Smells Like Teen Spirit: Kurt Cobain’s olfactory genius


With the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death just behind us, it seems fitting to look at Kurt Cobain’s connection to the world of scent.

We can imagine that scent must have played a huge role in Cobain’s childhood growing up in the Pacific Northwest. How could it not? Scent is more discernible in climates with higher humidity, and scent molecules are easier to discern when incorporated into water and mists. Aberdeen, Washington, though something of a cultural backwater, must have been a wet place for childhood adventures of the nose.

But where is scent in Cobain’s work?

Scent in “Nevermind”

teen-spirit-2.3ozSmells don’t play a huge role in Kurt’s body of musical work, beyond the reference in Nirvana’s first big mainstream hit to the teen deodorant “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”” As the story goes, the song is named after the moment when Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna sprayed Lady Speed Stick deodorant, “Teen Spirit,” on Cobain’s wall, and Cobain was said to “smell like teen spirit” from time spent hanging out with his then-girlfriend  Tobi Vail, who wore Teen Spirit. Cobain purportedly saw in the phrase “Smells like teen spirit” more than a whiff of revolution, though he didn’t understand that it was the deodorant brand name until a few months after the song was released, in 1991.

Is it surprising that Cobain and his friends would latch onto smell left onto a body, or a the co-opting of a deodorant scent as a symbol for teenage rebellion? To a scent hound, no. The sense of smell, unless you are actively engaging it, as perfumers do, tends to peak during a person’s late teens and early 20s. That’s no news to Lady Speed Stick (by MENnon!), or to this ragtag group of musicians.

Scent in Cobain’s Journals

The journals, released in 2006 by Courtney Love to both excitement and disgust — excitement from fans who wanted one last chance to touch his genius, disgust from the critics who saw their release as an invasions into a private space for a troubled soul — are where you can truly get a sense of how important scent was to Cobain.  At the very least, you can sense how connected he was to smell for metaphoric inspiration, how large a role scent played in his imagination.

Upon their release, Seattle critic Tim Apello wrote a piece for Seattle Weekly decoding the “Dream World of Kurt Cobain’s Journals.” In it, Apello writes about the musician’s affinity for German writer Patrick Sueskind’s olfactory tour-de-force Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a novel about a scentless man who becomes obsessed with killing them. beautiful young women and capturing their scent.

Now is a great time to revisit Apello’s article, which pulls scent-related passages from the journals for interpretation:

“[Cobain’s] favorite book, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (which inspired his song “Scentless Apprentice”), concerns an olfactory prodigy, cast off by his mother and shuttled among relatives (as Cobain was), who kills women to collect their scent for perfume—reminiscent of Cobain’s habit of picking the brains of various aesthetic mentors. “I use bits and pieces of others personalities to form my own,” [Cobain] writes.”

In one passage of his journals, Cobain wrote about a lover who leaves the scent trail of Obsession in his home.

“Stranded, abandoned, he obsessively identifies with beached whales, disemboweled to make perfume from their blubber. (Perfume isn’t actually made that way, but he thought it was; on p. 224, he writes that whales beach themselves to convey a message of suicidal despair to humanity,) Apello writes.

Indeed, Cobain was obsessed with smells.

“The journal clarifies that in “Lounge Act”—one of a half-dozen songs on the epochal Nevermind album that he wrote to express his raging grief at getting dumped by Olympia’s haughty Riot Grrrl Tobi Vail, the first girl he loved so much he threw up (and probably played Twister with: hence the lyrics of “Aneurysm,” “Come on over and do the twist . . . love you so much it makes me sick”)—the original lyric went, “I can still smell him on you.”

The references to scent are legion.

Scent on Kurt Cobain

I haven’t spent much time wondering what rock idols smell like — perhaps I should — but luckily, there is the internet out there to do that for me. He may have looked like a rat’s nest, popularized the fashion aesthetic behind the Grunge movement, and smoked like a chimney, but by these accounts, Kurt Cobain smelled amazing. His ex-girlfriend Mary Lou Lord credited his clean scent to Aveda-brand confixor styling gel, purportedly a product he would filch from the group’s sound engineer, Monty. Aveda is known for its sustainability mission and for using plant essences, including essential oils, in all of its products.

An olfactory-inspired genius or a scent-touched teen rebel snuffed out while passing through a stage when his sense of smell was heightened? I could see myself in both camps.