Though Kurt Cobain may have burst onto the rock music scene with an unbridled anti-establishment attitude that suggested he was always concerned more presently with the physical world than the intellectual one, this was far from the truth. Cobain wasn’t just a free thinker and a lover of philosophy, but he also had a sincere obsession with the written word. A supreme lyricist, Cobain’s favourite books have always been a point of interest for Nirvana fans.
Diehard devotees to the grunge overlords won’t be surprised to know that, across many interviews, Cobain was always more than happy to share a list of his favourite books. They weren’t just pieces of college dorm room fodder either. While, of course, Cobain always paid homage to William S Burroughs, perhaps the singer’s ultimate hero, he was also happy to note some of the more progressive passages, including the somewhat controversial works of Camille Paglia and Solanas.
Much of the collection we’ve gathered won’t be news to some of Cobain’s most devoted fans; the mercurial singer was often very open about his literary influences throughout his life. That trend continued until shortly before his tragic suicide in 1994 and, in one of his final interviews, he was asked about the books which inspired his lyrics and life, and Kurt had one particular title he couldn’t avoid talking about; Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murder.
It’s a historical horror novel that follows a perfumer’s apprentice whose super-sense of smell alienates him from those around him. It’s a classic tale of social isolation that perhaps resonated with the ever-growing disconnection Cobain was experiencing. The book would accompany Cobain on many tours and directly inspired the song ‘Scentless Apprentice’ from 1993’s seminal album In Utero, Cobain’s last record.
“I’ve read Perfume by Patrick Süskind about ten times in my life, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time; it just doesn’t leave me,” Cobain was quoted as saying. The song, however, is actually credited to all three members of the band, with Cobain noting that it was Dave Grohl who came up with the beat and the riff for the song.
In fact, Grohl had approached Cobain with the track, with the latter thinking it was slightly sub-par. However, they persevered and produced one of the best songs on the album, as well as one of Dave Grohl’s favourites. The Foo Fighters man told Mojo in 2010: “One of my favourite lines in a Nirvana song – which is fucking dark and which I didn’t realise the weight of until I sat in my house in Seattle playing the first mixes of In Utero is the line on ‘Scentless Apprentice’ where Kurt sings, ‘You can’t fire me because I quit.’
“If there’s one line in any song that gives me the chills, it’s that one,” he explained, noting the gravity of Cobain singing such inflammatory lines. “Maybe all those things that people wrote about him painted him into a corner that he couldn’t get out of.”
Below, listen to the poignant line and reflect on how Kurt Cobain weaved his literary knowledge into Nirvana song ‘Scentless Apprentice’.