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There is a lot of self-loathing going on in this song, as Kurt Cobain sings, "I'm so ugly" and takes the voice of a man on the brink of killing himself - dysfunctional, random, and all of that. Cobain made it clear that most of the time, he wasn't singing about himself in his songs, but was pulling from what he saw in other people. This depressive theme crept into some of the songs on their In Utero album as well, which at one point was going to be called "I Hate Myself And I Want To Die." At live shows, Cobain would sometimes put this in perspective, asking the audience, "Hey everybody, why so glum?"
Lithium is a drug used by doctors and psychiatrists to treat patients with Manic-Depressive Disorder, also known as Bipolar Depression. This is a very volatile mental condition, and Lithium often helps regulate the mood of the patient. Mike Tyson is a famous Lithium patient.
The CD single contained a sonogram photo of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love's unborn child, Frances Bean; Kurt said he thought he saw Frances doing the heavy metal devil horn hand gesture when he watched the sonogram. The single also included all the lyrics to the songs on the Nevermind
album, so people could finally figure out what Kurt was singing in "Smells Like Teen Spirit
The album was produced by Butch Vig. He also produced the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream and is the drummer for the band Garbage.
Kurt Cobain collaborated with Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan in an informal blues band during 1990. One of the names they considered for the group was Lithium. (thanks, Adam - Dewsbury, England)
There was a group called Nirvana that was around from 1967-1972 and had modest success in Europe. That band got back together and sued Kurt Cobain's Nirvana in the early 1990s for taking their name. The suit was amiably resolved, and the other Nirvana released their version of "Lithium" on their 1996 album Orange And Blue. (thanks, Andrew - Cape Town, South Africa)
Cobain spent a period of his life moving between the homes of various relatives and friends. One of these friends came from a family of reformed Christians, and in this song Cobain compares living in this house to having bi-polar depression. (thanks, fungus - Scotland)
Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid told Rolling Stone magazine: "My favorite song on Nevermind was 'Lithium.' Kurt Cobain tapped into something in the culture that nobody had given a voice to before: passionate ambivalence: 'I'm so ugly, but that's OK 'cause so are you.' He captured the idea of having incredibly powerful feelings about not having feelings." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Bruce Lash recorded a mellow lounge version that was used in the 2008 movie Marley & Me
. Lash explains: "I recorded the song as part of an album I did called Prozak For Lovers II
, in 2004. I did the first Prozak For Lovers in 1998. I was looking for songs that were hard or angry or alienated to make sort of loungy Bossa Novas out of. Calm them down. Make them soothing. 'Lithium' has such a beautiful melody, and I never realized how great the lyrics were until I started working on the Prozak version of it. it was a natural!
The thing about this kind of song treatment is that the lyrics really come to the front, and I find the result is especially pleasing when the lyrics are as good as they are in this song.
How did it get into Marley
? The film's editor, Mark Livolsi, told me that he had put it in the cut fairly early on, and its placement was never questioned. I have no idea how he came across my recording of the song. I did, however, send him a fruit basket, as a thank you. :)" (Thanks to Bruce for filling us in. Prozak For Lovers II
is available at CD Baby
and on iTunes.)
Nirvana performed this at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. It was quite an eventful evening for the band, as they wanted to play "Rape Me
" but MTV wanted "Smells Like Teen Spirit
." Cobain had to check out of rehab to attend the show, and had made comments disparaging MTV in the past. At rehearsals, a standoff ensued where MTV threatened to go nuclear, banning not just Nirvana, but other acts from their label if they didn't fall in line. "Lithium" was the compromise, but Nirvana made the network sweat, playing a few seconds of "Rape Me" before going into their agreed upon song. During the song, after a bit of network-sanctioned stage diving from the crowd, they smashed up their instruments, with Krist Novoselic getting hit in the head by his bass - a fairly common event at Nirvana finales. Kurt Cobain also had beef with Axl Rose at the show, and Kurt made sure to spit on Axl's keyboard after a backstage altercation.
The video was made up of footage of the band performing at the Reading Festival in England, where they were the headliners in 1992.
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