Apparently Kurt Cobain was such a fan of Patrick Suskind’s vile, dark psychological thriller, Perfume, The story of a murderer, that he carried a copy with him wherever he went and re-read it hundreds of times. He even wrote a song about the main character, called “Scentless Apprentice” for Nirvana’s second album In Utero, a work that was at first almost rejected by his record label as being unlistenable. Some thought Cobain was deliberately trying to sabotage his career after the pressures and indignities of alt-rock super stardom left him feeling more alienated than even before he was famous. In Utero is in fact a stunningly good album with moments of beautiful discordant music and angst ridden yet resigned lyrics, but if there is one song on the album that you can almost see the point of the people who wanted to write the album off at first, “Scentless Apprentice” would have to be the song they’re looking at. There is very little of the haunting melody we get from songs like “Serve The Servants” and “Heart Shaped Box.” Instead it’s Kurt wailing “Go Awaaaay” in a caterwaul scream filled with venom and spite and very little harmony.
But after reading the book you understand the genius of the song. Perfume concerns a unique child born on a trash heap of dead fish and entrails, and who is rejected by several wet nurses for his poor disposition and lack of a human like odor. The child grows to have a keen sense of smell that is almost a super power. He’s able to decipher the slightest scents and detect ‘wads of money from behind wooden walls.’ The story takes a dark turn when the main character as a young man works for a perfume maker and then meets and ultimately murders women to gather their scents and possess them completely. The reason Suskind’s work probably resonated with Kurt and inspired him to write a song like “Scentless Apprentice,” is that the book is beautifully written about both the darkest, most grimy, most malodorous stench of humanity along with its most gratifying, seductive smells.
And this is what made Nirvana songs so engrossing. They sounded both beautiful and fucked up at the same time. Kurt’s voice could go from a soulful Leonard Cohen croon to a screeching nails on a chalkboard scream in mere seconds. It was the perfect instrument to express his profound disenchantment with our inherent dichotomy as human beings, the recognition that the world is often stunningly beautiful and disgustingly ugly at the same time. This is why Suskind’s book reads like a great Nirvana song, and why Scentless Apprentice sounds like Perfume, the story of a murderer.