Nirvana – The Man Who Sold The World

I rarely post covers but this is a good one. No one will ever top Bowie’s version to me but this one has a charm about it I like. Cobain did a good job on this.

David Bowie liked this cover saying, “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.”

What he didn’t like were the kids that come up after his show and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘F**k you, you little tosser!”

Nirvana performed it on the MTV Unplugged episode a few months before Kurt died.

The song peaked at #5 in the US Alternative Top 50, #22 in Canada, and #1 in Poland in 1995.

From Songfacts

This song is about a man who no longer recognizes himself and feels awful about it. For years, Bowie struggled with his identity and expressed himself through his songs, often creating characters to perform them. On the album cover, Bowie is wearing a dress.

Some of the lyrics are based on a poem by Hugh Mearns called The Psychoed:

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who was not there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish that man would go away

Some lyrical analysis: “We passed upon the stair” is a figurative representation of a crossroads in Bowie’s life, where Ziggy Stardust catches a glimpse of his former self, (being David Bowie) which he thought had died a long time ago. Then he (the old David Bowie) says: “Oh no, not me. I never lost control.” This indicates that Bowie never really lost sight of who he was, but he Sold The World (made them believe) that he had become Ziggy, and he thought it was funny (I laughed and shook his hand). He goes on to state, “For years and years I roamed,” which could refer to touring. “Gaze a gazely stare at all the millions here” are the fans at concerts. >>

The album is one of Bowie’s least known, but over the years many fans have come to appreciate it and a lot of bands have covered songs from it.

Critics weren’t always sure what to make of it either, but John Mendelssohn had a good handle on it when he wrote of the album in Rolling Stone magazine, 1971: “Bowie’s music offers an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling, but only to the listener sufficiently together to withstand the schizophrenia.”

The British singer Lulu (“To Sir With Love”) recorded this in 1974. Bowie produced her version and played saxophone on the track. It went to #4 in the UK. Lulu spoke to Uncut magazine June 2008 about her recording: “I first met Bowie on tour in the early ’70s when he invited me to his concert. And back at the hotel, he said to me, in very heated language, ‘I want to make an MF of a record with you. You’re a great singer.’ I didn’t think it would happen, but he followed up two days later. He was uber cool at the time and I just wanted to be led by him. I didn’t think ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was the greatest song for my voice, but it was such a strong song in itself. In the studio, Bowie kept telling me to smoke more cigarettes, to give my voice a certain quality. We were like the odd couple. Were we ever an item? I’d rather not answer that one, thanks!
For the video, people thought he came up with the androgynous look, but that was all mine. It was very Berlin cabaret. We did other songs, too, like ‘Watch That Man,’ ‘Can You Hear Me?’ and ‘Dodo.’ ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ saved me from a certain niche in my career. If we’d have carried on, it would have been very interesting.”

Nirvana recorded this for their 1993 MTV Unplugged performance. It was Chad Channing, who was Nirvana’s drummer from 1988-1990, who introduced Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic to Bowie’s music. Chad told us: “We were in Boston and stopped by this record store, and I found this copy of The Man Who Sold The World. It was a cool copy – it had the poster in it and everything. And those guys weren’t familiar with the record. And I inquired about, ‘What David Bowie do you like? Do you like David Bowie?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, the only David Bowie we’re familiar with is ‘Let’s Dance.’ I was surprised. I was like, ‘Really? Wow.’ I was like, ‘You’ve got to hear some early David Bowie, for sure.’

So when I got the opportunity, I made a tape of the record at somebody’s house, and then while we were touring around I just went ahead and popped the tape in and let it roll. After a bit, Kurt turned around and said to me, ‘Who is this?’ kind of like knowingly, just something familiar with the voice and stuff. I said, ‘Well, this is David Bowie. This is The Man Who Sold the World record.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, this is really cool.’ I said, ‘You should check out Hunky Dory and stuff.’ And so eventually, I’m sure he did. But he totally dug it.”

Months after the MTV show, Kurt Cobain was found dead. The acoustic set was released as an album in late 1994.

Bauhaus lead singer Peter Murphy called this “the first true goth record.”

Beck performed this song with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear at the annual Clive Davis Grammy pre-party on February 14, 2016 in tribute to Bowie, who passed away a month earlier. “He’s always been kind of guidepost or gravitational force for me,” Beck said of Bowie.

On March 29, 2016, Michael Stipe performed this song on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, accompanied only by a piano. Two days later, Stipe sang “Ashes To Ashes” with Karen Elston at a Bowie tribute concert held at Carnegie Hall.


The video of The Man Who Sold The World has been giving me troubles…if it is not below…here is the link.

The Man Who Sold The World

We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend
Which came as a surprise
I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone
A long long time ago

Oh no, not me
We never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

I laughed and shook his hand
And made my way back home
I searched for form and land
For years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazeless stare
We marked a million hills
I must have died alone
A long, long time ago

Who knows?
Not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

Who knows?
Not me
We never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

25 thoughts on “Nirvana – The Man Who Sold The World”

    1. I always liked his voice. In interviews he said they were going to a more acoustic sound in the future…of course that never happened. He voice would have fit well though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would have killed to have this voice. The power of it is amazing. I would loved to hear the direction he was going.


      2. The ex I had that was the Zappa/Iggy/Rundgren/Captain Beefheart/Utopia fan also liked Nirvana, Dillon Fence & Smashing Pumpkins. I got a lot of exposure.

        Suicide my ass. She was involved. Suicide pact? Dead men tell no tales. Sometime back, I found a copy of the actual police report. What they found was not what was reported.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I never liked Courtney from what I saw of her. I didn’t want to play blame the woman like a lot of people do…but in this case I do think something was going on.
        One guy on video said she paid 50 grand to have him knocked off and he died like within a few days later. Rumor is Kurt was going to divorce her.


      4. She is… I don’t see the appeal… from what we see without knowing her…awful personality and just not good looking at all to me….at all. No personality to salvage it. Maybe he wanted loud, brash and abrasive…he got it alright.
        I…probably you also if I had to guess…when you are researching something…you can get stuck for hours. On youtube I was watching videos about it forever.


      5. Rabbit-hole syndrome? Oh, yeah. If something interests me, I can lose half a day in the blink of an eye. Then, I’m pretty much wasted. That is the very reason I don’t play video games, anymore. I had a shorter attention span when I was younger and playing with quarters, then tokens, would end an arcade game. You move on. The last time I played a video game was in the middle 90s. My “Zappa” ex had a nephew that had some games. I locked myself into a Banjo Kazooie game for 3 1/2 hours…non-stop. That right there told me I had no business messing with those things.

        My stepsister had Angry Birds on her stupidphone. I asked her WTH they were all about. She gave me a rundown and handed me her phone. I had my fill after about a half hour. At that point, my age & aggravation level took over, thank goodness. I’d rather do research. And, if I am in the middle of something…really deep into it, you will not get my attention. Blinders…

        All that makes us good with computers, eh?

        Liked by 1 person

      6. The last time I played was in the early 2000s… Grand Theft Auto Vice City…going around and picking off people and stealing cars…great stress relief. I would play when I got home from work every day until time to go to bed…after I beat it…I thought…this isn’t worth it.
        Your ex had good taste anyway in music!

        I get lost in any new subject I come across that I like. The Nirvana thing just depressed me…not just because of what happened to him…the whole scene they were involved in seemed depressing.

        That is what makes our wheels turn. If I see a problem I have to correct it and you are the same.


      7. Shooting virtual people…that could relieve some stress if you deal with a long succession of stupid people on a regular basis. Heh.

        I would have to disagree. There were pieces that appealed to me but, on the whole, no. I can’t stand the sound of a xylophone, now, because of my experience.

        The grunge movement was the antithesis of the headbangers/hairbands. They did appear moody.

        You my brotha from anotha motha! 😆

        Liked by 1 person

      8. LOL… I would go to the top of a building and just start shooting…It was fun because each car you stole you could pick a radio station….some cool eighties music and talk shows. It was nostalgia more than anything. They really had the eighties down.
        You cannot stand the sound of a xylophone…that would be the draw back. The only one I remember and like is Under My Thumb.

        It just depressed me to no end.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I think the Unplugged work is my favorite of Nirvana’s and this was one of the best tracks on it. Interesting read about the song lyrics, never had a clue what Bowie was writing about but it sort of makes sense now!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yea I know…I’ve been fighting with it since last night…I believe…fingers crossed I finally have it. Something is hidden and it’s showing two videos.


    1. The Leadbelly song Where Did You Sleep Last Night was terrific.
      I wish they would have done more things like this…who knows they might have later on.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Not sure if I’ve heard the Bowie original, but this is one of the best Nirvana videos I’ve seen. Not a great fan of the screaming songs. This one is mellow and beautiful. I love learning about the background and meanings behind the lyrics. Excellent choice today Max!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not a big fan either…what is sad…well him ending it all is sad but this was the direction he talked about going…a more acoustic plan…which his voice would have been great.
      thank you… I’ve been listening to them…it gets depressing though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it breaks my heart to watch the video and know he died a short time later. He and Bowie are making music in heaven right now you can count on it. Pearl Jam (who Kurt thought were cheap imitators to Nirvana) started out as screamers also then mellowed it right down. I’m still waiting for a new one from them. It’s been a few years now…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yea he was really competive which didn’t jive with his don’t care attitude he gave off… He wanted success…he just couldn’t handle it.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I saw some documentary on Kurt way back when and part of it suggested that Courtney had him killed. I have no basis to believe or disbelieve it, but aside from that it was a good documentary about his growing up years.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I came across that rumor A LOT. Some say he was divorcing her….That is a very strong rumor and some people are convinced she did.

        It’s just so depressing…not only what he did but that whole genre in a lot of ways to me. His lyrics…the whole bit. Some of it was for show though…in some ways trying to be different. I don’t know…I can only listen to them some…not a lot. The song I really like by them is “About A Girl”…its very Beatle like….and he loved the Beatles.

        Liked by 2 people

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