Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Spooktober Edition” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Polly By Nirvana, Album: Nevermind (1991)
“Polly” was inspired by the rape and torture of a 14-year-old girl in Tacoma, Washington. And that’s not the scary part. What makes “Polly” so profoundly unsettling is Kurt Cobain’s perspective, which occupies the mind of serial rapist and kidnapper Gerald Friend (yes, that is his real name). Against the skeletal strums of a $20 junk shop Stella, Cobain merges real-life details (rope, knife, blowtorch) with avian metaphors (“let me clip your dirty wings”) using the kind of sociopathic deadpan that’s light years more menacing than a shout, scream, or growl.
Moment the Spine Tingles: “Polly says her back hurts/ She’s just as bored as me.” *shudder*
The drummer on this song is not Dave Grohl, but Chad Channing, who was with the band from 1988-1990. When we spoke with Chad in 2013, he explained: “I never even realized that ‘Polly,’ that version, was from the Madison sessions that made it on Nevermind. I mean, it was, I don’t know, almost ten years down the road before someone mentioned that to me. I was like, ‘Really?’ And I listened to it, I said, ‘Okay, that makes sense.’
They put me in this smaller room that normally has guitars and stuff like that. I sat there with my ride cymbal, and there were these certain parts where I was just going to hit it. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just accent these things.’ Because they talked about having something really sparse in it. And I’m like, ‘Well, how sparse? I mean, are we just talking maybe a cymbal hit here or there?’ And the consensus was, ‘Yeah, something like that. Really mellow.’
I went in there and just rolled it. And they said, ‘Just put an accent here on this certain part each time it comes around.’ So I did. And it was like, ‘Okay, that totally works.’ So we left it that way.”
Nirvana had been playing this for a while before it was released on Nevermind. They recorded it in 1989 in sessions for an Extended Play album called Blew, and an early live performance appears on the album Muddy Banks. Bruce Pavitt, who co-owned Sub Pop Records (Nirvana’s label at the time), said of the band’s concert performances of this song: “It’s completely raging and hypnotic. You would go into a trance. It’s one of the things that made their live shows so incredible. But that took a while. That took about a year, from like early ’88 to early ’89, took about a year for them to really step into that. They were really stepping into their power at that time.”
After hearing this song Bob Dylan was prompted to remark of Cobain, “That kid has heart.”
There’s a point in the song where Cobain sings only “Polly says…” before pausing and starting over. This was a mistake in the studio that the band as well as the recording team liked, and left on the album. As evidenced in live performances, the mistake was “written in” to the song.