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.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

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 (33) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (33)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.