‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Looks Back at 20 Years of ‘Smells Like Nirvana’
How the loud and incoherent voice of a generation revived the career of pop's premier parodist
“I was such a fan of the band,” says parody kingpin “Weird Al” Yankovic about Nirvana. “I heard Nevermind and I thought, Oh this is really great. I wish it were popular enough for me to do a parody…but that’s never going to happen!”
For years, the food-obsessed zeitgeist surgeon and former college-radio DJ had been attracted to alternative music — see his note-perfect swagger-jacks of Devo, Talking Heads, and B-52’s from the ’80s for proof. But after the three unlaundered, longhaired, unapologetically sloppy, Seattle-borne feedback enthusiasts started chewing up MTV’s airspace, it was the first time alternative culture had come to him. “It’s hard to articulate for me exactly what I loved about Nirvana,” he says. “It was the energy, the attitude. I liked the sound of real instruments. I like guitars. I like people screaming.”
America agreed and by April of 1992, Nirvana had topped Billboard, scored a platinum record, appeared on the cover of SPIN, and were being held without bail for instigating some sorta slouchy, shruggy, shouty sea-change in American popular culture. But, as legend has it, frontman Kurt Cobain didn’t actually realize he’d “made it” until Yankovic lovingly satirized their biggest hit. In Yankovic’s hands, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became “Smells Like Nirvana,” a song about the hilarious reality that the supposed voice of a generation was actually impossible to understand beyond a groaned bargle nawdle zouss. Yankovic seizing the moment was not only fortuitous for Nirvana, but Weird Al experienced one of the biggest of many “comebacks,” scoring his biggest chart hit since “Eat It,” and ultimately retaining his jester’s throne for another 20 years and counting (all recently documented in the coffee table tome Weird Al: The Book). The whole “Nirvana” ordeal was even dramatized in the 19th season of The Simpsons, when Homer’s grunge band Sadgasm got a Weird Al parody of their own.
“I like to say that being on The Simpsons is my one claim to immortality. It’ll be around long after everything I’ve done has turned to dust. [The episode] was a broad allusion to Nirvana,” Yankovic says. “I guess it means I’m part of the Nirvana story? I don’t know, I’m mumbling now. Sorry. I’m only good for 20 minutes and then I lose my mind. How appropriate. Bargle nawdle zouss.”
“Weird Al” Yankovic: I had a really nice run through the ’80s and things kind of stopped for a while after [the 1989 Weird Al-starring film] UHF. It was sort of a dark period. The movie tested extremely well — it was Orion Pictures’ highest-testing movie. So they thought it was going to be a big hit. They were internally pumping me up as their new Woody Allen. This was going to be the start of a franchise. And you can’t help but be sucked into that frame of mind. I was thinking, “Okay great! I’ll be a movie star.” And then after the first weekend I was basically a ghost. No one at Orion wanted to establish eye contact. That was the beginning of three years where it was kind of hard for me to recover: I had failed at the box office, the soundtrack to the movie didn’t go anywhere. In fact, at one point I was sort of desperate and I thought, “Maybe I should do another Michael Jackson parody. That worked the first two times.” Thankfully that didn’t come to pass because that was an obvious cry for help.
Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, drums: Frankly, the Michael Jackson song that he had, “Snack All Night,” was not destined to be big, by any means. The fact that Michael turned him down was a great stroke of luck.
Yankovic: I certainly don’t hold that against him. At the time, he was saying that “Black or White” was this big social, political statement and he wasn’t comfortable with [the parody]. I’d like to think that he was actually doing me a favor, saving me from myself. He was the adult in the room going, “Al, come on, really? Are we going to do this again?” It helps if there’s something that’s rocked the zeitgeist, that’s taken over everyone’s attention and imagination. And there weren’t many big, seismic shifts in pop culture until Nirvana came along.
Every single person that I approach for permission, you just never know what’s in their head. For whatever reason, my manager tried and tried and said he couldn’t get through [to Nirvana]. He contacted them again and again and they never got back to him. So he said, “If you want to do this parody, it’s on you. You’ve gotta talk to the band.” A friend of mine was in the cast of Saturday Night Live [UHF co-star Victoria Jackson]. I told her, if you ever get Kurt Cobain alone in a room, put him on the phone, because I’d love to talk to him — and she did! Directly! He was sweet and he got it in like five seconds and said, “Of course you can do a parody.” The famous quote from him was, “Is it going to be a song about food?” because at that point that’s primarily what I was known for. And I said, “Well, no, it’s going to be a song about how nobody can understand your lyrics.” And he said, “Oh, sure, of course, that’s funny.” That’s one of those phone conversations I wish I had recorded. I’d love to hear that myself.
Kurt Cobain [from his Journals]: “Eric Clapton plays second rate dusty blues licks. Too much practice is like too much sugar. Weird Al Yankovic is America’s modern pop-rock genious [sic]. Do your own thing. Others own their own thing….P.S. Teen Spirit has an uncanny resemblance to Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult.”
Schwartz: We knew that [“Smells Like Nirvana”] was going to be the single. In those days, the single and the polkas were recorded last. That was January 27, 1992. And it was probably done within three or four days.
Jim West, guitar: With the parodies, obviously, you want to make them as authentic as possible and kind of trick people into thinking it’s the real thing. On the last record [2011’s Alpocalypse] we did a Taylor Swift parody called “TMZ.” Taylor Swift’s “You Belong To Me” had a ton of guitar parts and mandolin and banjo. I think I counted about 22 parts, something like that. Hey! The drummer has to play only one part, the bassist has to play only one part, I gotta learn, like, 20 parts? That’s not fair! Sometimes it’s very, very challenging. “Smells Like Nirvana” was easy.
Schwartz: I remember at the time thinking — I’m sure Dave [Grohl] will read this — that the part was pretty loose. I remember asking Al, “Do you want me to play it exactly like the record?” Tempos were up and down. We adjusted the tempos on our song to meet the Nirvana version. It’s by no means steady. And Al’s a bit of a perfectionist.
Steve Jay, bass: It was a pretty simple song to recreate. I remember when I was examining the bass part, noticing how Krist Novoselic kind of dragged his finger when he was sliding up from a B flat in the pattern. Instead of lifting his finger, he sort of let it drag. So I was sure to include that glissando. It was sort of a nuance that he had done that gave it its character.
Yankovic: It was hard on my vocal chords. In the studio, oftentimes I’ll be singing for eight to 12 hours a day. And when you’re doing a song like “Smells Like Nirvana,” that’s a lot of screaming. Try screaming for 12 hours and see where that gets you. It’s tough on the vocal chords. I do have a memory of there actually being cookies in my mouth when I did the “bargle nawdle zouss,” unintelligible-mumble thing. I wish I could remember the brand. Some kind of Hawaiian Fig Newton, some kind of weird, off-brand exotic cookie.
Jay Levey, manager and video director: With the “Nirvana” video, all the stars aligned. We were able to track down and book the same soundstage. The soundstage, in essence, is four bare walls, so you could be in any soundstage and not know it was the one. But from a karmic standpoint, it was pretty heavy to be in the exact same place where they shot theirs. The vast majority of the fans in the bleachers were from the original Nirvana video. And the janitor, of course, was also the original janitor. I don’t know that he even knew a thing about Nirvana. I believe he was a real janitor.
Schwartz: Skating legend Tony Hawk was one of the kids in there.
Levey: Who knew at the time, right?
Yankovic: We got a couple of the same cheerleaders.
Levey: [Securing those details] was nothing more than talking to the folks who produced the Nirvana video. They were totally helpful because they knew that Kurt was on board. I will say with the extras, it was really quite poignant and moving in a way because those kids had a deep, deep connection with Kurt and with Nirvana. The seismic waves that Kurt and that band had created in pop culture, and in music, can’t begin to be understated. Their vulnerability and their hesitation was palpable in the room, but they knew that Kurt was on board with this.
Yankovic: Dick Van Patten was an 11th-hour addition. We wanted a random celebrity, and on the day of the shoot, we were like, “Does anyone know a random celebrity?” And someone knew Dick Van Patten.
Schwartz: Al’s manager was concerned that I wouldn’t be as rock’n’roll. He wanted to make sure I knew there was a lot of headbanging, that’s what Dave Grohl was doing. My neck was sore for about three weeks. It’s hard to tell with that slow-motion footage, but I hit that pretty hard. I don’t know how drummers hit that for real. Oh, and then, of course, the leaping off the kit at the end. In concert, I tried that once or twice, and the real problem with that is, on my riser, there’s really no room to go backwards without just completely going off the back. I might’ve tried that once or twice and decided I’m just going to stop killing myself.
Levey: I had one extremely brief conversation with [“Teen Spirit” director Samuel Bayer] where I think he was a reluctant participant in the process. Meaning, he was certainly going along with it, but he was a true artiste, you know? Of all the original players, he was probably the least enthused.
Yankovic: Oh gosh, this is interesting. I was nominated for Best Male Performance [at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards]. Eric Clapton won, which I kind of assumed he would. I may be getting this a little wrong, but I think Nirvana was supposed to open the show, but they didn’t want to play what MTV wanted them to play. MTV was like, “You know, it’s okay, we’ll get Al in and do his parody instead.” And they extended to offer to me. I might’ve been a bargaining chip, because Nirvana were finally like, “Okay, we’ll do it.”
Jay: You know how in the [VMA performance], Krist takes his bass off at the end of the song and he throws it way up and it comes down and hits him in the head? I used to do that all the time. I’d take my bass off, throw it up as high as I possibly could. And I found that no matter how high I tossed it, I would always catch it perfectly. But one time I missed, and that thing came down and bonked me on the head just as hard as it could and, man, that hurt. I might have lost a couple of IQ points that night.
West: It was always the high-energy point in the set. We would start the moshing thing and it would be fun to do. Al and I would be ramming into each other and just really enjoying the contact sport.
West: There were a few collisions where people got hurt, but not the audience, just the band. I think one time I was gonna pretend to stage-dive with my guitar and I slid on my butt for like 20 feet and ended up in the front row.
Jay: I kind of take [Novoselic’s low-hanging bass] to the extreme when we play it live. I extend my strap down — well, actually, I tie two straps together and I extend it to where I can just barely touch the strings with the tips of my fingers. It becomes a bit of a struggle. To me, it’s like a wrestling match between you and the instrument. I used to live in West Africa when I was a kid. Down there, they believe that music is this living thing that calls us to work for it as opposed to us possessing a talent that we unleash when we pick up our axe. I like to reduce competence when it comes to doing rock’n’roll, because the last thing any audience wants to see is us getting it right. That’s for sport and science.
West: After Kurt passed away, it was a very tense moment. We were on tour and we were like, “Are we going to play this song?”
Schwartz: That’s the first time we played a song from someone who had passed away
Yankovic: It was exceptionally hard shortly after Kurt passed. It was still my biggest hit at the time, and I couldn’t not do it because the fans would want to hear it, but at the same time, it was uncomfortable for me, especially. So for a long time after Kurt passed, I would always preface my performance of the song by doing a somber dedication to Kurt in his memory. The hardest one was doing Seattle, because I didn’t know if I should be doing that song in Seattle at the time. I didn’t know how people would take it. I asked a lot of journalists there, “Should I do this? Should I not do this?” And almost unanimously they said, “You should do this. It would be cathartic.” And it actually went over extremely well.
Schwartz: The costumes are an important part of the show. So “Nirvana”‘s always gotta have the costume, and the guitar, and the wig. If anything’s missing, Al won’t do it. There was one time, for a Halloween show in Poughkeepsie, we decided — we didn’t even tell the crew — every song was a different costume than what was scheduled. I remember that he wore the “Nirvana” outfit for “Fat.” It’s fun to do the crotch grab on a big, fluffy costume, but here he is actually doing a real crotch grab and, of course, there’s a photo of that somewhere.
Jay: There was one really cool time, we were playing Bamboozle and there was a huge mosh pit, a couple hundred people doing their thing. It felt like the real thing.
Schwartz: When we played Seattle in August, they went nuts! It was great. I sort of forgot there was that connection until they started screaming and yelling.
Yankovic: I only met Kurt in person once at a restaurant in Los Angeles. He just happened to be eating at an adjoining table with his friends. This was after the parody had come out, so I got to go over and thank him in person. I just profusely thanked him and said, “Anything I can do for you, let me know.” Kurt extended his hand to me and said, “Polish my nails.”