Three decades later, the baby featured on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album has filed a lawsuit against the band. Spencer Elden, now 30 years old, appeared on the 1991 album cover as an infant underwater facing a dollar bill on a fishhook. Now alleging that the photo constitutes child pornography, Elden is suing for damages with the argument that he was sexually exploited by Nirvana for the sake of promoting their music.
“Defendants intentionally commercially marketed Spencer’s child pornography and leveraged the shocking nature of his image to promote themselves and their music at his expense,” the lawsuit reads. “Defendants used child pornography depicting Spencer as an essential element of a record promotion scheme commonly utilized in the music industry to get attention, wherein album covers posed children in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention, and critical reviews.”
Elden is asking for at least $150,000 from each defendant for damages, including surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Also named in the suit is Courtney Love, the executor of Kurt Cobain’s estate. Other defendants listed include Cobain’s estate managers Guy Oseary and Heathery Parry, photographer Kurt Weddle, art director Robert Fisher, and various record companies, some now defunct, that released or distributed the album since 1991.
Oddly enough, original Nirvana drummer Chad Channing is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. In the band’s early years, Channing had played drums for Nirvana before he was replaced by Dave Grohl in 1990. Though he served as the drummer for their debut album Bleach, Channing was not involved with the recording of Nevermind nor the album cover artwork featuring Elden.
The artwork of Nirvana’s Nevermind has long been one of the most recognizable album covers in music. Per the lawsuit, a passage from Michael Azerrad’s biographical book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana details the creation of the album cover, alleging that frontman Kurt Cobain insisted upon using the image despite a request from Geffen Records to censor Elden’s genitals. Allegedly, Cobain said he would only consider that if a sticker was used that read, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a close pedophile.”
Elden says his parents were paid $200 for the photo shoot and were never compensated financially beyond that initial payment. His suit also argues that neither he nor his parents ever signed a release authorizing the use of Elden or his likeness, and “certainly not of commercial child pornography depicting him.” Elden’s suit adds that displaying the dollar bill on a fishhook adds another element of sexuality by suggesting he’s reaching for the money “like a sex worker.”
“Weddle took a series of sexually graphic nude photographs of Spencer,” the suit reads. “To ensure the album cover would trigger a visceral sexual response from the viewer, Weddle activated Spencer’s ‘gag reflex’ before throwing him underwater in poses highlighting and emphasizing Spencer’s exposed genitals. Fisher purchased fishhooks from a bait and tackle shop to add to the scene. At least one or more film cartridges were exposed in a short period of time which included at least 40 or 50 different image shots of Spencer. Cobain chose the image depicting Spencer – like a sex worker – grabbing for a dollar bill that is positioned dangling from a fishhook in front of his nude body with his penis explicitly displayed.”
In previous years, Elden had recreated the album cover as a teenager and as an adult for various anniversaries of Nevermind. At one point, he even ahd the Nevermind emblem tattooed on his chest. Speaking about his fame in interviews accompanying these shoots, he’s never described the photos as pornographic, though he has admitted to having mixed feelings as to whether he was exploited. Elden has also expressed frustration over Grohl and Novoselic allegedly ignoring his attempts to reach out to them on a friendly basis.
“The anniversary means something to me. It’s strange that I did this for five minutes when I was 4 months old and it became this really iconic image. … It’s cool but weird to be part of something so important that I don’t even remember,” Elden told The New York Post five years ago on Nevermind‘s 25th anniversary.
“I got a little upset for a bit,” Elden told Time in another Interview. “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. 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.”
This is certainly not the best way for Nirvana to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their most famous album. We’re just under a month from the official anniversary date, as Nevermind was released on Sept. 24, 1991. This news comes to us from Variety.