Nirvana’s Nevermind has seared itself into the minds of music lovers since its raucous debut in 1991, and the cover is nearly as iconic as the songs. Now, the cover’s star — Spencer Elden, who was photographed naked underwater while seemingly chasing a dollar bill stuck on a fishing hook at just 4 months old — is suing the band for alleged childhood sexual exploitation.
The now 30-year-old claims the band knowingly distributed the image — which his lawyer, Robert Y. Lewis, argues could be seen as pornographic — and profited from it despite the fact that he was unable to consent, according to documents obtained by In Touch. The lawsuit also claims that Elden’s parents never signed a release allowing use of the photo. Additionally, no one in Elden’s family allegedly received any compensation for its use.
Elden is asking for $150,000 in damages from each of the defendants in the case. The list of defendants includes late frontman Kurt Cobain’s estate, other members of the band, Universal Music, Geffen Records, Warner Records, MCA Music and the album’s photographer, Kirk Weddle.
Nirvana and Weddle’s representatives did not immediately respond to In Touch‘s requests for comment.
Weddle was a friend of Elden’s father, Rick Elden, which is how the newborn ended up taking part in the cover art. In 2008, Elden’s dad told NPR, “[Weddle] calls us up and was like, ‘Hey Rick, wanna make 200 bucks and throw your kid in the drink?’ 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, Elden’s father came across a massive billboard with his son’s photo on it while driving down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Two months after that, Nirvana’s label, Geffen Records, sent the 1-year-old a platinum album and a teddy bear, NPR reported.
The lawsuit also argues that the addition of the dollar bill and fish hook — which were added digitally to the image taken by Weddle — were included in order to make the child appear “like a sex worker.” Furthermore, the documents allege that Cobain chose the image and props used himself.
According to the lawsuit, Elden claims his “true identity and legal name are forever tied to the commercial sexual exploitation he experienced as a minor which has been distributed and sold worldwide from the time he was a baby to the present day.” The lawsuit also alleges Elden “has suffered and will continue to suffer lifelong damages” as a result of the cover, including “extreme and permanent emotional distress” as well as “interference with his normal development and educational progress” and “medical and psychological treatment”.
In 2015, Elden told The Guardian that the album cover had “always been a positive thing and opened doors for me.” He noted, “This story gave me an opportunity to work with Shepard Fairey for five years, which was an awesome experience. He is a huge music connoisseur: when he heard I was the Nirvana baby, he thought that was really cool.”
However, he seemed to have changed his mind less than a year later. He told Time magazine that the project made him “a little upset” considering his unrequested fame. “I just woke up already being a part of this huge project,” he told the outlet. “It’s pretty difficult — you feel like you’re famous for nothing.”
He added, “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.”
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