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