Who is the most famous water baby of them all? Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind, immediately comes to mind and its iconic cover of a baby swimming after a just-out-of-reach dollar bill. Nevermind introduced the world to grunge — the music, the fashion, the mentality — and became a torchlight for a generation of disaffected youth.
But what happened to the baby at the eye of this storm? Because no one predicted the impact Nevermind would have on pop culture, the making of the album cover is surprisingly happenstance. It’s become the stuff of rock lore.
During the recording of Nevermind, Nirvana band members, Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl, watched a documentary on underwater childbirth. Inspired, Cobain floated the idea to the album designer, who dredged up some underwater childbirth photos for the cover. Shocker: the images were far too graphic to feature. Not long after, Kirk Weddle, an underwater photographer in Pasadena, California, got a freelance job to shoot a swimming baby.
Weddle happened to share studio space with a prop maker who had a five-month-old son called Spencer. The two men took Spencer to the Rose Bowl Aquatics Centre in Pasadena. The elder Elden, Spencer’s father Rick, wasn’t too concerned for the baby’s safety. He blew on Spencer’s face and unceremoniously dunked him in the pool.
This is a popular trick among parents with a crying baby on their hands. Blow on the baby’s face, the baby holds her breath and stops crying. All vertebrates, from rats to humans, display this involuntary reaction. The mammalian diving response is a way for mammals to prepare for underwater submersion by slowing their heart rate and preserving oxygen underwater. It’s particularly strong in infants under the age of one, as Spencer Elden was at the time.
The photo shoot at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Centre lasted only a minute or two. As Spencer swam, Weddle photographed him at 18 frames a second. (The dollar bill on the fishing hook was added digitally later on.) They shot one roll of film and then went for tacos. It was just another day, another freelance job.
Three months later, the Elden family was driving past Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard when they spotted a gigantic poster of naked, swimming Spencer. The one-off modelling gig, for which Spencer’s parents received a grand total of $200, went on to become the album of the decade, according to Rolling Stone. Ironically, the album, with its anti-capitalistic artwork, sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
Over the coming years, Nirvana cemented itself into pop culture: Kurt Cobain committed suicide; Courtney Love launched an acting career and battled the tabloids’ vilification of her; and Dave Grohl started the Foo Fighters. Meanwhile, Spencer’s life intertwined with Nevermind.
He tattooed the album’s title across his chest in huge cursive letters. CNN, Time, and other major media outlets interviewed him about his experience as an unwitting Nirvana poster child. He’s recreated the album cover three times now. (Once when he was 11 years old, again when he turned 17 and once more for good measure when he turned 25.)
Not every early swimming experience goes on to define a life, the way Spencer Elden’s has. Perhaps when he turns 80, we’ll see Spencer going for a dip once again, a living symbol of passing time and ‘90s nostalgia.