Polly (Nirvana song)

"Polly" is a song by the American alternative rock band Nirvana, written by vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain. It is the sixth song on their second album Nevermind, released in September 1991.

Song by Nirvana
from the album Nevermind
ReleasedSeptember 24, 1991 (1991-09-24)
RecordedApril 1990
StudioSmart Studios, Madison, Wisconsin
GenreAcoustic rock, alternative rock
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"
Promo CD for the MTV Unplugged in New York album
Promotional single by Nirvana
from the album MTV Unplugged in New York
RecordedNovember 18, 1993 at Sony Music Studios in New York City
LabelDGC Records
Songwriter(s)Kurt Cobain
Producer(s)Alex Coletti, Scott Litt, Nirvana
Nirvana singles chronology
"About a Girl"
"The Man Who Sold the World"
MTV Unplugged in New York track listing

Origin and recordingEdit

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 performed live on June 23, 1989, at Rhino Records in Westwood, California. It was first recorded in the studio in August 1989 by Steve Fisk at Music Source in Seattle, Washington. 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.[1]

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.[2] 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."[3] Vig remembers that the guitar's "strings were so old they didn't have any tone to them. A real plunky sound."[4] 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.

According to Vig in the 2005 Classic Albums: Nirvana - Nevermind documentary, Cobain accidentally sang the first two words of the third verse, "Polly said," too early, during the instrumental break, but the band decided to leave it in.[4] However, earlier versions of the song also feature this line, including the original home demo, the 1989 Peel version, and most pre-Nevermind live versions.

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,[5] and three of the four songs from the session, including "Polly", appeared on the band's compilation album Incesticide in December 1992. This faster version of the song appeared under the title "(New Wave) Polly."[6]

An acoustic version of "Polly," featuring Pat Smear on second guitar and Lori Goldston on cello, was performed during Nirvana's MTV Unplugged appearance at Sony Music Studios in New York City on November 18, 1993.

The last live performance of "Polly" was at Nirvana's final concert, at Terminal 1 in Munich, Germany, on March 1, 1994.

Composition and lyricsEdit


"Polly" is an alternative rock / grunge song that lasts for two minutes and 57 seconds.[8] According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by BMG Rights Management, it is written in the time signature of common time, with a moderate tempo of 122 beats per minute.[9] "Polly" is composed in the key of E minor, while Cobain's vocal range spans one octave and one note, from a low of D3 to a high of E4.[10] The song has a basic sequence of Em–G5–D–C5 in the verses and D–C5–G–B5 during the refrain as its chord progression.[11] The song starts with Cobain playing a soft, sludgy acoustic guitar riff and singing the vocals until the first chorus when bass enters, a cymbal crash is played, and Cobain adds a vocal harmony. This is done for all verses and choruses. After the second chorus the guitar stops playing and a bass break starts. The song ends with a final cymbal crash after the third chorus.


Cobain wrote "Polly" about an incident in Tacoma, Washington involving the abduction and rape of a 14-year-old girl in August 1987.[12] 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.[13][14] She managed to escape by jumping from his truck at a gas station, attracting attention from surrounding people. Arthur was later arrested and convicted for his crimes.[15][13][14] 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 the song to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood in that it was written from the criminal's point of view.[16]

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 fact, a man using himself as an example toward other men can probably make more impact than a woman can."[12] 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."[17][18]


"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, with Julianne Sheperd writing, "Though it's certainly not a protest song, it deftly delves into the mind of a sicko, like a succinct Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and is an example of the thoughtful depths Cobain was willing to plumb."[7] In 2019, it was ranked at number 14 in The Guardian's list of Nirvana's 20 greatest songs.[19]

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."[16]

American alternative rock musician Amanda Palmer, who covered "Polly" on the 2011 tribute album, Newermind, discussed the song in a 2011 Spin interview, saying, "It's entirely possible that the production on Nevermind is going to feel dated in 50 years, if it doesn't already. The mystery in the lyrics to a song like ‘Polly’ is so profound. People will always be trying to make sense of what the fuck exactly Kurt was singing about. That's what makes a song last."[20]

In popular cultureEdit

The song appears as downloadable content in the video games Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Rock Band 3 and Rock Band 4.


Year Publication Country Accolade Rank
1998 Kerrang! United Kingdom 20 Great Nirvana Songs Picked by the Stars[21] 7

Recording and release historyEdit

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 versionsEdit

Date recorded Studio Producer/recorder Releases Personnel
1987/1988 Cobain residence, Olympia, Washington Kurt Cobain With the Lights Out (2004)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar, backing vocals)
September 1989 The Music Source, Seattle, Washington Steve Fisk With the Lights Out (2004)
October 26, 1989 Maida Vale Studios, London, England John Peel Unreleased
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar, backing vocals)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Chad Channing (drums)
April 2–6, 1990 Smart Studios, Madison, Wisconsin Butch Vig Nevermind (1991)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, acoustic guitar, backing vocals)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Chad Channing (drums)
November 9, 1991 Maida Vale Studios, London, England Miti Adhikari Incesticide (1992)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar, backing vocals)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Dave Grohl (drums)

Live versionsEdit

Date recorded Venue Releases Personnel
December 3, 1989 London Astoria, London, England From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Chad Channing (drums)
September 1, 1991 De Doelen, Rotterdam, Netherlands 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Dave Grohl (drums, backing vocals)
October 31, 1991 Paramount Theatre, Seattle, Washington Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (1994/2006)
Classic Albums: Nirvana – Nevermind (2005)
Live at the Paramount (2011)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Dave Grohl (drums, backing vocals)
December 28, 1991 Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, California In Bloom (1992)
Nevermind (deluxe) (2011)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Dave Grohl (drums, backing vocals)
August 30, 1992 Reading Festival, Reading, England Live at Reading (2009)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar)
  • Krist Novoselic (bass)
  • Dave Grohl (drums, backing vocals)
November 18, 1993 Sony Music Studios, New York City, New York MTV Unplugged in New York (1994/2007)
  • Kurt Cobain (vocals, acoustic guitar)
  • Krist Novoselic (acoustic bass)
  • Dave Grohl (drums, backing vocals)
  • Pat Smear (acoustic guitar)
  • Lori Goldston (cello)

Cover versionsEdit

Year Artist Album
2011 Amanda Palmer Newermind
2015 Walk Off the Earth Under the Covers


  1. ^ a b Luerssen, John D. (2014). Nirvana FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990s. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-1-61713-588-0.
  2. ^ Cross, Charles R. (September 8, 2011). "True or False? 8 Myths About Nirvana's 'Nevermind'". Spin. Los Angeles, California: SpinMedia. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  3. ^ Jeff, Gilbert (February 1992). "Cool Hand Puke: Kurt Cobain tries to explain why Nirvana — third-hand guitars and all — is suddenly the hottest band in the country". Guitar World (February 20, 2018 ed.). New York City: NewBay Media. Retrieved July 26, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Cross, Charles; Berkenstadt, Jim (February 22, 2012). Classic Rock Albums: Nirvana - Nevermind. New York City: Schirmer Trade Books. ISBN 9780857127686.
  5. ^ Gaar, Gillian G. (2009). The Rough Guide to Nirvana. New York City: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-1-4053-8119-2.
  6. ^ "Nirvana's Latest, Incesticide Is No Trump Card, But It's Still A Winner". The Milwaukee Journal. December 20, 1992. Retrieved March 26, 2019.
  7. ^ a b Shepherd, Julianne Escobedo (April 8, 2015). "No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked". Rolling Stone. New York City: Wenner Media LLC. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  8. ^ Cobain, Kurt. "Nirvana 'Polly' Sheet Music in E Minor - Download & Print". Musicnotes.com. BMG Rights Management. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
  9. ^ Cobain, Kurt. "Nirvana 'Polly' Sheet Music in E Minor - Download & Print". Musicnotes.com. BMG Rights Management. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
  10. ^ Cobain, Kurt. "Nirvana 'Polly' Sheet Music in E Minor - Download & Print". Musicnotes.com. BMG Rights Management. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
  11. ^ Cobain, Kurt. "Nirvana 'Polly' Sheet Music in E Minor - Download & Print". Musicnotes.com. BMG Rights Management. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
  12. ^ a b Azerrad, Michael (1993). Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. New York City: Doubleday. p. 321. ISBN 0-86369-746-1.
  13. ^ a b Rocco, John (1998). The Nirvana companion: two decades of commentary: a chronicle of the end of punk. New York City: Schirmer Books. p. 243. ISBN 0-02-864930-3.
  14. ^ a b 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. New York City: Simon and Schuster. p. 71. ISBN 1-4165-9473-6.
  15. ^ "GUILTY VERDICT IN RAPE CASE". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Seattle Washington: Hearst Corporation: D1. August 19, 1987.
  16. ^ a b Cross, Charles R. (August 15, 2001). Heavier Than Heaven. New York City: Hyperion Books. ISBN 0-7868-6505-9.
  17. ^ Gold, Jonathan (April 3, 2014). "Nirvana: Read SPIN's 1994 Essay on Kurt Cobain's Rise, 'Out of the Blue'". Spin. Los Angeles, California: SpinMedia. Retrieved March 26, 2019.
  18. ^ Lindsay, Cam (January 12, 2017). "'Incesticide' Is Nirvana's Best Record Because It Reveals Their Contradictions". Vice. Brooklyn, New York: Vice Media. Retrieved January 25, 2018.
  19. ^ Petridis, Alexis (20 June 2019). "Nirvana's 20 greatest songs - ranked!". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  20. ^ Spin Staff (2011-07-19). "FREE ALBUM: SPIN Tribute to Nirvana's 'Nevermind'". Spin. Retrieved 2018-02-21.
  21. ^ "The Hit List: 20 Great Nirvana Songs Picked by the Stars". Kerrang!. No. 709. July 25, 1998. p. 49. Retrieved July 21, 2019.

External linksEdit