Patti Smith’s Cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Strips the Song Down to its Heart

In 2007, Kurt  Cobain’s 1991 anti-anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was long etched into the consciousness of every music fan, but the musical landscape had changed considerably since its release. The inevitable mass appropriation of Nirvana’s thunderous dynamics and shaggy rebellion had turned out so much bland, overproduced grunge that the sound sank into unlistenable decadence. With indie artists doing Gang of Four-like dance punk, eighties electro, and anything at all that sounded nothing like Nirvana, some—like Iron and Wine and the Decembrists—picked up banjos and fiddles and reached back even further to moody Appalachian folk.

So when punk foremother Patti Smith re-interpreted Nirvana’s era-defining classic for her ’07 covers album Twelve, she choose the latter sound, a spare country arrangement with bass, acoustic guitar, violin, banjo, and Smith’s timeless voice. No need for drums, it’s been done; what we hear instead is the essence of the song’s lyrical and melodic power. As most songwriters will tell you, a good song should strip down to voice and guitar without losing its heart. Smith’s version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” proves that Kurt Cobain’s songwriting stands up to the test, and the black and white video recalls Smith’s own photography. It’s a particularly Patti Smith memorial.

Loss defines so much of Smith’s late period work—of Cobain, her brother, late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, and close friend Robert Mapplethorpe—but her commemoration of those losses has also renewed her creatively. In a way, her career revival began with a memorial to Cobain, with the song “About a Boy” from her 1996 “comeback” record Gone Again, a partial collaboration with her husband not long before his death. Watch Smith below deliver a spellbinding live performance of “About a Boy” from a June 23, 2000 concert in Seattle.

Related Content:

Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Surviving Recording of Woolf’s Voice

Patti Smith Remembers Robert Mapplethorpe

The First Live Performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (28) |

  • PatMinNYC

    A heartfelt cover of a great piece of music!

  • dylan

    wot the fuck leave it alone. the only good thing to come out of this, the end, sorry patti stick to your own music!!!!!!!!

  • Anon

    I love that you can hear each lyric and savor each note in this cover.

  • Anon

    It almost sounds like she’s worshiping the original work.

  • bundy

    are you serious?! its a drawled out boring attempt.. a 10 year old could achieve more with half a headphone, sorry. if you’re going to recreate a classic at least try man

  • adrienne

    s’okay ~ but the enunciated words take away from the trip . . . if you know what I mean

  • Mac

    Idk about slowing down smells like teen spirit. Nirvana got by on attitude, and the fact that they captured a different sound at the time. Im gonna get flamed for this but, Kurt was not a great song writer, or a particularly talented guitar player for that matter. Remove kurt’s sound and there is not much there. And you really notice this once you slow the tempo

  • Matt R

    Ummm the instrumentation is good. However any true Nirvana fan would have chosen just about any other song than Smells like teen spirit.

    Vocals are boring Sorry Patti.

  • cb

    with the lights out… its less dang-er-ous

    did this piss anyone else off?

  • Bobby Towers

    Yuck! Make it stop! She ruined it. Worst thing I’ve heard in a long, long time.

  • ME


  • Des

    I completely support any applause Patti receives, but this song came out a very long time ago.

  • http://x Shaun

    Songwriting doesnt mean shit. Music is #1, lyrics are always secondary. Kurt used to write lyrics in the studio, literally just as he was about to record the song.

  • madijmmy ,thats cool ,jimmy ( 39 )

    right to the sole , love it

  • James Milkbone

    Tori Amos’ cover was much better and more haunting

  • http://google Sarah Turner

    Love it!

  • http://google Sarah Turner

    I actually like the dan-ge-rous bit, her voice is amazing. What are these people like?

  • Petra Martinez

    I love it.

  • jmonk

    patti patti patti…she is so self involved it is irritating…when is she going to release her late husband’s tapes?…or will she…or has she not yet found a way to make that about her as well?

  • dead

    Turn comments off. Half wits spoil my day.

  • Jacques Rigaut

    The Decembrists? You mean the official band of NPR?

  • catgotwasted

    It’s just a shame that Kurt is not around to give his opinion.

  • llee611838

    I remember in the commentary for the Nirvana Behind the Music, someone from MTV said that the band was smart not to try Teen Spirit acoustic because it couldn’t be done. Seems it can be done… but should it? Seems the reactions are mixed.

  • Gingrich

    Smells like unpleasant vaginal odor

  • Gingrich

    Smells like unpleasant vaginal odor

  • Luke Baughan

    This is great – if you like this you’ll also probably like Iron Horse’s Bluegrass version of Metallica’s Enter Sandman here

  • Willisfitinyourmouth

    Recorded this off college radio. Wow. Incredible. Got to be the first Patti Smith song I ever listened to. I am a Nirvana fan. The patti version is almost better than the original. Confused how so many people think it sucks. I’m aged 43. Old rocker. Now days like old country and folk and 1920’s blues. So this fits well. Enjoy all tunes.

  • Fernando

    This is amazing!!