The Story Behind Every Song On Nirvana’s Nevermind: 25 Years Later


What can be said about the greatest rock album of a generation? It changed music as we know it. It inspired musicians from all over the world to pick up an instrument and the rebellion and the attitude were unlike anything that had ever burst on the music scene.  By all definitions of a classic, it fits the mold.

One of my fondest memories of Nevermind was when I was a 13 year old kid listening to the track “Lithium” over and over again in the family car while we were on a vacation in Branson, MO. “Lithium” was my medicine for all that country music that was eating away at my rebellious early teen adolescence on that weekend trip. Having that track on repeat was much to the dismay of my parents. They wondered why I would keep listening to a song so many times in a row, eventually telling me to hand over the CD player so they could hear what I was listening too. What they were thinking was “this is going to be something satanic in nature, I.E. death, blood, guts and human sacrifice.” But instead it was the puzzled lyrics of Kurt Cobain, and after listening for a few seconds, they eventually said “why don’t you listen to another song” and handed the CD player back over to me and forgot about it. Thanks mom and dad for being so confused.

There was just something about “Lithium” that was addictive to me, and for months I didn’t get tired of it, and now as a 36 year old man I still need a dose of “Lithium” from time to time. However, despite the greatness of “Lithium”, which will be discussed in more detail later, there is one track that was practically solely responsible for the rock and roll revolution of the 90’s, and that is the first single and the opener to Nevermind, “Smells like Teen Spirit”.

  1. “Smells like Teen Spirit”

In a January 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain revealed that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired.
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. 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 that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard”.
Cobain did not begin to write “Smells Like Teen Spirit” until a few weeks before recording started on Nevermind in 1991, and bandmates didn’t like the track at first. When Cobain presented it to them it was comprised of just the main riff and the chorus vocal melody, in particular, bassist Krist Novoselic called it “ridiculous.” In response, Cobain made the band play the riff for “an hour and a half” and in a 2001 interview with Guitar World, Novoselic recalled that after playing the riff numerous times, he thought, “‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we just kind of slow this down a bit?’ So I started playing the verse part. And Dave playing a drum beat,” which, in turn, made “Smells like Teen Spirit” the only track on Nevermind to credit all three band members as authors.

During a December 2015 concert with Kathleen Hanna, the former lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, she told the hilarious story of how Cobain came up with the song’s title when she wrote “Kurt Smells like Teen Spirit” on a wall in a rental he was living in at the time.  Cobain later claimed he was unaware that Teen Spirit was a brand of deodorant until months after the single was released.  But the end result of “Smells like Teen Spirit” brings a hook that is something that guitarists dream about coming up with themselves, and when Cobain’s brooding vocals, Krist Noveselic’s thundering bass, and Dave Grohl’s quick hard hitting drum style is thrown in the mix, what you have is one of the greatest rock music tracks of all time.

2.  “In Bloom”

Nevermind‘s second track, “In Bloom” includes some of Cobain’s most clever lyrics:
He’s the one/Who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means
Those lyrics address the people outside of the underground music scene that began showing up at Nirvana shows after the release of the group’s debut album Bleach, and the video is equally fitting…

3.  “Come as You Are”

In the book Nevermind: Nirvana, by Charles R. Berkenstadt and Jim Cross, Cobain is said to have described the lyrics of  “Come as You Are” as conflicting, saying the track was about “people and what they’re expected to act like” as described in the lyric “Take your time, hurry up, choice is yours, don’t be late.”  It became one of Nirvana’s biggest hits, and is a definite change of pace from Nevermind’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

4.  “Breed”

Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop records and author of Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe explained that “Breed” was “hypnotic” and a stylistic breakthrough for the band, claiming that “audiences would become ecstatic. They were experiencing Nirvana. And when you’re experiencing really good, primal rock n roll, you break into a trance.”
“Breed” began under the title “Immodium” named after his friend Tad Doyle of Tad’s diarrhea medicine. Kurt instead used the title to suggest the running-on (diarrhea) of the mouth.

5.  Lithium

“Light my candles in a daze cause I found god”

Originally starting out as a piece of poetry written by Cobain, “Lithium” became one of Nirvana’s most popular sing-along anthems. In a 1992 interview with Flipside, Cobain said the song is about a man who, after the death of his girlfriend, turns to religion “as a last resort to keep himself alive” and “to keep him from suicide.”  Though the story of “Lithium” was fictional, he said, “I did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships.”
In the book Come as You Are, the Story of Nirvana, by Michael Azerrad, Cobain also acknowledged that the song was inspired by the time he spent living with his friend Jesse Reed and his born-again Christian parents. Cobain said of the track, “I’ve always felt that some people should have religion in their lives, that’s fine. If it’s going to save someone, it’s okay. And the person in [‘Lithium’] needed it.”

6.  “Polly”

Polly says her back hurts, She’s just as bored as me, She caught me off my guard, It amazes me the will of instinct

In the VH1 Classic Albums documentary about Nevermind, bass player Krist Novoselic remembers Cobain writing “Polly” after reading a newspaper article about the abduction, torture, and rape in August 1987 of a 14-year-old girl by Gerald Arthur Friend, who had picked the girl up near the Tacoma Dome in his car after she had attended a concert. She later escaped when he stopped for gas and attracted the attention from surrounding people who then contacted authorities.
On the musical side of things, “Polly” is drummer Chad Channing’s only contribution to Nevermind. Who was asked to leave the band before the recording of the album in Los Angeles. Channing’s cymbal crashes remained on the final Nevermind version of the song as it was recorded at producer Butch Vig’s Wisconsin studios before Channing was replaced by Dave Grohl.

7.  “Territorial Pissings”

“Territorial Pissings” starts off with Krist Novoselic singing Youngblood’s “Get Together”.
Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now
“Maybe some baby boomers will hear that and wonder what happened to those ideals,” Novoselic once said in an interview. “Territorial Pissings” is one of the heaviest tracks in the Nirvana catalog, but one aspect of the glory of this track that is often overlooked is Cobain’s strong views regarding feminism, as evident from the beginning of the second verse from Territorial Pissings, “Never met a wise man/If so, it’s a woman”
One of the most memorable performances of “Territorial Pissings” is from Nirvana’s 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance, when a national audience, after already seeing a performance of Nirvana’s greatest hit “Smells like Teen Spirit” was expecting “Breed” or “Come as You Are,” but in true Nirvana fashion, “Territorial Pissings” was played, with the band preceding to destroy their instruments after the performance.

8.  “Drain You”

According to Nevermind producer Butch Vig on the Classic Albums: Nirvana – Nevermind DVD, “Drain You” had more guitar overdubs than any other song on the album. Cobain tended to dislike heavily overdubbed songs, so Vig had to tell Cobain lies in order to use them, such as “the tracks did not record right” or “were out of tune” in order to get him to do so many takes.  Additionally, strange noises during the middle section of the song are caused by a rubber duck toy that also happened to end up on the back of the rarities compilation Incesticide. Cobain brought a rubber duck into the studio that sound engineer Andy Wallace put through delays to make it sound “trippy”.

9.  “Lounge Act”

One of the most underrated tracks on Nevermind, “Lounge Act” consists of a great hook and catchy lyrics, but was buried on the album under the immense success of tracks like “Smells like Teen Spirit”, “Lithium”, and “In Bloom”.   According to a 2015 article in Rolling Stone, “Lounge Act” was about Kurt’s ex-girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, because of its themes of jealously, insecurity, and being overbearing.  Producer Butch Vig said that “Lounge Act” earned its name because it is reminiscent to a “lounge song” thanks to its fun-loving riffs and Cobain’s more refined delivery.

10.  “Stay Away”

Monkey see/monkey do, I’ll rather be dead than cool

With an incredible bass line, and the blast of fused chaos from Grohl’s drums and Cobain’s voice, “Stay Away” is a true song of rebellion. Cobain stated in one of his journals that he used to spray paint “God Is Gay” on pickup trucks in the Aberdeen area, which ended up being the last words spoken on the track.

11.  “On a Plain”

Like “Polly”, “On a Plain” was another track written well in advance of Nevermind‘s recording. A song written about writing a song. He starts off with the lyrics “I’ll start this off without any words,” and in the chorus he bellows “I’m on a plain/I can’t complain,” as if settling on simplicity. “On a Plain” perhaps is best interpreted in its simplest of forms, such as on Nirvana’s 1994 MTV Unplugged performance.

12.  “Something in the Way”

In one of the most well-known stories in the history of Nirvana, “Something in the Way” was written during a time in which singer Kurt Cobain was homeless and slept underneath a bridge in his home town of Aberdeen, Washington. However, this theory, though circulated by Cobain, was contested in 2001 with the publication a biography entitled Heavier than Heaven, written by Charles Cross, who asserted that if Cobain really had spent nights underneath the bridge mentioned in the song, he would have been in danger of being swept away by the tide of the Wishkah River.
Even though the meaning of the lyrics might be something disputed in rock folklore until the end of time, what is true is “Something in the Way” was one of the more difficult songs to record during the Nevermind sessions. In the book Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song, producer Butch Vig stated Cobain had initially wanted to record “Something in the Way” with the full band, but when attempts proved unsuccessful, Cobain played the song for Vig by himself to show him how he thought it should sound. Vig was impressed with the way Cobain’s solo delivery sounded and after turning off the air conditioner and the telephones in the control room, he set up microphones to record the song with just Cobain singing and playing guitar. This became the core of the track with drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic adding their parts later.  However, both still had some difficulties with the relatively slow timing of the song. Novoselic had trouble tuning his bass to Cobain’s guitar and Grohl was forced to repress his natural inclination to pound on the drums in order to match the song’s gentle mood. On the final day of the Nevermind sessions, Kirk Canning, a friend of the band, completed the song with a cello line, and even though the song was successfully recorded through much trial and error, Canning also had difficulty tuning to Cobain’s guitar.  And perhaps the best way to hear that song is again from MTV Unplugged, stripped down, and similar to the way it initially inspired Butch Vig.

Hidden track:  Endless/Nameless

Often used as the closing of a Nirvana set to progressively destroy equipment during live shows, “Endless/Nameless” almost didn’t make it on Nevermind.  Audio engineer Howie Weinberg accidentally left the track off initial pressings. When Cobain found out it wasn’t there, he demanded that Weinberg fix it.  After 20,000 pressings were already distributed, ten minutes of silence between the end of “Something in the Way” and the start of “Endless/Nameless” were added on future pressings. With those early pressings being such a rarity, they have since become extremely sought after collectors items.

Nirvana Nevermind was the definitive album of the 90’s and we haven’t seen an album of that profound magnitude toward the rock genre since. So all you musicians out there who want to be big rock stars someday, listen to Nevermind on its 25th anniversary, get inspired and pick up your guitar, because you may just write the next Nevermind. Seriously, the time is now.
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