There aren’t many (any?) Nirvana songs you could describe as lighthearted. But the heaviest of them all is definitely “Polly.”
Nevermind’s midpoint is a haunting acoustic piece that’s based on a true story. Kurt Cobain wrote the song after reading a newspaper article about a serial rapist in his home state of Washington. The song’s history is outlined in a recent video essay by The Nerdwriter, right down to Cobain recording it on a $30 guitar he got at a pawn shop. But “Polly” also stands out on that iconic album for a different, less horrifying reason: It’s the only Nevermind track recorded at Madison’s Smart Studios.In 1990, Nirvana came here to begin work on the follow-up to their 1989 debut, Bleach. The band was still signed to Sub Pop at the time, and label founder Bruce Pavitt had suggested Butch Vig as producer for the album. Thanks to his work with Wisconsin bands Die Kreuzen and Killdozer, the Viroqua native was a natural choice for bands looking to mix hooks with heaviness.
“That’s the sound that Seattle people were coming here to get,” said Smart co-founder Steve Marker in the 2016 documentary The Smart Studios Story. For four days in April, Nirvana recorded rough versions of several tracks before cutting the sessions short when Cobain strained his voice. (When were his vocals not strained?) But the band’s work wouldn’t go to waste: The songs stirred up a major label bidding war that ultimately landed them at DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen Records. Sellouts!
“There’s this buzz about the band because everybody is bootlegging the Smart sessions,” recalled drummer Dave Grohl in The Smart Studios Story. (Interestingly, he didn’t join the band until later that year; Chad Channing is the credited drummer on “Polly.”)Nirvana and Vig re-recorded much of the album at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles. Only “Polly” would survive from those initial sessions with the producer, which makes perfect sense. It’s a subdued, haunting song. It needs to sound like it was recorded in a basement on East Washington Avenue, and not from the place where Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac cranked out megahits.
There are other famous records associated with Smart Studios, including The Smashing Pumpkins’ debut, Gish, and the first four records by Vig and Marker’s band, Garbage. (Also: Fall Out Boy’s Take This to Your Grave, which I contend is better than you think it is.)
But “Polly” is a milestone. It’s not just the finest moment for a generational talent songwriter like Kurt Cobain. It also represents a time in history when Madison was at the forefront of a musical movement. Smart Studios closed in 2010, but “Polly” carries its torch.