Previously Known For: Baby on the Cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind Album
|Currently Known For: The 26-year-old man who was on the cover of one of the most successful albums of the 1990s|
“Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be. As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy. Take your time, hurry up. The choice is yours, don’t be late. Take a rest as a friend, as an old memory.” Spencer Elden might not have ever found fame if it wasn’t for his father’s talent as an art student who often helped out his friends in the late 1980s. In fact, it was because of his father’s work and friendship with an unknown photographer named Kirk Weddle that Elden landed on the cover of what would become one of the most successful albums of all time for a band that’s now praised as one of the most influential alternative bands in history. So, how exactly did Spencer Elden find himself on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album in 1991?
Having already released their debut album, Bleach, in 1989, Nirvana was well-established as part of Seattle’s grunge scene but was working to expand their sound and their reach with their next album, which is why band members Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic set out to perfect their lyrics and create an iconic album cover for Nevermind. “I’ve heard that originally the band wanted the image to be of a woman giving birth underwater, but the record company thought that would be too graphic,” Elden said. “So, they compromised with this idea of a baby swimming after a dollar.”
Initially planning to use a stock photograph, that option proved far too expensive for the struggling band, which is why they hired photographer Kirk Weddle to bring their vision to life. That’s when Weddle called on his friends, Renata and Rick Elden, and asked to photograph their four-month-old son, Spencer, for the shoot. Photographed naked underwater, Spencer was far too young to know what was going on but his parents received $200 for about 15 seconds worth of work which, at the time, seemed reasonable considering Nirvana’s unknown reputation. “It was a great concept—a baby underwater, unable to breathe, going after money on a fishhook,” Weddle said of the idea.
“I don’t think my parents really gave my taking part in this shoot too much thought,” Elden told The Guardian. “They knew who Nirvana were but weren’t really into the grunge scene… 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… 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.”
Luckily, the cover wasn’t the only thing great about the album as Nevermind became one of the best-selling albums of the decade thanks to singles like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are.” Nevermind put Nirvana on the map with critics praising the group as the flagship band of alternative rock and Generation X. Of course, no one really gave much thought to the baby on the cover until the media ignited a frenzy in 2007 and started searching for the baby behind the most recognizable album cover of all time.
“I got a little upset for a bit,” Elden said of his overnight fame. “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.” On top of the overnight publicity, Elden was frustrated at never getting to meet anyone in the band since the group broke up shortly after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. “I’ve never met him,” Dave Grohl said. “We weren’t there the day that they did the photo shoot, so I don’t know. I’ve seen him in magazines and stuff.”
Elden even considered taking legal action after learning the album sold over 30 million copies worldwide, which paled in comparison to the $200 his parents received. “It’s hard not to get upset when you hear how much money was involved,” 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 a part of my human rights revoked.”
Ultimately choosing not to go through with the lawsuit, Elden cashed in on his overnight fame and accepted offers to appear at various events where he’s dubbed the “Nirvana Baby.” Heck, he was once paid $1,000 to jump into a pool where photographers were waiting to capture the image. “Stuff happens like random cool situations where I got $500 just to hang out,” Elden said. “People just call me up and they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re the Nirvana baby, right? Well just come and swim in my pool and we’ll give you some money.’”
While Elden is quick to jump at making appearances, he draws the line at merchandising and, instead, is happy to focus on his passion for graphic design. After interning with Shepard Finley, the creator of Barack Obama’s HOPE posters, Elden says he hopes to one day get into acting but, until then, he’s happy living with his mother in Los Angeles after graduating from the Art Center College of Design. “It’s a trip. Everyone involved in the album has tons of money,” he says. “I feel like I’m the last little bit of grunge rock. I’m living in my mom’s house and driving a Honda Civic.”
In 2016, Elden was thrilled when photographer John Chapple offered him $200 to remake the Nevermind cover to celebrate the album’s 25th anniversary. Keeping his swim trunks on for the shoot and showing off the “never mind” tattooed across his chest, Elden hopes the photoshoot will be enough to launch his career—after all, his biggest dream is to be a guest on The Howard Stern Show. Until then, Elden says he uses his Nirvana fame to pick up girls and, despite his early frustration, is truly grateful that he was chosen for the album cover. “Looking back, it feels kind of stupid doing interviews about it, because I had nothing to do with it, but a lot to do with it all at the same time,” he says. “It’s a really weird feeling being a part of someone else’s momentum—being caught up in this wake of stuff.”