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30 years later, the baby on Nirvana’s Nevermind cover is suing for damages

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Nirvana's <em>Nevermind</em> album cover.
Enlarge / Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover.

DGC Records

Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind is widely credited with bringing alternative and grunge rock into the mainstream, but now it’s in the news for another reason. Spencer Elden, the adult who was the baby depicted swimming naked on the album’s cover, has filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the photo violated various federal child pornography laws.

The suit, posted here in its entirety, names (among others) DGC Records and its parent companies; Courtney Love and the estate of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain; then-band members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl; and Chad Channing, a drummer who had left Nirvana the year before Nevermind was released but whose work on the album has been credited in later reissues. The suit is seeking “the actual damages [Spencer] has [sustained], or liquidated damages in the amount of $150,000, and the cost of the action.”

According to Spencer’s father, Rick Elden, the family was paid $200 to throw 4-month-old Spencer into a pool for “half a second” so he could be shot by photographer Kirk Weddle (also named in the suit). The dollar bill on the fish-hook was added after the fact; the suit claims that the baby is grabbing for the dollar bill “like a sex worker,” which together with the exposed penis forms the basis of the suit’s claim that the image is “sexually explicit.”

As an adult, Spencer Elden has been more than willing to give interviews and recreate the album cover. He was paid $1,000 to recreate the photo as a 17-year-old in 2008, and he earned another $200 from the New York Post to recreate the cover for the album’s 25th anniversary (complete with a “Nevermind” tattoo across his chest).

“Stuff happens like random cool situations where I get paid $500 just to go hang out,” Elden said in 2008. He also mentioned getting an internship with artist Shepard Fairey as a result of a radio interview he gave about the album.

But Elden’s relationship with the photo and the album’s success is complicated. As far back as 2008, he told MTV News that “it’s kind of creepy [to think] that that many people have seen me naked. I feel like I’m the world’s biggest porn star.” And in an interview with Time for the album’s 25th anniversary, he said, “[When] I go to a baseball game and think about it: ‘Man, everybody at this baseball game has probably seen my little baby penis,’ I feel like I got part of my human rights revoked.”

Perhaps more relevant for this lawsuit, Elden has also expressed a longstanding frustration with being excluded from the album’s success. The Time interview mentions that he had pursued but didn’t follow through with earlier legal action against Geffen Records, saying that “it’s hard not to get upset when you hear how much money was involved.”

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