Once Naked For Nirvana, Now A Teen Spirit Before he was old enough to say "embarrassing," millions of people saw Spencer Elden in his birthday suit on the cover of Nevermind. As a teenager, he tried to make sense of his very public image.

Once Naked For Nirvana, Now A Teen Spirit

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It was the soundtrack of an entire generation.

(Soundbite of song "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

SIEGEL: That's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. The group's 1991 album "Nevermind" changed the face of rock and roll. And the face of that album, literally on its cover, belonged to a baby floating in a pool and reaching for a dollar bill on a fish hook. What happened to the band and to the lead singer, Kurt Cobain, is well-known. But what happened to the baby?

Well, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt has that story.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Okay. First off, he's 17 now, which makes you and me really old. His name is Spencer Elden. He hates high school and has a new car. He plays water polo. And he's California relaxed, saying things like…

Mr. SPENCER ELDEN (Student): I just take it as it comes - if I like it, I like it. If I don't like it, I don't like it, you know? Like…


Mr. S. ELDEN: It's all good. You know, this is all like, straight up.

JOFFE-WALT: Spencer likes to say straight up at every possible opportunity. He also likes to speak for himself, so I'll just let him do his introduction, I guess.

Mr. S. ELDEN: All right. Hi, my name is Spencer Elden. I'm 17 years old. I live in California, Los Angeles, 90041. I'm basically the baby on the Nirvana cover; quite a few people in the world have seen my penis. It's kind of cool, I guess. I'm just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I'm here.

JOFFE-WALT: Imagine if one of your naked baby pictures stayed with you for the rest of your life like this. That's all it was. It wasn't some child model audition or something. The "Nevermind" photographer was just a friend of Spencer's dad, Rick.

Mr. RICK ELDEN (Spencer's Dad): He calls us up and he goes, hey, Rick, you want to make 200 bucks and throw your kid in the drink? And I said, what's up? And he goes, well, I was shooting kids all this week. Why don't you meet me at the Rose Bowl, we'll, you know, throw the kid in the drink, it'd be cool. And we just had a big party at the pool. And no one had any idea what was going on.

JOFFE-WALT: Three months later, the family's driving down Sunset Boulevard and there's Spency, 9-foot-by-9-foot on Tower Records. Two months after that, Geffen Records sent Spencer a platinum album and a teddy bear. He was 1 year old.

Mr. S. ELDEN: I'm still, I guess, I'm at a floor at Tower Records in Hollywood. All my friends call me up all the time, hey, I saw you today. I'm like, dude, I was working all day. I didn't see you at all. And he's all like, no, man. I went to Geffen Records and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and you're on the floor and you're floating. I stepped on your face. Because I guess they have like, a floating thing where people can like, walk on me and stuff. So it's kind of cool.

JOFFE-WALT: Spencer's image has sat on the chest of millions of T-shirt-proud-Nirvana fans, hung above their beds next to their closets full of flannel shirts. Those angsty teens blasted "Nevermind" from their bedrooms, and the album sold more than 26 million copies.

Now, Spencer blasts his own 2008 music, techno, and carries around his own angst, mostly about he is so over high school.

Mr. S. ELDEN: The same people, same teachers, being in the same place every day. Just going to your locker, worrying about stupid girls and like, you're all like, aah. I just don't want to deal with it. I'm over it. I just want to get on and start doing something productive. I don't want to have to worry about turning in my math homework. I'm just saying, I want to get something like, I don't know. I just feel like I want to get something going, you know? Like, I want to travel, I want to do stuff, I want to, like, see things, I want to, like, just have a good time.

JOFFE-WALT: Last fall, Spencer went to military boarding school for six months. All his parents will say about that is Spency's done his fair share of testing authority. Now, he's trying to graduate high school a year early. And he's talking about a applying to West Point or becoming an artist or something else.

But here's what I found strangest about Spencer's experience being the Nirvana baby. He's this kid who represents the '90s for millions of people, but Spencer didn't actually grow into adulthood then. He was just a little kid. He missed it - which sucks, he says, because it was a way cooler time to be a teenager.

Mr. S. ELDEN: Kids nowadays, they just stay home and just go, like, you know, go on the Internet, MySpace or like, straight up like, they're playing "Rock Band" on like, Xbox, like, that's not a real band, you know? Like, kids are all like, that's the difference between like, the '90s and like nowadays. Kids in the '90s would actually go out and make a band. Kids nowadays are all like, oh, "Rock Band," cool.

JOFFE-WALT: That the Nirvana baby would long for the '90s as a time of innocence and fun probably would have shocked the band that put baby Spencer on their cover. Seeing as Nirvana was all about being alienated, angry, sensitive and scared, which actually is a lot like the current state of the Nirvana baby. Spencer Elden, almost grown up, 18 years later.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

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