The Influences Behind Ten Of Kurt Cobain’s Best Songs

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana died tragically 19 years ago (wow, we’re old) on April 5th, 1994, but his legacy still lives on.

Each of his songs was inspired by an experience, a person, a book, a band or another song. In honor of his death today, below are ten songs written by Kurt Cobain, each with one of their influences.

Lithium – Nevermind

This song came out of Cobain’s experience living with the born-again Christian family of his friend, Jesse Reed. When Kurt was a rebellious teen, his father placed him in the care of family and friends. For a time with a the Reeds, he became a devout Christian. But he later renounced Christianity and engaged in “anti-God” rants.

Something in the Way – Nevermind

When Cobain left high school two weeks prior to graduation because he realized he didn’t have enough credits to graduate, his mother told him get a job or leave. She banished him after one week, and he remained homeless for a while, sometimes staying with friends, and sometimes hanging out under a bridge over the Wishkah River. That experience inspired this song.

About a Girl – Bleach

Inspired by his conflicts with a girlfriend, Tracy Marander from Olympia, WA, who used to insist he get a job. She supported them both by working at the cafeteria of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but he spent most of his time sleeping into the late evening, watching television and concentrating on art projects. Marander did not know this song was about her until after his death.

Aneurysm – “B” side of Smells Like Teen Spirit / With the Lights Out (2004) / Deluxe Reissue of Nevermind (2011)

When Cobain met a punk rock girl named Tobi Vail, his infatuation made him so stressed and overwhelmed that he vomited. This event inspired the lyric, “Love you so much it makes me sick,” in “Aneurysm.”

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nevermind

Girlfriend Tobi Vail wore the deodorant “Teen Spirit” and another friend of his spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall, as a joke. Cobain was unaware of the deodorant name, and mistook the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning.

Aero Zeppelin – Incesticide

Cobain was a fan of classic rock bands from the 70s, like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Queen and KISS. He occasionally covered these bands and wrote this song as a tribute to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.

Heart Shaped Box – In Utero

This song was inspired by watching documentaries about children with cancer. He told biographer Michael Azerrad, “Anytime I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything I can think of.”  The song’s name came from a heart-shaped box that Courtney Love had given Cobain. However, he had originally titled the song “Heart-Shaped Coffin.”

Rape Me – In Utero

Cobain wrote it not only as an objective discussion of rape, but a metaphorical protest against his treatment by the media.

Pennyroyal Tea – In Utero

“Dave [Grohl] and I were screwing around on a 4-track,” said Cobain, “and I wrote that song in about thirty seconds. And I sat down for like half-an-hour and wrote the lyrics and then we recorded it.”

Scentless Apprentice – In Utero

Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer inspired Cobain to write the song. The book is a historical horror novel about a perfumer’s apprentice born with no body odor of his own but with a highly developed sense of smell, and who attempts to create the “ultimate perfume” by killing virginal women and taking their scent.


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