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Story Behind The Song: How death and depression inspired Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’

Nirvana’s epoch-defining 1991-defining record Nevermind skyrocketed the grunge outfit from an underground punk band of the ‘Bleach’ era to the self-defined ‘corporate rock whores’ (the slogan found on the back of the band’s infamous ‘smiley logo’ T-shirt) of the 1990s. They soon found themselves as the poster boys of a movement, and the genre itself took off and garnered waves of fans of adoring fans. However, this newfound status and fame undoubtedly contributed to Cobain’s battle with his mental health and, ultimately, his suicide.

Dave Grohl has recently admitted to “ripping off” disco drummers during the recording process of Nevermind. Kurt Cobain’s simple, Beatles-inspired songwriting allowed Grohl to lay down what are essentially four-on-the-floor drumming rhythms and for Krist Novoselic to issue deep and plunging basslines. The record, unsurprisingly due to its simplicity, became one of the best-selling albums of all time.

There are many tracks on Nevermind inspired by a range of conceptions, from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, which was Cobain’s attempt to write “the ultimate pop song”, to ‘Polly’, which came from a story taken straight from a local newspaper – the abduction of a 14-year-old girl on her way home from a concert.

Yet the story and background of the fifth track of Nevermind also provide insight into Cobain’s songwriting process. The track opens with one of the most famous basslines of the ’90s and one of the most well-known opening lyrics: “I’m so happy/‘cause today I found my friends/they’re in my head.”

The song is written from the perspective of a man in the midst of a battle with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, though this does not sound too far from where Cobain would find himself some years later. There is evidently a lot of self-loathing in ‘Lithium’ (“I’m so ugly/but that’s okay/’cause so are you”), though Cobain stressed that more often than not, he was not singing and writing about himself.

The title of the track comes from the drug Lithium, which is often used by psychiatrists to help treat manic depression and bipolar disorder and can help to regulate the mood of those in depressive suffering. Cobain’s cousin, Beverly Cobain, a psychiatrist nurse, revealed that Kurt himself might have had bipolar disorder. She once said: “Bipolar illness has the same characteristics as major clinical depression, but with mood swings, which present as rage, euphoria, high energy, irritability, distractability, overconfidence, and other symptoms. As Kurt undoubtedly knew, bipolar illness can be very difficult to manage, and the correct diagnosis is crucial. Unfortunately for Kurt, compliance with the appropriate treatment is also a critical factor.”

The song’s story comes actually from a fictional occurrence. Cobain once said, “the story is about a guy who lost his girlfriend. I can’t decide what caused her to die – let’s say she died of AIDS or a car accident or something – and he’s going around brooding and he turned to religion as a last resort to keep himself alive, to keep him from suicide.” Cobain added elsewhere: “He’s decided to find God before he kills himself. It’s hard for me to understand the need for a vice like [religion] but I can appreciate it too. People need vices.”

So while the song is undoubtedly inspired by depression and the battle to control it through the use of psychiatric medication, the narrator of the song had ultimately turned to another form of medication, religion – something that Cobain echoed the thoughts of Karl Marx when he described religion as, “a fine sedative for the masses” – when his initial attempts to stem the tide of his condition had proved unfruitful.

Cobain’s interest in religion comes from when he moved out of his family home after seeing his mother physically abused by her boyfriend. He went and lived with his school friend Jesse Reed. Reed’s parents were born-again Christians who invited the young Cobain to go to church with them, something that Cobain welcomed with open arms, according to Jesse’s father, Dave Reed, who said: “Kurt became a born-again Christian through my son Jesse and our family environment. He went to church almost every time the door was open. For a while, he took Christian life very seriously.”

So while Lithium is the story of a fictional character struggling with their mental health and attempting to resolve their battle with different kinds of sedatives (medicine and religion), it is ultimately inspired by Cobain’s own experiences with both. Unfortunately, Cobain was one of the souls who lost this battle, eventually taking his own life. However, Cobain’s words here suggest he had managed to find solace within himself: “People think of life as being so sacred, like it’s their only chance and they have to do something with their life and make an impact on everyone because the threat of dying is just so vital. As far as I’m concerned it’s just a little pitstop for the afterlife. It’s just a little test to see how you can handle reality.”

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