Nirvana Sued by Man Who Was Baby on ‘Nevermind’ Album Cover

The suit alleges that the use of the photograph was child exploitation and pornography.

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Cobain: If you're offended by this you must be a closet pedophile.
Image via DGC Records

The baby on the cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album, released in 1991, is suing the band for allegedly exploiting his image, saying the band knowingly distributed his naked photograph as a baby and profited from it. The baby, now a 30-year-old man named Spencer Elden, also alleges that the band carried out child pornography by featuring a photograph of a naked baby.

He is asking for $150,000 from each defendant, including surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain’s estate, album photographer Kurt Weddle, Cobain’s former wife, Courtney Love, Universal Music, Geffen Records, Warner Records, and MCA Music.

According to the BBC, Elden argued that his “true identity and legal name are forever tied to the commercial sexual exploitation he experienced as a minor which has been distributed and sold worldwide from the time he was a baby to the present day.” He added that the artwork has caused him “extreme and permanent emotional distress,” and he has suffered lifelong damage and needs “medical and psychological treatment.”

Technically, under U.S. law, non-sexualized photographs of babies are not considered to be child pornography. Elden’s lawyer argued that the dollar bill that was superimposed on the photograph after it was taken made the minor seem “like a sex worker.” The case alleges that Nirvana had agreed to cover the genitals with a sticker but had not fulfilled that agreement.

Elden has, however, recreated that same album cover himself a number of times — always wearing swimming trunks — over the past few decades, both as a teenager and as an adult.

He spoke to The Guardian in 2015 about the positive impact of the photograph on his life:

It is a weird thing to get my head around, being part of such a culturally iconic image. But it’s always been a positive thing and opened doors for me. I’m 23 now and an artist, and this story gave me an opportunity to work with Shepard Fairey for five years, which was an awesome experience. He is a huge music connoisseur: when he heard I was the Nirvana baby, he thought that was really cool.

It helps with girls, too. Sometimes girls chat me up about it more than the other way around. I don’t tell them it’s me, and my friends boast about it more than I do. I would never go up to anyone wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and say, “Hey, that’s me”, but I was once recognised on a bridge in Venice when I was there for the Biennale. An Italian guy stopped me and said, “You’re the Nirvana baby!” which I thought was the craziest thing. I don’t know how anyone would recognise me.

In that same interview, he added that his parents were paid $200 for the shoot:

I was four months old and my dad was attending art school at the time, and his friends would often ask for help with their projects. So his friend the photographer Kirk Weddle called him and said, “Do you want to make some money today and throw your kid in the pool?” And he agreed. My parents took me down there, apparently they blew in my face to stimulate my gag reflex, dunked me in, took some pictures, and pulled me out. And that was it. They were paid $200 and went to eat tacos afterwards. No big deal.

Elden has also appeared at the Niagara Falls Comic Con in 2019, and signed autographs on the album cover and took part in photo opportunities. He earned $30 for each autograph, according to the Comic Con website.

In a 2016 interview with TIME magazine when he was 25 years old, he said, “I got a little upset for a bit. I was trying to reach out to these people. I never met anybody. I didn’t get a call or email. I just woke up already being a part of this huge project. It’s pretty difficult — you feel like you’re famous for nothing, but you didn’t really do anything but their album.”

This was also not the first time he considered legal action against Geffen Records.

In 2016, Elden admitted to looking into it, but said he was unsuccessful. “It’s hard not to get upset when you hear how much money was involved. [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,” he added.

Cobain addressed the album cover controversy before. He once argued that the nudity on the cover of the Nirvana album “Nevermind” could be covered with a sticker that read: “If you’re offended by this you must be a closet pedophile.” We looked into the origins of this quote in a previous story.