Polly (Nirvana song)

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Promo CD for the MTV Unplugged in New York album
Song by Nirvana
from the album Nevermind
Released September 24, 1991
Recorded April 1990 at Smart Studios, Madison, Wisconsin
Genre Acoustic rock, alternative rock
Length 2:57
Label DGC
Songwriter(s) Kurt Cobain
Producer(s) Butch Vig
Nevermind track listing
12 tracks
  1. "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
  2. "In Bloom"
  3. "Come as You Are"
  4. "Breed"
  5. "Lithium"
  6. "Polly"
  7. "Territorial Pissings"
  8. "Drain You"
  9. "Lounge Act"
  10. "Stay Away"
  11. "On a Plain"
  12. "Something in the Way"

"Polly" is a song by the American rock band, Nirvana. It is the sixth song on their second album, Nevermind, released in September 1991.


Originally titled "Hitchhiker" and later "Cracker," "Polly" was written by Kurt Cobain and dates back to at least 1988. The earliest known version is a home demo featuring Cobain on vocals and guitar.

The song was first recorded in the studio by Steve Fisk at Music Source in Seattle, Washington in August, 1989. The sessions were for a planned EP to coincide with the band's European tour, but only two of the five songs recorded, "Stain" and "Been a Son," were officially released, on the Blew EP later that year.[1] On October 26, 1989, the band recorded a version during their first BBC Peel Session, at Maida Vale Studios in London, England. The session, engineered by Ted de Bono, was originally broadcast on November 22, 1989.[2]

The song was re-recorded by Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin in April 1990. This acoustic version, featuring Chad Channing on drums, later appeared on the band's major label debut, Nevermind, released in September 1991. It was the only recording from Vig's original session with the band to appear on the album, the rest of which was recorded by Vig in May 1991 at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California.[3] The recording features Cobain playing a five string Stella guitar that he said he purchased from a pawn shop for $20. "I didn't bother changing the strings," Cobain told Jeff Gilbert in a 1992 Guitar World interview. "It barely stays in tune. In fact, I had to use duct tape to hold the tuning keys in place."[4] Vig remembers that the guitar's "strings were so old they didn't have any tone to them. A real plunky sound."[5] Cobain's guitar and Krist Novoselic's bass were recorded live, after which Cobain recorded lead and harmony vocals, and then Channing added the cymbal crashes.

Another version was recorded for the BBC on November 9, 1991 at Maida Vale in London during the band's appearance on Radio 1's Mark Goodier Radio Session. The session, their last for the BBC, was first broadcast on November 18, 1991,[6] and three of the four songs from the session, including "Polly," appeared on the band's compilation album Incesticide on December 1992. This faster version of the song appeared under the title "(New Wave) Polly."

Composition and lyrics[edit]

According to the 1993 biography Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana by Michael Azerrad, "Polly" was written about an incident in Tacoma, Washington involving the abduction and rape of a 14-year-old girl in August 1987. The girl had been kidnapped by Gerald Arthur Friend while leaving a rock concert, who suspended her upside down from a pulley in his mobile home and raped and tortured her with a blow torch.[7] She managed to escape by jumping from his truck at a gas station, attracting attention from surrounding people.[8][9][10] Cobain's addition to the story was to have the victim fool the kidnapper into thinking she was enjoying his treatment of her, causing him to let his guard down long enough for her to escape.[11] In his 2001 biography Heavier than Heaven, Charles Cross compared to the song to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood in that it was written from the criminal's point of view.[12]

Azerrad noted that rape seemed to be a consistent theme in Cobain's songs and interviews, as if Cobain was "apologizing for his entire gender."[13] Cobain explained, "I don't feel bad about being a man at all. There are all kinds of men that are on the side of the woman and support them and help influence other men."[14] In the liner notes to the band's 1992 compilation album Incesticide, Cobain wrote that "last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song 'Polly'. I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience."[15][16]

"Polly" was recorded in the key of E minor with the chords E5-G5-D5-C5 for all verses and then the chords D5-C5-G5-B♭5 for all choruses. The song starts with Cobain playing the verse progression on an acoustic guitar and singing the vocals until the first chorus when bass enters and a cymbal crash is played. This is done for all verses and choruses. After the second chorus the guitar stops playing and a bass break starts. According to Nevermind producer Butch Vig on Classic Albums: Nevermind, Cobain sang the line "Polly said" too early, but they decided to leave it in.[17] However, that statement is erroneous, considering there are demos and performances of the song dating back to 1989 with the premature interjection included. The song ends with a final cymbal crash after the third chorus


"Polly" was ranked number 18 in NME's 2004 "Top 20 Nirvana Songs" list. In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked it number 29 in their ranking of 102 Nirvana songs.[18]

According to Heavier than Heaven, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was impressed with "Polly" upon hearing the song while at a Nirvana concert, remarking of Cobain that "that kid has heart."[19]

Recording and release history[edit]

Several versions of "Polly," both studio-recorded and live, were released during the band's lifetime, and numerous others have been released posthumously. The following tables list all studio versions of the song, and all officially-released live versions.

Studio versions[edit]

Date recorded Studio Producer/recorder Releases Personnel
1987/1988 Cobain residence, Olympia, WA, US Kurt Cobain With the Lights Out (2004)
September, 1989 The Music Source, Seattle, WA, US Steve Fisk With the Lights Out (2004)
October 26, 1989 Maida Vale Studios John Peel Unreleased
  • Kurt Cobain - vocals, guitar, backing vocals
  • Krist Novoselic - bass
  • Chad Channing - drums
April, 1990 Smart Studios Butch Vig Nevermind (1991)
  • Kurt Cobain - vocals, acoustic guitar, backing vocals
  • Krist Novoselic - bass
  • Chad Channing - cymbal
November, 1991 Maida Vale Studios Mark Goodier Incesticide (1992)
  • Kurt Cobain - vocals, guitar, backing vocals
  • Krist Novoselic - bass
  • Dave Grohl - drums

Live versions[edit]

Date recorded Venue Releases Personnel
December 3, 1989 London Astoria From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996)
October 31, 1991 Paramount Theatre, Seattle Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (1994/2006)
Live at the Paramount (2011)
  • Kurt Cobain - vocals, guitar
  • Krist Novoselic - bass
  • Dave Grohl - cymbal, backing vocals
December 28, 1991 Del Mar Fairgrounds In Bloom (1992)
  • Kurt Cobain - vocals, guitar
  • Krist Novoselic - bass
  • Dave Grohl - cymbal, backing vocals
August 30, 1992 Reading Festival Live at Reading (2009)
  • Kurt Cobain - vocals, guitar
  • Krist Novoselic - bass
  • Dave Grohl - cymbal, backing vocals
November 18, 1993 Sony Music Studios MTV Unplugged in New York (1994/2007)
  • Kurt Cobain - vocals, acoustic guitar
  • Krist Novoselic - acoustic bass
  • Dave Grohl - cymbal, backing vocals
  • Pat Smear - acoustic guitar
  • Lori Goldston - cello

In popular culture[edit]

  • The song appears as a downloadable song in the video games Rock Band, Rock Band 2, and Rock Band 3. As the Expert drum part only has eight notes (the second least of any Expert chart in the series), it is one of only three songs in the entire series (the others being "Silver" by Pixies and "Her Majesty" by The Beatles) that can be cleared without touching the controller.


  • Azerrad, Michael. Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Doubleday, New York: 1993, ISBN 0-86369-746-1
  • Nirvana Nevermind. Dir. Bob Smeaton. Isis Production, 2004. DVD.
  • Appendix A – “Polly” Lyrics by Nirvana, 1994
  1. ^ Luerssen, John D. (2014). Nirvana FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990s. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-1-61713-588-0. 
  2. ^ Luerssen, John D. (2014). Nirvana FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990s. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-1-61713-588-0. 
  3. ^ Cross, Charles. "True or False? 8 Myths About Nirvana's 'Nevermind'". Spin. Retrieved 26 January 2018. 
  4. ^ Jeff, Gilbert (1992). "Cool Hand Puke: Kurt Cobain tries to explain why Nirvana — third-hand guitars and all — is suddenly the hottest band in the country". Retrieved 29 January 2018. 
  5. ^ Cross, Charles; Berkenstadt, Jim (February 22, 2012). Classic Rock Albums: Nirvana - Nevermind. Schirmer Trade. ISBN 9780857127686. 
  6. ^ Gaar, Gillian G. (2009). The Rough Guide to Nirvana. Penguin. ISBN 978-1-4053-8119-2. 
  7. ^ Azerrad. pp. 218.
  8. ^ "GUILTY VERDICT IN RAPE CASE". Seattle Post-Intelligencer: D1. August 19, 1987. 
  9. ^ Rocco, John (1998). The Nirvana companion: two decades of commentary: a chronicle of the end of punk. Schirmer Books. p. 243. ISBN 0-02-864930-3. 
  10. ^ Klosterman, Chuck; A.V. Club (2009). "Shoot the whole day down". Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists. Simon and Schuster. p. 71. ISBN 1-4165-9473-6. 
  11. ^ Azerrad. pp. 321.
  12. ^ Cross, Charles R. (August 15, 2001). Heavier Than Heaven. United States: Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-6505-9. 
  13. ^ Azerrad. pp. 321.
  14. ^ Azerrad. pp. 321.
  15. ^ Reyes, Matthew. "When Nirvana and Pearl Jam Stood Up for Feminism". Medium. 
  16. ^ Lindsay, Cam. "'Incesticide' Is Nirvana's Best Record Because It Reveals Their Contradictions". Vice. Retrieved 25 January 2018. 
  17. ^ Vig, Classic Albums: Nevermind
  18. ^ Shepherd, Julianne Escobedo. "No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 27 January 2018. 
  19. ^ Cross, Charles R. (August 15, 2001). Heavier Than Heaven. United States: Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-6505-9.