Promo CD for the MTV Unplugged in New York album
|Song by Nirvana|
|from the album Nevermind|
|Released||September 24, 1991|
|Studio||Smart, Madison, Wisconsin|
|Genre||Acoustic rock, alternative rock|
Originally titled "Hitchhiker" and later "Cracker," "Polly" 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. 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.
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. 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." Vig remembers that the guitar's "strings were so old they didn't have any tone to them. A real plunky sound." 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.
The band recorded another version of the song for the BBC on November 9, 1991 at Maida Vale in London during their appearance on Radio 1's Mark Goodier Radio Session. The session, their last for the BBC, was first broadcast on November 18, 1991, 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."
Cobain wrote "Polly" about an incident in Tacoma, Washington involving the abduction and rape of a 14-year-old girl in August 1987.Gerald Arthur Friend kidnapped the girl while she was leaving a rock concert, suspended her upside down from a pulley in his mobile home and raped and tortured her with a blow torch. She managed to escape by jumping from his truck at a gas station, attracting attention from surrounding people. Cobain's addition to the story was to have the victim fool the kidnapper into thinking she was enjoying what he was doing to her, causing him to let his guard down long enough for her to escape. 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.
In his Nirvana biography Come As You Are, journalist Michael 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." However, 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." 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."
Nirvana recorded "Polly" 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. The song ends with a final cymbal crash after the third chorus.
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.
|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||
|April 1990||Smart Studios||Butch Vig||Nevermind (1991)||
|November 1991||Maida Vale Studios||Mark Goodier||Incesticide (1992)||
|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)
|December 28, 1991||Del Mar Fairgrounds||In Bloom (1992)||
|August 30, 1992||Reading Festival||Live at Reading (2009)||
|November 18, 1993||Sony Music Studios||MTV Unplugged in New York (1994/2007)||