The Cover Uncovered: The story behind Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ artwork
Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind is a masterpiece that transcended music, becoming a zeitgeist cultural phenomenon, sending shockwaves across the globe in the process. Every aspect of the pioneering record was unprecedented, all the way from the challenging themes that the band tackle on the LP to what might be the most controversial facet of the record; the album sleeve.
The record’s cover famously shows a naked baby swimming with a dollar bill dangling on a fishing hook ahead of him. After seeing the album cover so many times you become normalised to its presence but it is absolutely astonishing that the band’s major-label debut was allowed to feature a baby’s penis on the front cover in the social climate of the early nineties. Here, we unravel the story of one of the most famous album covers of all time.
The band’s decision for the album imagery was one they made without much guidance from their new record label. Geffen, the band’s first major label, did try their best to change Nirvana’s collective mind but it was to no avail. The group were determined to enact their vision and their somewhat uncompromising position is part of what made Nirvana so adored.
The child that featured on the record was Spencer Elden, who still has mixed feelings towards his appearance on the sleeve. On one hand, he sees it as an honour but, on the other, it leaves him feeling strange that millions of people have a picture of his penis on a CD cover.
Cobain was the mastermind behind the operation and the initial idea came to the late frontman when he was watching a programme about water births. The singer then brought this up next time he saw Geffen’s art director Robert Fisher who discovered some stock footage of underwater births which was immediately ruled out by the label bosses. They then came to a compromise and went for the swimming baby option but the label was unwilling to shell out $7,500 on a stock image of a swimming baby so, instead, they created their own.
Photographer Kirk Weddle was sent out by Fisher to a local pool to shoot the cover art after recruiting his friends baby to take part, for a fee of just $200. Geffen didn’t want to show Elden’s penis on the cover and tried their hardest to get Nirvana to agree on an alternative cover but getting the band to budge would be easier said than done. Cobain did eventually agree to not show Elden’s penis on the cover on the record but only on the condition that there would be a sticker covering the genitalia reading: “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile.”
“Nevermind was a special record,” the album’s producer Butch Vig recently fondly recollected to Far Out. “I mean, the band had been playing really well and they were really tight and focused when they came into the studio. Kurt had written a bunch of amazing songs that were super hooky but I had no idea it was gonna be a zeitgeist moment, it just completely exploded, it really was like a revolution. It completely changed my life for the better, everybody I know closely associated with the band will say the same thing. No one saw it coming but we’re all really thankful that we were along for the ride.”
Nobody expected Nevermind to be a hit, let alone an international sensation that would define an entire era. This included Elden’s parents who didn’t think twice about allowing their son’s private parts to be photographed for the album. It didn’t cross their minds for a moment that their son’s penis would feature on one of the most famous album sleeves in the history of music.
“Looking back, it feels kind of stupid doing interviews about it, because I had nothing to do with it, but a lot to do with it all at the same time,” the baby in question, Spencer Elden told TIME in 2016. “It’s a really weird feeling being a part of someone else’s momentum—being caught up in this wake of stuff.”
As a way to come to terms with the incident, Elden has a sprawling Nevermind tattooed across his chest but he’s still realising his iconic role in musical history which he had, by and large, nothing to do with. “I got a little upset for a bit,” he added to TIME. “I was trying to reach out to these people. I never met anybody. I didn’t get a call or email. I just woke up already being a part of this huge project. It’s pretty difficult—you feel like you’re famous for nothing, but you didn’t really do anything but their album.”
The album cover is a stroke of genius. It perfectly sums up the societal expectation to spend your entire life chasing money from the moment you come out of the womb, all the way up until the day that you end up in the casket. It was a theme that ran throughout the band’s work and the cover, therefore, acts as an extension of the LP it contains.
However, Elden’s story is the darker side of Nevermind and how he’s lived his whole life struggling to come to terms with his unearned place in musical history. He never asked to be on the cover of one of the most seminal records of all time and now, for the rest of his life, he’s best known for something that had nothing to do with him and faced with an almost impossible task in shaking off this tag.