As a baby, Spencer Elden appeared on what became one of the most iconic album covers in music history. Now, a month before Nirvana‘s “Nevermind” turns 30, he’s suing the band for child pornography.
Elden, now 30, claimed in a lawsuit filed Tuesday to Los Angeles federal court that he will “suffer lifelong damages” thanks to band members Dave Grohl, Chad Channing, Krist Novoselic and the late Kurt Cobain, whom Elden accuses of knowingly producing, possessing and advertising “commercial child pornography” when they put a nude photo of him as a baby with his genitals showing on the cover of their 1991 hit album, which catapulted them to stardom.
“(The) defendants intentionally commercially marketed Spencer’s child pornography and leveraged the shocking nature of his image to promote themselves and their music at his expense,” reads an excerpt from the suit, obtained by USA TODAY. “Defendants used child pornography depicting Spencer as an essential element of a record promotion scheme commonly utilized in the music industry to get attention, wherein album covers posed children in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention, and critical reviews.”
Elden is asking for a trial by jury and $150,000 from each of the 17 defendants, which include the former members of the band along with Courtney Love, Cobain’s estate executor, the album’s photographer and designer, and record companies Universal Music Group, Geffen, Warner and MCA Music. USA TODAY has reached out to representatives for the defendants and Elden for comment.
The lawsuit alleges that Cobain, who died in 1994 at age 27, purposefully chose the image of Elden with his penis visible, reaching for a dollar bill dangling from a fishhook “like a sex worker.”
“Spencer’s 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 adds.
Elden previously recreated the cover to celebrate the 15th and 25th anniversaries of the album’s release. In 2016, he told The New York Post he volunteered to do his latest iteration of the cover naked, but the photographer “thought that would be weird.”
He spoke positively of the cover a year prior, speaking in 2015 to USA TODAY at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture , which displayed the “Nevermind” album cover in an exhibit titled “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses.”
Photographer Kirk Weddle, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with graphic designer Robert Fisher, was tasked with shooting the cover photo for what would become Nirvana’s breakthrough album. He was friends with Elden’s parents and asked if their 4-month-old baby could be part of the shoot.
“My dad was like, ‘Ah, no problem, man. We’ll just go down to the pool and throw him (in) and that’ll be it,’ ” Elden recalled. “And it was no big deal. And no one knew what it was going to become.”
His parents were paid $200, he said. To date, the album has sold more than 30 million copies, according to the lawsuit, which also claims neither Elden nor his parents ever signed a release authorizing his images.
“It’s only opened doors for me and been a really positive, fun experience,” he said at the time.