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The Making of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

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Deemed the most "iconic song of all time," scientifically-speaking, by researchers at the University of London, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" made its live debut 25 years ago today—on April 17, 1991—at Seattle's OK Hotel.

Kurt Cobain, the band's frontman, wasn't usually very talkative during gigs; he mostly left the witty banter between songs to bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. On that night, however, Cobain couldn't help himself. The band was currently mulling over major label offers, and was ultimately two weeks away from signing with DGC, a Geffen record imprint. A shot at fame was imminent. "Hello. We're major label corporate rock sellouts," the man who would soon be a rock star told the boisterous crowd.

Six months earlier, Cobain was holed up in the woods of Olympia, Washington. Cobain and Kathleen Hanna, singer/songwriter of the influential feminist riot-grrl punk band Bikini Kill, shared a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey and a goal on that October 1990 night: to deface a new teen pregnancy center, which Hanna described as "a right-wing con where they got teenage girls to go in there and then told them they were gonna go to hell if they had abortions. After doing some recon, Cobain was the lookout while Hanna made her way to the building and graffitied "Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone." When it was Cobain's turn, he spray-painted "God is Gay" in six-foot red letters.

The two spent the rest of the evening celebrating their victory and ended up at Cobain's place, where Hanna "smashed up a bunch of sh*t" then took out a Sharpie and wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Cobain's bedroom wall before passing out. Cobain loved the line so much that he decided to make it the title of one of his next songs.

"I took that as a compliment," Cobain later told Michael Azerrad in the authorized band biography Come As You Are. "I thought that was a reaction to the conversation we were having but it really meant that I smelled like the deodorant. I didn't know that the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out. I've never worn any cologne or underarm deodorant." Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail knew what Teen Spirit was, because she wore it. Vail was Cobain's girlfriend at the time.

Long before Cobain actually got Hanna's joke, he and Vail had broken up. The relationship ended in early 1991, while Cobain's band was writing new material that would not only appear on Nevermind but also on In Utero, Nirvana's third (and final) studio album, which wasn't released until September 1993.

Grohl, a newcomer to the group, lived with Cobain in Olympia when he first relocated to Washington. The two drove up to Novoselic's neck of the woods in Tacoma and practiced every night. At least half of what would become Nevermind—including "In Bloom," "Breed," "Lithium," "Polly", "Stay Away" (then "Pay to Play"), and "Something in the Way"—were already performed at an industry showcase gig in late November 1990. The other songs, including "Smells Teen Spirit," took shape during those practice sessions.

Grohl described the band's converted barn practice space as "weird," with its brown shag carpeting, stage lights, and a massive PA that no one knew how to use. It was there where Cobain first played the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff for Novoselic and Grohl. In early 1994, Cobain told Rolling Stone that when Cobain first played the now-legendary guitar part, "Krist looked at me and said, 'That is so ridiculous.' I made the band play it for an hour and a half."

According to Novoselic, he helped make it into more of an actual song. "We were just playing the chorus, 'When the light's out, and it's dangerous, here we are now,' over and over again," Novoselic remembered. "I said, 'Wait a minute. Why don't we just kind of slow this down a bit?' So I started playing the verse part. And Dave started playing a drum beat."

There was just one problem: the song sounded a lot like something the Pixies—a band Cobain adored—might produce. “I really remember thinking, ‘That is such a Pixies rip,’” Grohl said in 2011 in a BBC documentary about the making of Nevermind. “It was almost thrown away at one point because it just seemed too much like the Pixies.”

"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain admitted. "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."

Essentially since the band's founding, they had listened to a "steady diet" of the Pixies—as well as Mudhoney, Tad, Coffin Break, and The Sugarcubes—on their long road trips. Nirvana's debut album, 1989's Bleach, didn't use the soft-quiet verses/loud-hard chorus dynamic, but the 1990 single "Sliver" did. While on a European tour to promote "Sliver," Cobain met with Ken Goes, the Pixies' manager, under the pretense of Goes possibly managing Nirvana. Instead, Cobain spent most of the meeting asking questions about the Pixies. Goes described Cobain as more than a fan of the Pixies; he was a "student." When Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis of the Pixies, suddenly walked into the hotel, Cobain turned down Goes' offer to introduce him and ended the meeting entirely; apparently, Cobain didn't feel worthy of meeting such indie rock royalty.

Months after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had been recorded, Cobain still seemed worried it sounded too much like a Pixies rip-off. As Nirvana soundman Craig Montgomery drove with the group down to Los Angeles to shoot the music video for "Teen Spirit", Cobain played him the song and asked, "Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?”

Cobain also, likely unintentionally, took inspiration for the main riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling." "I take it as a major compliment," Boston songwriter Tom Scholz said, "even if it was completely accidental." Nirvana made light of the similarity during their 1992 Reading Festival appearance. Cobain also wrote in his journal, probably half-jokingly, that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" were also kind of similar.

But the song was too good to throw away. So it was on the set list on Wednesday, April 17, 1991, for Nirvana's headlining gig at the OK Hotel. It was a fundraising benefit event for Fitz of Depression singer Mike Dees, who was trying to avoid imprisonment due to massive traffic fines. At least, that's how the legend goes. Dees himself claimed it wasn't a benefit gig, but said that Cobain allocated $250 of Nirvana's earnings from the show to pay for a tour van for Fitz of Depression and to help Dees pay off some traffic tickets. The rest of Nirvana's earnings went to gas money for the band to drive down to Los Angeles to begin recording Nevermind.

The Seattle music scene was divided that night: Alice in Chains was nearby, at a warehouse on a pier masquerading as a music club, performing for Cameron Crowe's movie Singles (1992). Still, it was a packed house at OK Hotel—and they were about to witness music history.

Watch the performance above and you'll notice that the song's memorable lyrics, especially with the verses, appear nowhere near finished. "Here we are now, entertain us" was already established—Cobain claimed it was something he used to say as an icebreaker when he showed up to a party. As far as the other lyrics go, he took his time, and at one point showed them to Novoselic and asked what he thought of them. "And I checked them out and said, 'I think they're pretty cool,'" Novoselic recalled. "But then he seemed disappointed that I wasn't just raving about them. But the thing was that I just didn't get them the first time I read them. And then I started listening to it in the song format, and then I had an idea of what he was talking about. He was talking about kids, commercials, Generation X, the youth bandwagon, and how he's really disappointed in it, and how he doesn't want anything to do with it."

Novoselic wasn't alone in his interpretation of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song has been described as "an anthem for Generation X" so often that it may as well be an alternate title, but ultimately it's a song about Cobain and a moment in time.

For his 2001 Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross was given unprecedented access to Cobain's private journals. In the book, he writes:

Though Kurt never specifically addressed it, his most famous song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," could not have been about anyone else, with the lyrics "she's over-bored and self-assured." Teen Spirit" was a song influenced by many things—his anger at his parents, his boredom, his eternal cynicism—yet several individual lines resonate with Tobi [Vail]'s presence. He wrote the song soon after their split, and the first draft included a line edited from the final version: "Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?" The answer, at one point in his imagination, had been Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail.

Cobain did not ask who the king and queen of the outcast teens were, nor did he sing about a woman who was over-bored or self-assured, to the OK Hotel audience that night, which consisted of 500 fans, as well as the two bands that opened for Nirvana. One of those bands was Dees' Fitz of Depression, of course. The other was a band with a Teen Spirit-wearing drummer. Had her ex-boyfriend's lyrics about heartbreak been less oblique, her deodorant might have been given more of a test.

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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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