April 16). Today's artifacts are the controversial Nevermind cover art and some of the iconic objects from the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video. The commentary is provided by exhibit curator Jacob McMurray.
Nevermind Cover Art:
"The Nirvana exhibit is full of funny moments, and I think that that's really important because I think a lot of the story has been leeched of the humor. This is one piece of humor that didn't originate from the band but from DGC's art director, Robert Fisher. This is when he's sending the band a comp of what the Nevermind album could look like. He notes on there, 'If anyone has a problem with his d---, we can remove it.' Which I'm sure the band found just as hilarious as I do. ... The guitar [displayed next to it] is called colloquially the 'vandalism' Strat. Kurt played it a lot during 1991, and it was most famously at the 1991 Reading Festival. It's caused a lot of controversy because it has a sticker on it from this punk band called the Feeders that says 'Vandalism: beautiful as a rock in a cop's face.' Kurt Cobain definitely had a lot of run-ins with the police, and I don't think he had very good experiences with that, so I think that was a message that definitely spoke to him."
The concept for the Nevermind album came, as with nearly all of the band's imagery, from Cobain himself, who was inspired by a documentary he watched with drummer Dave Grohl about water births. He mentioned it to Fisher, who found plenty of stock photos of underwater births, most of which were too graphic for label DGC's taste. With the costs too high to obtain a photo Cobain liked of a baby chasing a dollar underwater, Fisher sent a photographer out to recreate the image, settling on a shot of then 3-month-old Spencer Elden, the son of the photographer's friend. Even that innocent image of the cherubic, naked baby paddling underwater spooked DGC, which feared that it might offend some people. According to rock writer Michael Azerrad's 1993 Nirvana bio, "Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana," the label prepped an alternate cover without Elden's penis showing, but shelved it when Cobain said the only compromise he would make to the nudity was to cover it with a sticker that read, "If you're offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile."
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" Artifacts:
"We have a couple iconic pieces here, all related to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' We have the sweater that Kurt Cobain wore on the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' video, the guitar that Kurt played on that video and also the MTV Video Music Award for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' which weirdly enough says, 'Smells Like Team Spirit' on the award, as if the engraver was politely correcting the title for the band. With that sweater it's really important to note that the band didn't have a lot of money even at that time. They were going to thrift stores all the time, and in the mid- to late-'80s, that was a boom time for '60s castoffs. It hadn't come to that point where vintage clothes stores were gobbling up all that material. So a lot of the clothes you see the band wearing, it's because they didn't have a lot of money and they didn't want to waste it on clothes."