The Making of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

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YouTube

Deemed the most "iconic song of all time," scientifically-speaking, by researchers at the University of London, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" made its live debut on April 17, 1991, at Seattle's OK Hotel.

Kurt Cobain, the band's frontman, wasn't usually very talkative during gigs; he mostly left the witty banter between songs to bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. On that night, however, Cobain couldn't help himself. The band was currently mulling over major label offers, and was ultimately two weeks away from signing with DGC, a Geffen record imprint. A shot at fame was imminent. "Hello. We're major label corporate rock sellouts," the man who would soon be a rock star told the boisterous crowd.

Six months earlier, Cobain was holed up in the woods of Olympia, Washington. Cobain and Kathleen Hanna, singer/songwriter of the influential feminist riot-grrl punk band Bikini Kill, shared a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey and a goal on that October 1990 night: to deface a new teen pregnancy center, which Hanna described as "a right-wing con where they got teenage girls to go in there and then told them they were gonna go to hell if they had abortions. After doing some recon, Cobain was the lookout while Hanna made her way to the building and graffitied "Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone." When it was Cobain's turn, he spray-painted "God is Gay" in six-foot red letters.

The two spent the rest of the evening celebrating their victory and ended up at Cobain's place, where Hanna "smashed up a bunch of sh*t" then took out a Sharpie and wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Cobain's bedroom wall before passing out. Cobain loved the line so much that he decided to make it the title of one of his next songs.

"I took that as a compliment," Cobain later told Michael Azerrad in the authorized band biography Come As You Are. "I thought that was a reaction to the conversation we were having but it really meant that I smelled like the deodorant. I didn't know that the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out. I've never worn any cologne or underarm deodorant." Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail knew what Teen Spirit was, because she wore it. Vail was Cobain's girlfriend at the time.

Long before Cobain actually got Hanna's joke, he and Vail had broken up. The relationship ended in early 1991, while Cobain's band was writing new material that would not only appear on Nevermind but also on In Utero, Nirvana's third (and final) studio album, which wasn't released until September 1993.

Grohl, a newcomer to the group, lived with Cobain in Olympia when he first relocated to Washington. The two drove up to Novoselic's neck of the woods in Tacoma and practiced every night. At least half of what would become Nevermind—including "In Bloom," "Breed," "Lithium," "Polly", "Stay Away" (then "Pay to Play"), and "Something in the Way"—were already performed at an industry showcase gig in late November 1990. The other songs, including "Smells Teen Spirit," took shape during those practice sessions.

Grohl described the band's converted barn practice space as "weird," with its brown shag carpeting, stage lights, and a massive PA that no one knew how to use. It was there where Cobain first played the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff for Novoselic and Grohl. In early 1994, Cobain told Rolling Stone that when Cobain first played the now-legendary guitar part, "Krist looked at me and said, 'That is so ridiculous.' I made the band play it for an hour and a half."

According to Novoselic, he helped make it into more of an actual song. "We were just playing the chorus, 'When the light's out, and it's dangerous, here we are now,' over and over again," Novoselic remembered. "I said, 'Wait a minute. Why don't we just kind of slow this down a bit?' So I started playing the verse part. And Dave started playing a drum beat."

There was just one problem: the song sounded a lot like something the Pixies—a band Cobain adored—might produce. “I really remember thinking, ‘That is such a Pixies rip,’” Grohl said in 2011 in a BBC documentary about the making of Nevermind. “It was almost thrown away at one point because it just seemed too much like the Pixies.”

"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain admitted. "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."

Essentially since the band's founding, they had listened to a "steady diet" of the Pixies—as well as Mudhoney, Tad, Coffin Break, and The Sugarcubes—on their long road trips. Nirvana's debut album, 1989's Bleach, didn't use the soft-quiet verses/loud-hard chorus dynamic, but the 1990 single "Sliver" did. While on a European tour to promote "Sliver," Cobain met with Ken Goes, the Pixies' manager, under the pretense of Goes possibly managing Nirvana. Instead, Cobain spent most of the meeting asking questions about the Pixies. Goes described Cobain as more than a fan of the Pixies; he was a "student." When Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis of the Pixies, suddenly walked into the hotel, Cobain turned down Goes' offer to introduce him and ended the meeting entirely; apparently, Cobain didn't feel worthy of meeting such indie rock royalty.

Months after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had been recorded, Cobain still seemed worried it sounded too much like a Pixies rip-off. As Nirvana soundman Craig Montgomery drove with the group down to Los Angeles to shoot the music video for "Teen Spirit", Cobain played him the song and asked, "Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?”

Cobain also, likely unintentionally, took inspiration for the main riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling." "I take it as a major compliment," Boston songwriter Tom Scholz said, "even if it was completely accidental." Nirvana made light of the similarity during their 1992 Reading Festival appearance. Cobain also wrote in his journal, probably half-jokingly, that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" were also kind of similar.

But the song was too good to throw away. So it was on the set list on Wednesday, April 17, 1991, for Nirvana's headlining gig at the OK Hotel. It was a fundraising benefit event for Fitz of Depression singer Mike Dees, who was trying to avoid imprisonment due to massive traffic fines. At least, that's how the legend goes. Dees himself claimed it wasn't a benefit gig, but said that Cobain allocated $250 of Nirvana's earnings from the show to pay for a tour van for Fitz of Depression and to help Dees pay off some traffic tickets. The rest of Nirvana's earnings went to gas money for the band to drive down to Los Angeles to begin recording Nevermind.

The Seattle music scene was divided that night: Alice in Chains was nearby, at a warehouse on a pier masquerading as a music club, performing for Cameron Crowe's movie Singles (1992). Still, it was a packed house at OK Hotel—and they were about to witness music history.

Watch the performance above and you'll notice that the song's memorable lyrics, especially with the verses, appear nowhere near finished. "Here we are now, entertain us" was already established—Cobain claimed it was something he used to say as an icebreaker when he showed up to a party. As far as the other lyrics go, he took his time, and at one point showed them to Novoselic and asked what he thought of them. "And I checked them out and said, 'I think they're pretty cool,'" Novoselic recalled. "But then he seemed disappointed that I wasn't just raving about them. But the thing was that I just didn't get them the first time I read them. And then I started listening to it in the song format, and then I had an idea of what he was talking about. He was talking about kids, commercials, Generation X, the youth bandwagon, and how he's really disappointed in it, and how he doesn't want anything to do with it."

Novoselic wasn't alone in his interpretation of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song has been described as "an anthem for Generation X" so often that it may as well be an alternate title, but ultimately it's a song about Cobain and a moment in time.

For his 2001 Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross was given unprecedented access to Cobain's private journals. In the book, he writes:

Though Kurt never specifically addressed it, his most famous song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," could not have been about anyone else, with the lyrics "she's over-bored and self-assured." Teen Spirit" was a song influenced by many things—his anger at his parents, his boredom, his eternal cynicism—yet several individual lines resonate with Tobi [Vail]'s presence. He wrote the song soon after their split, and the first draft included a line edited from the final version: "Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?" The answer, at one point in his imagination, had been Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail.

Cobain did not ask who the king and queen of the outcast teens were, nor did he sing about a woman who was over-bored or self-assured, to the OK Hotel audience that night, which consisted of 500 fans, as well as the two bands that opened for Nirvana. One of those bands was Dees' Fitz of Depression, of course. The other was a band with a Teen Spirit-wearing drummer. Had her ex-boyfriend's lyrics about heartbreak been less oblique, her deodorant might have been given more of a test.

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10 Chance Meetings That Changed the World

John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) from The Beatles.
John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) from The Beatles.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some call it fate. Others call it destiny. And some just brush it off as coincidence. But however you view it, life has a funny way of bringing people together at just the right place and time. Check out some of the most random historical encounters we could find—meetings that, had they not happened, would have resulted in a very different world today.

1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton with Susan B. Anthony.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony (right).
Wikimedia//Public Domain

The suffrage movement would have looked very different had Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony not met on a street corner in 1851. Although both Stanton and Anthony were fierce abolitionists, Stanton got involved in suffrage earlier. She launched the First Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 as a reaction to being denied a seat at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention because she was a woman. Similarly, Anthony, who was born into a family of abolitionists, turned her sights toward suffrage after being unable to speak at a temperance convention. Still, their meeting was entirely coincidental.

After Anthony traveled to Seneca Falls, New York—where Stanton lived—for an antislavery meeting, she and her friend Amelia Bloomer ran into Stanton on the street. Bloomer, a mutual friend of both, introduced them, and the two formed a near-immediate friendship. Because Stanton was a busy wife and mother, she needed someone to be the voice of the suffrage movement and to deliver her speeches on the road. That person became Susan B. Anthony. Together, this powerful duo would go on to launch a suffrage newspaper called The Revolution, found the National American Women Suffrage Association, and more—all because they happened to go for a walk at the same time.

2. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald.
F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You would think that the most iconic couple of the 1920s would have met in a speakeasy, or, at the very least, been introduced by some famous author friends. But instead, the couple that embodied the Roaring Twenties met in a pretty ordinary way: At a dance. In July 1918, 21-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald, then a soldier, was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama, awaiting orders to fight overseas in World War I. Sick of having only his fellow soldiers for company, he decided to attend a nearby country club dance to blow off some steam. It was there he met Zelda Sayre for the first time.

Zelda was already the crown jewel of Montgomery society by that point and wasn’t initially interested in Fitzgerald, an aspiring writer. Still, Fitzgerald pursued the fiercely independent Zelda for two years, and finally convinced her to marry him after his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was picked up by Scribner in 1920. Though their marriage was famously tumultuous, they did inspire each other's work. F. Scott would even wind up lifting lines from Zelda's personal diary and including them in The Great Gatsby

3. Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Google founders Sergey Brin (left) and Larry Page (right).
Michael Nagle/Getty Images News

College tours aren’t normally life-changing—but in the case of Google’s founders, a walk around Stanford ended up changing the course of their careers (and had a pretty big impact on the rest of us). In 1995, Sergey Brin, then a second-year grad student in computer science, volunteered to be a tour guide for prospective students who had just been admitted to the school. By pure chance, Larry Page, an engineering major from the University of Michigan, ended up in his group.

Although the pair didn’t exactly start off as friends (they clashed during the tour and found each other “obnoxious”) it was a meaningful first impression. Several months later, when Page’s dissertation on the World Wide Web turned into a much bigger project involving a prototype search engine, he needed help building the system—which was originally named BackRub but, thankfully, was renamed to Google. The person he chose for the job? Someone who he had come to respect: his former tour guide.

4. Bob Woodward and Mark Felt (a.k.a. Deep Throat)

It turned out to be a simple package that helped turn Bob Woodward from a run-of-the-mill journalist into one of the men responsible for uncovering the most infamous scandal in presidential history. In 1970, Woodward was a lieutenant in his final year of Naval service, and one of his regular duties was to work as a courier delivering packages to the White House. One night, after spending a considerable amount of time in a waiting room for someone to come sign for a package, an older man came out to meet him. Woodward struck up a conversation with the man, and eventually learned that he was Mark Felt, an assistant director of the FBI.

Woodward, eager to advance in his career, asked for Felt’s phone number so that they could stay in touch. He reached out often while he transitioned from a military man to a journalist, with Felt acting as mentor and occasional anonymous source for Woodward's stories. Eventually, Felt would feed Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, the information that helped uncover the Watergate scandal, which would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.

5. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison

An engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, was the largest abolitionist publication of its time—and Frederick Douglass just so happened to be a loyal reader. When Douglass heard that Garrison was going to give a speech at an antislavery convention in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841, he decided to attend. But while he was there, a friend coaxed the shy Douglass to give a speech on his life story as a runaway slave in front of the attendees, which he reluctantly agreed to. Garrison, deeply moved by the unexpected speech, realized that Douglass not only had an incredible story—but a talent for speaking, as well.

Douglass's unlikely speech turned into another one two days later at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s convention in Nantucket, and Garrison took it upon himself to land Douglass a gig as a lecturer at the Society. He soon became Douglass’s mentor, introducing him to other influential abolitionists and later helping him to get his book published. Although the pair eventually became estranged due to differing interpretations of the Constitution, their early partnership helped Douglass ascend to national recognition, eventually leading to his fateful meeting with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. Not an honor often afforded to former slaves, Douglass spoke with the president about the unfair treatment of black soldiers fighting in the Civil War, leading to a sometimes strained but always respectful relationship between the two until Lincoln's death.

6. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

A photograph of Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right), the co-founders of Apple Computer Inc. xz
Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right), the co-founders of Apple Computer, Inc.
Tom Munnecke, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

iPhones, Macbooks, Apple watches, and more possibly wouldn’t exist if it wasn't for ... Bill Fernandez?

Fernandez was a mutual friend of Steve Jobs—whom he'd known since they attended Cupertino Junior High School—and Steve Wozniak, who lived on Fernandez's block. He thought they'd naturally hit it off.

Jobs was visiting Fernandez one day in 1971, and as they took a walk around the block, Fernandez saw Wozniak outside washing his car. He introduced the pair, and pretty soon, Jobs and Wozniak were fast friends themselves.

Jobs and Wozniak began hanging out and eventually started working on projects together. The first was blue boxes for phone phreakers (devices that people used to “hack” phones and make free calls). They quickly moved on to more respectable work, though, after joining the Homebrew Computer Club, a Silicon Valley-based club for computer hobbyists looking to make their own machines. From there, Wozniak built the Apple I in 1976—his first computer kit—and had Jobs help with the marketing. Soon after, the pair would work on the Apple II and formed Apple Computer, Inc. Fernandez would be one of the company's first employees.

7. John Lennon and Paul McCartney

A photograph of John Lennon and Paul McCartney at London Airport in 1968.
John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) at London Airport in 1968.
Stroud/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 6, 1957, a 15-year-old McCartney attended the annual Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete—not because he was a particularly active member of the church community, but because he hoped to find a girl there. With no girls to be found, he decided to listen to the music instead.

A high school band called The Quarrymen had just managed to squeeze themselves onto the schedule of events that day, and McCartney was immediately impressed by their sound. Once the set was over, McCartney had a mutual friend introduce him to the lead singer, John Lennon, so he could show off his stuff. After seeing McCartney’s (very impressive) guitar skills, Lennon invited him to join the band. And half of the Beatles was born.

8. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison

A photograph of Thomas Edison (right) and Henry Ford (left) examining Edison's incandescent lightbulb.
Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison (right).
Henry Guttmann Collection, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Edison was Henry Ford’s personal hero, but he never dreamed that they would become great friends. That all changed in 1896, however, when Ford attended the convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in Brooklyn, New York. Edison was making his rounds at the event, and, much to Ford’s delight, had a brief conversation with him about his recently invented quadricycle, the first automobile Ford ever designed. (Ford was working at one of Edison's subsidiary companies at this time and had idolized the inventor since he was a boy.)

According to legend, Edison, fascinated by Ford's ingenuity, told him: “You have the thing. Keep at it.” Twelve years later, Ford—who would single out the chance meeting as an important inspiration for his career—introduced the Model T, and he and Edison eventually formed a deep friendship that would last the rest of their lives.

9. Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward

A photograph of The Duke of Windsor with Wallis Simpson their wedding day at Château de Condé in France.
Wallis Simpson with the Duke of Windsor on their wedding day at Château de Condé in France.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Who knew that a weekend getaway would cause one of the most scandalous relationships in Great Britain’s history? Wallis Simpson, an American expat who came to England in the 1920s, was a social climber eager to rub elbows with only the most elite of British society. Previously married to a navy pilot, she and her second husband, Ernest Simpson, rose quickly through the ranks of the upper crust, and in 1931, they were invited to an exclusive hunting weekend at their friend Lady Thelma Furness’s home.

Lady Furness, who was Prince Edward VIII’s mistress at the time, could never have imagined that introducing Wallis and Prince Edward would doom her own relationship—and all because he and Wallis had a dull conversation about central heating. When Wallis allegedly called him out for essentially being a bore (a social crime of the highest degree), the prince was so enchanted by her feisty cheek that he (eventually) deemed it worthy of abdicating a throne for.

10. Sacagawea and Lewis & Clark

Sacagawea with Lewis and Clark.
Sacagawea acted as a guide for Lewis and Clark.
Edgar Samuel Paxson, Wikimedia//Public Domain

Sacagawea is well-known as explorer Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s translator during their Corps of Discovery Expedition, which explored the new Louisana Purchase, but the story of how she actually came to join the expedition is even more incredible. A member of the Shoshone tribe, she was kidnapped by a rival tribe, the Hidatsa, when she was a teenager and was brought to their settlement in South Dakota. She was then sold to a French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, who already lived with the Hidatsa. She was made to become one of his two wives and soon became pregnant with his child (polygamy was a Hidatsa tradition Charbonneau readily adopted, according to History.com).

By the time Lewis and Clark reached Hidatsa territory in November 1804 and began building their own settlement after establishing friendly contact with the tribe, Sacagawea was six months pregnant. Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea and Charbonneau during their stay and immediately recognized her value as a travel companion—she could speak both Hidatsa and Shoshone, and they could use her language skills to purchase much-needed horses from the Shoshone for the expedition. (She would translate Shoshone into Hidatsa and communicate that to Charbonneau, who would translate the Hidatsa into French and communicate that to a French- and English-speaking member of the Corps.) They waited for Sacagawea to give birth before continuing on their journey, and in 1805, the Corps of Discovery—which now included Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their newborn son—departed. With Sacagawea's help, they would make it to the Pacific Coast and back with maps, specimens, and important information about the Louisiana Purchase.