Imagine if millions of people had seen you naked before you were old enough to say "embarrassing." That's the story of Spencer Elden, whom you may know as the little baby floating toward a dollar bill on the cover of Nirvana's 1991 album, Nevermind.
Nearly 17 years later, amid hating school and playing water polo, Elden is still struggling to make sense of his (very) public image.
"Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis," he says from his home in Los Angeles. "So that's kinda cool. I'm just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I'm here."
Nevermind is often credited with changing the face of rock. Elden's naked participation in this important moment in music history was rather accidental; Kirk Weddle, the photographer working on the cover, was simply a friend of Spencer's dad, Rick.
"[He] calls us up and was like, 'Hey Rick, wanna make 200 bucks and throw your kid in the drink?,'" Rick recounts. "I was like, 'What's up?' And he's like, 'Well, I'm shooting kids all this week, why don't you meet me at the Rose Bowl, throw your kid in the drink?' And we just had a big party at the pool, and no one had any idea what was going on!"
Three months later, while driving down Sunset Blvd., the Elden family spotted a 9-foot-by-9-foot Spencer floating across Tower Records' wall. Two months later, Geffen Records sent 1-year-old Spencer Elden a platinum album and a teddy bear.
Over the coming years, 26 million albums were sold. As Elden learned to walk, talk and sing — his pale baby arms stretched across millions of grungy fans' walls; his private parts stood magnified across billboards and floors.
In some places, his image stuck. The other day, his friends spotted a giant Nevermind photo on the floor of a record store in Hollywood.
"My friend is all like, 'Hey I saw you today.' And I'm like, 'Dude, I was working all day.' And he's like, 'No, I went to Geffen Records, and you're on the floor and you're floating and I stepped on your face. 'Cause I guess they have like a floating thing where people can like walk on me and stuff ... so it's kinda cool," he says.
Life in general isn't quite as "cool" as it was when he jumped naked in the pool in the early '90s, though, he says. These days, his peers are too stuck on the Internet and video games. Ironically, he yearns for the era that gave Kurt Cobain, the lead singer for Nirvana, so much angst.
These days, Elden says, his peers concentrate on "playing Rock Band on Xbox, like, that's not a real band! That's the difference between the '90s and kids nowadays; kids in the '90s would actually go out and make a [real] band!"
But overall, life is good, he says. When he's not being repressed by video games and computers, Elden blasts music — mostly techno — and carries around a big bag of angst, mostly around the fact that he is "so over" high school.
"Same people, same teachers ... going to your locker, worrying about stupid girls ... I wanna get something going, I wanna travel," he says.
Last fall, travel he did — all the way to military boarding school for six months. All his parents will say is that he's done his fair share of "testing authority."
Now he's trying to graduate from high school a year early. And he's talking about applying to West Point or becoming an artist ... or something.
As Spencer is wont to say, "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."
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.