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Man Who Was the Naked Baby on Nirvana’s Breakthrough Album ‘Nevermind’ Sues Band, Calls Iconic Cover Image ‘Child Pornography’

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain

In their 1991 breakthrough album “Nevermind,” Nirvana exploded from the Pacific Northwest’s grunge rock scene to popular acclaim with songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and an instantly-iconic album cover widely interpreted as an anti-capitalist image: A naked baby is plunged underwater with his arms extended toward a fish hook dangling a dollar bill.

Now, the man who was the 4-month-old baby claims in federal court that image seen by millions around the world was “commercial child pornography.”

Spencer Elden, now 30, sued the band; their record label, art director, and distributors; the estate of their late frontman Kurt Cobain; his rock star widow Courtney Love, as executor of Cobain’s estate; and their surviving members David Grohl (the Foo Fighters frontman), Chad Channing, and Krist Novoselic in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

“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,” Elden’s lawyer Robert Y. Lewis wrote in a 33-page complaint.

“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,” it continues, noting that the album sold 30 million copies internationally.

On the 25th anniversary of the album’s release, Elden recreated the photo shoot, and he did not cast his experience as an infant so negatively at the time.

“I said to the photographer, ‘Let’s do it naked.’ But he thought that would be weird, so I wore my swim shorts,” Elden told the New York Post in 2016 about the quarter-centennial recreation.

He mused in the video interview: “It’d be nice to have a quarter for every person who’s seen my baby penis.”

Elden’s lawyers have leveled six claims against the defendants, seeking $150,000 and punitive damages from each one for injuries under federal child pornography law, negligence, invasion of privacy, intrusion into private affairs and “distribution of private sexually explicit materials.”

Some five years later, Elden’s lawsuit provides a backstory to what Time Magazine ranked among the Top 10 most controversial album covers of all time in an article titled “Shock and Awe.”

According to that article, the label had concerns with the “prominent display of baby genitalia.” Elden’s lawsuit alleges the album concept came “after an extensive debate between the use of a dollar bill, raw meat, a dog, and other objects commonly associated with prurient interests.”

“Cobain added a fishhook specifically to make the image more menacing,” the lawsuit states.

Elden argues that “Nevermind” followed a trend in rock replicating “previous controversial campaigns used to promote music with sexually explicit material depicting a child or outright child pornography, including the album covers for Scorpion’s Virgin Killer, Blind Faith’s Blind Faith, and Van Halen’s Balance.”

Describing the shoot by photographer Kurt Wedder, Elden describes being taken as an infant to California’s Pasadena Aquatic Center and claims his parents never signed a release.

“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,” the lawsuit says.

Wedder took between 40 and 50 photographs and Cobain chose the one showing Elden looking “like a sex worker,” according to the lawsuit.

“Upon receiving pushback from others, Cobain agreed to redact Spencer’s image by releasing the album with a sticker strategically placed over Spencer’s genitals with the text: ‘If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile,'” the complaint alleges.

But the photograph ultimately was not redacted, a decision that Elden says led to his “sexual exploitation” and “image trafficking.”

A lawyer for Nirvana and spokesman for Universal Music Group did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Read the lawsuit below:

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."