Kurt Cobain was a poet in his own right, and literature unsurprisingly played a significant part in his life. Musicians and books have been bedfellows for as long as time’s been ticking, influencing each other to varying degrees, and the late Nirvana frontman was one of the many who has written a song as a direct response to a literary piece of work.
Inspiration can strike from anywhere, and it could be as little as a word in a newspaper headline that sparks a fire in the imagination. For Kurt Cobain, it was a story that he cherished from a book that struck him to such a degree that he felt compelled to channel the story into a song.
He was a personal writer, and Cobain felt like the piece of literature was written exclusively with him in mind. Cobain’s writing rarely took influence from anything but his own life, yet there was something about Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume that completely changed how the Nirvana man approached songwriting.
Cobain made the revelation during one of his final interviews before his untimely death, which saw him open up about his love of literature, and how Perfume was the one book he simply couldn’t live without.
“I’ve read Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, about ten times in my life and I can’t stop reading it,” Cobain revealed. “It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time, it just doesn’t leave me. Everytime I’m bored, if I’m on an aeroplane or something, I read it over and over again because I’m a hypochondriac, and it just affects me. It makes me want to cut my nose off.”
“It’s about this perfume apprentice in France at the turn of the century,” Cobain explained. “He’s just disgusted basically with all humans, but he can’t get away from humans. So he goes on this trek, this walk of death, he goes into these rule areas where there’s woods all over the place, and these small villages. He only travels by night, every time that he smells human, even like a fire from a far-off way, he’ll just get real disgusted and hide away from people. I kind of relate to that,” Cobain added.
In the interview, Cobain then discusses how he copied the story from Perfume for ‘Scentless Apprentice’ from In Utero.
“That’s really one of the first times that I’ve ever used an actual story as a book, as an example in a song,” he added in the interview. “I’ve always tried to stay away from that, but now that I’m running out of ideas more and more, I tend to do that.”
Although Cobain used the book as his muse for the song, that’s only because of how deeply he recognised himself within the book’s protagonist and the emotions that rippled through every page mirrored how he felt when the world was against him. He understood the deep feeling of angst that bleeds throughout Perfume and could relate to it like nothing else he’d read before.
Cobain was in a dark stage of his life at this moment, and Perfume offered him a poignant reminder that he wasn’t alone. When he had a copy of the book in his pocket, everything was momentarily okay and briefly made sense through the lens of Süskind’s pen.
The way that Cobain wrote was visceral and filled with emotion, and it speaks volumes about how much this book meant to Cobain that he transformed it into ‘Scentless Apprentice’. Through the track, the relationship he held with the book has been immortalised forever.