25 Surprising Facts About Nirvana
On April 5, 1994, the music world mourned the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who died by suicide at the age of 27. More than 25 years later, Cobain and Nirvana's legacy lives on. Here are 25 things you should know about the alternative rock icon and his legendary band.
1. Kurt Cobain dropped out of high school, then worked there as a janitor.
Even though he was by all accounts a slob, Kurt Cobain worked as a janitor at Weatherwax High School, not long after dropping out of that very school. The dancing janitor in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video was an inside joke for those who knew of Cobain's old job.
2. The title for "About a Girl" came about very quickly.
Chad Channing, one of Nirvana's drummers before Dave Grohl, claimed that one day he asked Cobain what the song was about. "About a girl," was Cobain's reply. "Why don't you just call it that?"
The girl in question was Cobain's girlfriend, Tracy Marander, who asked why he wrote about everything—including Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show—but her. Marander didn't even realize that she was the "girl" until she read the official biography of the band, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, four years later.
3. There were at least five different drummers in the band before Dave Grohl.
Cobain and Novoselic were always members of Nirvana—formerly known as Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, Bliss, and Ted Ed Fred—but finding a permanent drummer proved to be even harder than coming up with a decent band name. In the beginning, there was trivia answer Aaron Burckhard, who pissed off Cobain by getting Kurt's car impounded after being arrested for fighting with a police officer. Then there was Melvins drummer Dale Crover, who pounded the skins for Cobain and Novoselic on their first demo tape before moving to San Francisco. Next came Dave Foster, who got arrested for assaulting the son of the mayor of Cosmopolis, Washington. Burckhard briefly returned before announcing he was too hungover to practice one day. Then a mutual friend introduced Cobain and Novoselic to Chad Channing, who hung around for two years before the group's co-founders decided he wasn't cutting it anymore. Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters played on the "Sliver" single.
Back in Washington, Crover performed with Cobain and Novoselic on a seven date tour with Sonic Youth in August 1990, before Dave Grohl's band Scream broke up and Melvins frontman Buzz Osbourne introduced Grohl to Cobain and Novoselic, ending the vicious cycle of rotating drummers.
4. Nirvana's first single was a cover.
Nirvana's first official release was a cover of "Love Buzz" by the Dutch rock band Shocking Blue. You know Shocking Blue not by "Love Buzz" but by their classic song "Venus," which reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in February 1970 and sold 7.5 million copies. A 1986 Bananarama cover also topped the charts. "Love Buzz" however did neither of those things, for either Shocking Blue or Nirvana.
5. Nirvana's first album cost $606.17 to make.
Guitarist Jason Everman didn't play on Bleach, Nirvana's first album, but was added to the band to add a second guitar to the mix soon after. He was a leading candidate to foot the bill—which came to $606.17—because he was the only person in the band to have an actual paying job. Unfortunately for Everman, his withdrawn attitude clashed with Cobain's similar disposition while on tour, resulting in a lot of long, silent driving and a severe lack of band chemistry
Everman failed upward, becoming the bass player for Soundgarden. He would be canned from that gig after one tour, before Soundgarden made it big. Everman's life after near-stardom was profiled in The New York Times Magazine in 2013, where it was reported that he joined the Army's 2nd Ranger Battalion and then the Special Forces, serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and received a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Columbia University.
6. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was inspired by Kurt Cobain's girlfriend's deodorant. And alcohol.
After a night of drinking, Kurt Cobain and then-roommate Dave Grohl were joined by Bikini Kill songwriter/vocalist Kathleen Hanna and drummer Tobi Vail at their humble pre-fame abode. The party continued, and eventually Hanna spray painted "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on Cobain's wall, a reference to the deodorant Vail—Cobain's girlfriend at the time—used to smell pleasant without any white residue. As the rest of the legend goes, Cobain loved the phrasing and wrote the song without knowing of the Teen Spirit deodorant's existence until after it was recorded.
7. The song's riff was a "rip off" of The Pixies. And "More Than A Feeling."
The Pixies are universally credited with inventing the loud-quiet dynamic in 1987 with their debut EP Come on Pilgrim. It wouldn't be until 1990—one year after Nirvana's debut album Bleach—that Cobain's affection for the band would heavily influence his songwriting, and through that lens, "Spirit" pretty much sounds like a Pixies parody. Cobain admitted to trying to rip off the group, and at a big 1992 concert in Reading, he also acknowledged the song's passing resemblance to Boston's "More Than A Feeling."
8. When Kurt Cobain saw himself on TV for the first time, he called his mother.
The music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" premiered on MTV's alternative music show 120 Minutes on Sunday, September 29, 1991. Cobain watched himself in a hotel room at The Roger Smith Hotel in New York City and called his mother to tell her, "There's me."
9. Nirvana was accused of plagiarism.
It all began in 1989, when Nirvana's "Negative Creep" featured the chorus "Daddy's little girl ain't a girl no more," which reminded a lot of the band's early listeners of Mudhoney's "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More." Nothing came of it, but years later Cobain might have had that in mind when he warned Nirvana's co-manager Danny Goldberg about making "Come As You Are" the next single after "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
"Kurt was nervous about 'Come as You Are' because it was too similar to a Killing Joke song ['Eighties'], but we all thought it was still the better song to go with," Goldberg told Rolling Stone. "And, he was right, Killing Joke later did complain about it." But that's all they did—complain.
Killing Joke never actually took the band to court over the similarities to their 1984 song due to "personal and financial reasons," and possibly because "Eighties" itself sounds an awful lot like The Damned's 1982 song "Life Goes On." Shrugging and muttering to themselves that good artists borrow and great artists steal, Killing Joke welcomed Dave Grohl behind the drum kit to play on their 2003 album.
The only time that someone actually sued Nirvana was director Kevin Kerslake, who alleged that Cobain used some of his ideas for the "Heart Shaped Box" music video. The case was settled out of court.
10. The original music video for "In Bloom" is from 1990 and set in New York City.
"In Bloom"—along with other Nevermind songs "Breed," "Lithium," and "Polly"—was a song intended for a 1990 album with Sub Pop, the band's initial record label. At first, Sub Pop seemed to be up to the task, paying for a recording session and releasing a music video showing the band performing the intended first single at a couple of different shows, traversing around David Dinkins-era lower Manhattan. Because nobody told Novoselic about continuity, he appears in parts of the video completely bald—the bassist thought his playing was so bad at one gig that he shaved his head to appease the bass gods.
Sub Pop, however, would prove to be on the verge of bankruptcy, and would only be saved by the deal they made with Geffen Records to receive some royalties from Nevermind. Helping to keep the cash flowing was "In Bloom," the album's fourth single, promoted by a much more professional looking and thought out video with the band performing on an old Ed Sullivan Show type of program.
11. The original "Lithium" video concept was a cartoon.
Initially, Cobain and director Kevin Kerslake agreed on Cobain's idea for the "Lithium" video: an animated story about a girl named Prego who discovers some eggs that hatch. Unfortunately, the two discovered—a bit too late—that the animation would take four months to produce and decided to just use footage from a couple of live performances. Kerslake did his best to make things interesting by using video of the band at its most vibrant, manic moments during the quiet parts of the song, and vice versa.
12. Nevermind's "candy-ass" sound was thanks in part to John Lennon.
Nevermind producer Butch Vig really wanted Cobain to double track his vocals to make the songs sound "fuller," "richer," and not have the record label spend a lot of money to purposely sound lo-fi. Cobain thought that would just be another indication of the band losing its indie, punk credibility (even though he was already recording a major label album). Vig knew that Cobain was a big John Lennon fan, so whenever Kurt would initially not agree to sing along with himself, Vig would tell him, "John Lennon did it." It worked, every time.
Cobain would later claim to resent the mainstream, radio-friendly production of the hugely successful album, poetically and timelessly describing it in 1993 as "candy-ass."
13. "Drain You," "Lounge Act," and several songs on Nevermind are reportedly about Tobi Vail.
Author Charles R. Cross—backed with access to Cobain's private journals and pages of unrecorded lyrics—theorized in his 2001 Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven that Nevermind is full of references to Tobi Vail, who broke up with Cobain months before the album's recording. The "Smells Like Teen Spirit" lyric that talks about a woman being over-bored and self-assured was likely to be about Cobain's ex. "Drain You" begins with the line, "One baby to another said 'I'm lucky to have met you,'" quoting what Vail had once told Cobain. "Lounge Act" in particular was unequivocally about the Bikini Kill drummer, confirmed by Novoselic and by Cobain himself in an unwritten letter to Vail that Cross read. Cobain wrote: "Every song on this record [In Utero] is not about you. No, I am not your boyfriend. No, I don't write songs about you, except for 'Lounge Act,' which I do not play, except when my wife is not around."
14. "Polly" was based on a true story.
Kurt Cobain wrote "Polly" in 1987 after reading an article about the torture and rape of a 14-year-old girl. Cobain chose to write the song from the perspective of the girl, inventing the name "Polly" to aid in a consistent, innocent-sounding bird metaphor. After hearing the song, Bob Dylan said of Cobain, "That kid has heart."
15. Nirvana was thrown out of their own record release party.
On a Friday the 13th, Geffen threw the band a record release party with invitations that read, "Nevermind Triskaidekaphobia, Here's Nirvana." Cobain started a full-fledged food fight when he threw ranch dressing at Novoselic, and a bouncer responded by grabbing the two and Grohl and throwing them out. The band then stood in the alley behind the club and talked to their friends through the window, before moving the party to a friend's place, where Cobain shot a fire extinguisher and the place had to be evacuated. At the next venue, Cobain completed the destruction trifecta by tossing a gold record plaque by the group Nelson into a microwave after proclaiming it an "affront to humankind."
16. "Weird Al" Yankovic asked for Nirvana's permission to write "Smells Like Nirvana" in their Saturday Night Live dressing room.
Three events on January 11, 1992 proved that Nirvana had completely made the unprecedented transition from underground punk band to universally beloved supergroup: Nevermind was #1 for the first time on that day's Billboard 200 albums chart; the band made their SNL debut performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Territorial Pissings" on the Rob Morrow-hosted late night show. To the joy of Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl, they got a phone call from "Weird Al" Yankovic.
"That was the craziest weekend because we get there, and the first time you see the SNL studio, it's tiny," Grohl recalled in 2011. "You imagine it being this big thing but honestly it's tiny, it's so small. The energy is crazy and people are running around and it goes so quickly, and one of the cast members comes up and says, 'Hey I'm friends with Weird Al Yankovic and he wants to talk to you about doing one of your songs.' And so I think we talked to him in the dressing room of SNL. He called the phone. You know you've arrived when Weird Al ... it was pretty huge. And he did a good job."
17. In Utero was initially going to be titled I Hate Myself And I Want To Die.
Nirvana's album titles tended to evolve over time: Nirvana's first album was recorded under the operating title Too Many Humans, until Cobain saw a sign in San Francisco that said to "Bleach Your Works"; Nevermind started out as Sheep, married to artwork of rows and rows of identical houses. Even though it was intended as a joke, Novoselic pointed out to Cobain that he was opening himself up to tons of potential lawsuits, and the idea was dropped.
18. The song "I Hate Myself And I Want To Die" features a Jack Handey "Deep Thought."
Even though the threat of lawsuits stopped the band from naming an album "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die," it didn't stop them from recording a song with the title "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die," although it might be the reason that it was left off of the In Utero album. Instead, the song with the misunderstood title (it was supposed to be a joke) found a home as the opening track on The Beavis and Butt-head Experience compilation album. But in the middle of the song, after helping to promote one television show, Cobain acknowledged a different, more mainstream show when he mumbled, "Most people don't realize that large pieces of coral, which have been painted brown and attached to the skull by common wood screws, can make a child look like a deer," an SNL "Deep Thought" from Jack Handey.
19. Elton John suffered collateral damage due to Nirvana's war with Guns N' Roses.
Kurt Cobain considered Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose to be a homophobe and a racist, an opinion that other people agreed with thanks to the lyrics of the GNR song "One in a Million." At the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, two pianos were set up on stage for an epic performance of "November Rain." Thinking Axl was going to play on it, Cobain spit on the keys of one of the pianos. To his horror, Kurt later found out that he had given a coat of saliva on the piano played by special guest Elton John.
20. MTV really did not want Nirvana to play "Rape Me" at the VMAs.
Nirvana was causing nothing but trouble at the '92 VMAs, and naturally their choice of song was one big issue. MTV told the band that they would like to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The band responded by saying that they were respectfully going to remember the clout they had earned over the past year and premiere a brand new song called "Rape Me" instead (a song that actually made its premier at a Santa Cruz concert one year earlier).
The network was not only scared by the title, but somewhat correctly surmised that the song was somewhat about them. The network countered that if the band played "Rape Me" on the live telecast that they would fire Amy Finnerty, an employee Cobain was close friends with, and would stop playing the band's videos. Although both parties agreed on "Lithium," MTV didn't trust Cobain, and for the second consecutive time, their paranoia proved to be well founded: When the band launched into the first few chords of "Rape Me," the control room was ready to go directly to commercial. At the last possible moment, Nirvana stopped the sneak preview to play the memorable version of "Lithium" which ended with Novoselic hitting himself in the head with his bass and Cobain and Grohl sarcastically saying hello to Axl Rose.
21. Krist Novoselic played a Nirvana gig at the Seattle Center Coliseum, even though he was banned from the premises.
Before performing at a Washington Music Industry Coalition Benefit on September 11, 1992 (two days after the VMAs), Nirvana couldn't help but notice that a photo of Novoselic was on the wall backstage, indicating that he was banned for life due to his behavior at a Sonic Youth concert one year before. They opened the show discussing it. Novoselic has yet to be punished for the crime.
22. "Heart Shaped Box" was originally titled "Heart Shaped Coffin."
Even though the song was inspired by an actual heart shaped box sent by Courtney Love to Kurt Cobain during the early days of their relationship, the initial lyrics read that the narrator was "buried" in the box (as opposed to "locked"), with the "Heart Shaped Coffin" title.
23. "All Apologies" originally sounded like a Beatles song.
The group wrote one third of 1993's In Utero in 1990. During an informal recording session on New Year's Day 1991, Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl put down an early, jangly version of "All Apologies." Some of the verses didn't have words yet, but the refrain "Married/Buried" was more or less set, a little over one year before Cobain's wedding to Love.
24. Dave Grohl wrote the riff to "Scentless Apprentice."
Grohl had been writing songs on his own since he joined Nirvana, even releasing a cassette album of his work in 1992 called Pocketwatch, under the pseudonym Late! It was understood that Cobain was the lone songwriter of Nirvana, but Grohl couldn't help himself and presented the group with the guitar riff and drum parts of what would turn out to be "Scentless Apprentice." Cobain said in an interview that he initially thought Grohl's riff wasn't very good but tried it out to not hurt his feelings (which of course was a nice thing to do until he revealed his thought to a reporter for Grohl to later read). Aside from "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Scentless Apprentice" was the only song from a Nirvana album that was given a "Cobain/Novoselic/Grohl" writing credit instead of Cobain receiving sole recognition.
Possibly as a reward, "Color Pictures of a Marigold," one of the songs from Pocketwatch, was recorded by Grohl and Novoselic toward the end of the In Utero sessions, and was released as "Marigold," a B-side to the "Heart Shaped Box" single. It would end up being the only Nirvana song that had no input from Cobain.
25. Kurt Cobain embellished the Leadbelly guitar story by about $445,000.
Before his classic cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" on MTV Unplugged, Cobain was provoked by Novoselic to talk about Leadbelly's guitar. "This guy representing the Leadbelly estate wants to sell me Leadbelly's guitar for $500,000," Cobain said. "I even asked David Geffen personally if he would buy it for me. Wouldn't do it."
It's possible that Cobain was trying to pull a fast one on the CEO of his label, because a few months earlier he wondered to a New York Times reporter if buying the guitar for $55,000 was a "punk move" or an "anti-punk move." Separating $445,000 from David Geffen would of course be both.
This story has been updated for 2021.