The now 30-year-old man pictured as a baby on the cover of the multimillion-selling Nirvana album Nevermind filed suit today in Los Angeles, alleging the former members of the grunge-rock trio, various record companies, art directors and others violated federal criminal child pornography laws and caused him lifelong suffering by “trafficking” his image worldwide.
Spencer Elden, of Los Angeles, alleges that his “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,” according to the complaint filed in Los Angeles federal court.
Messages seeking comment sent to the Universal Music Group and an attorney who represents Nirvana LLC were not immediately answered.
According to the suit, the defendants “knowingly produced, possessed, and advertised commercial child pornography depicting Spencer, and they knowingly received value in exchange for doing so…Despite this knowledge, defendants failed to take reasonable steps to protect Spencer and prevent his widespread sexual exploitation and image trafficking.”
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Elden’s parents never signed a release authorizing the use of the photos taken of the four-month-old baby in a Pasadena aquatic center in 1990 and Elden received no compensation, lawyers for the plaintiff allege.
The cover of Nevermind — released in 1991 by the Geffen/UMG label — depicts a naked baby swimming underwater, seemingly towards a fish hook with a dollar bill attached. It is among the best-known album covers in rock.
“To ensure the album cover would trigger a visceral sexual response from the viewer, (photographer Kirk) Weddle activated Spencer’s ‘gag reflex’ before throwing him underwater in poses highlighting and emphasizing Spencer’s exposed genitals,” the suit alleges.
Elden’s suit alleges the 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.”
As a result, Elden “has suffered and will continue to suffer lifelong damages,” according to the complaint.
The suit seeks either $150,000 from each of the 17 defendants or unspecified damages to be determined at trial.
Geffen Records originally shipped 46,521 copies of Nevermind to retailers in hopes of eventually selling 200,000 copies. The album, a cornerstone of the grunge era, eventually sold over 30 million copies.
City News Service contributed to this report.
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