The Jean Grenouille in Kurt Cobain: Nirvana’s lead singer’s tribute(s) to Patrick Süskind’s ‘The Perfume’

The first album I ever bought was ‘In Utero’ by Nirvana. I clearly remember my father translating the title of the second song on the album for me (I was too young to fully understand English):

SCENTLESS APPRENTICE (In Dutch that would be ‘geurloze leerling’)

Apparently it referred to a novel I had never heard of.

The Perfume

This happened a few years before my father explicitly forbade me to read ‘The Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind (1985), which I had discovered on a shelf in the living room. Of course that made me even more curious. And I read it. For the first time.

The main character Jean Grenouille was born without a scent, which made people mistrust him. He murdered virgins to concoct his own artificial body odour.  His divine composition of skin excretions of innocent attractive virgins, made everyone believe he was pure and innocent. The moment he applied it to his skin, standing on a scaffold overlooking a large crowd, people bowed in front of him (before having an orgy) even though a few seconds before smelling him they were planning to execute him hor his murderous crimes. Such was the impact of this scent.

jean grenouille virgin

jean grenouille orgy

‘makes me want to cut off my nose’

Only recently I found out the song my father translated for me, was inspired by ‘The Perfume’. Kurt Cobain – the lead singer of Nirvana – read it at least 10 times. In a 1993 interview, he stated that:

“It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me. Cause I’m a hypochondriac (and) it just affects me–makes me want to cut off my nose.” (1)

Was he afraid that his sense of smell would make him kill virgins? Or worried that his body odour might attract the wrong type of person? Cobain was known for not wearing any deodorant (not even ‘teen spirit’). Although his ex-girlfriend stated he always smelled very clean and nice due to a hair product by Aveda.

Scentless Apprentice

When Jean Grenouille was born in 18th century France on a fetid fish market  (right before large scale hygienic campaigns in which roads were paved, sewers constructed, and public buildings ventilated)  everyone was afraid of him. There was something very off about him. He was born without a body odour. The first verse of Cobain’s song reflects exactly that:

“Like most babies smell like butter

His smell smelled like no other

He was born scentless and senseless

He was born a scentless apprentice”

 

Pressing Flowers and Enfleurage

jean grenouille making perfume blog

The second verse of the song continues to narrate the story of the scentless apprentice Jean Grenouille and the ‘flower pressing’ technique. In the book Grenouille discovers ‘enfleurage’ as the perfect means to capture the fleeting essence of virgins after finding out the distillation technique doesn’t work on human beings. Grease can absorb and preserve fragrant oils. From the moment he acquired this new insight, Grenouille starts to wrap his dead virgins in cloths impregnated with grease. Since their fragrant essence is what makes them alive in his twisted mind, he never really took their lives.

Cobain’s painted tribute to ‘The Perfume’ 

nirvana in utero back side

The rarely discussed back of the ‘In Utero’ album shows a painting by Kurt Cobain. It depicts embryos and countless lilies and other flowers. These babies surely call to mind the ‘scentless apprentice’, born surrounded by stench, later creating perfumes out of flowers, and then dying in a heavenly odour of reversed sanctity (lilies refer to the virgin Mary and are known as funerary flowers). ‘The album In Utero’ containing a song and a painting referring to The Perfume, is a double homage to one of the greatest novels of all time, and an amalgam of my first and second ‘obsession’: Nirvana and olfactory history.

Lyric[Verse 1]

Like most babies smell like butter

His smell smelled like no other

He was born scentless and senseless

He was born a scentless apprentice

 

[Chorus]

Hey, go away!

Go away!

Go away!

 

[Verse 2]

Every wet nurse refused to feed him

Electrolytes smell like semen

I promise not to sell your perfumed secrets

There are countless formulas for pressing flowers

 

[Chorus]

Hey, go away!

Go away!

Go away!

 

[Guitar Solo]

 

[Verse 3]

I lie in the soil and fertilize mushrooms

Leaking out gas fumes are made into perfume

You can’t fire me because I quit!

Throw me in the fire and I won’t throw a fits

 

  1. Interview with Ehm, 1993

 

by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian

www.caroverbeek.nl

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