“Pennyroyal Tea” by Nirvana

“Pennyroyal Tea” is one of those rare types of songs where not only does the title itself have a deep history, but also the man behind the tune, Kurt Cobain, was a thoroughly-researched topic in and of himself. That’s another way of saying that the lyrics, despite their terseness, are to some degree open to various interpretations.

What is “pennyroyal tea”?

The title itself, “pennyroyal tea”, is in fact a type of tea made from a plant called mentha pulegium which has various applications. This is largely due to the fact that said plant is indeed poisonous. For example, it is most-commonly utilized as an insecticide. So in terms of human consumption, back in the days of old especially pennyroyal tea was widely used been used as an abortive, i.e. a drug which is taken by females to abort a pregnancy. 

And Kurt Cobain was well aware that it was used for this purpose. And how? He himself once said that he actually had a number of friends who tried it in that fashion, but “it never worked”. And in the chorus itself he talks about using the tea to “distill the life that’s inside of (him)”. This statement loosely points to the fact that it is an abortive (as well as the overall motif of the album it is featured on).

Song’s Primary Theme

But all lyrics considered, the idea which this track is actually based on is that of the singer’s depression. And he lists a number of factors which contribute to this frame of thought. For instance, he cites that he has “very-bad posture”. Moreover he’s “so tired” yet “can’t sleep”, and Kurt classifies his own self as a “liar and a thief”. Also in keeping in tune with the pennyroyal tea metaphor, he also uses other colorful symbolisms to allude to how he feels inside, such as referring to himself as “anemic royalty”.

Lyrics of "Pennyroyal Tea"

Kurt Cobain was certainly not carrying an unwanted baby!

Now regardless of what the title of this tune may suggest, logically speaking we know that the singer personally was not suffering from an unwanted pregnancy. So it has been suggested that the reason he is mentioning the tea in the first place may be because he used it as some sort of remedy for stomach ailments. Now the way that we know, via the song, that the singer does indeed have tummy issues is made most evident in the third verse when he states that he’s “on warm milk and laxatives” as well as “cherry-flavored antacids”. And when someone says they’re on something, that means they’re taking the substance(s) specifically for their medicinal effects. So then that brings us to the question of what exactly is wrong with his stomach.

Undiagnosed Stomach Ailment

Well unfortunately for Cobain, he went through life suffering from what Wikipedia described as “an undiagnosed chronic stomach condition”.  And to make a long story short, he ultimately ended up taking drugs to ease the pain. So it is very much feasible that when he refers to drinking “pennyroyal tea” to “distill the life that’s inside of (him)”. That latter statement would be a metaphor for the pain he was enduring due to his stomach issues, which in actuality would be exacerbated by the drug. For as a number of health aspects have pointed out, constipation is one of the side effects of drug addiction. 

In other words the reason the “laxatives” mentioned in the song are likely present was to alleviate internal clogging caused by the addiction. But going back to Kurt’s general stomach problems, the “bad posture” which is mentioned in the first verse may actually point to the idea of the singer being hunched over for instance due to belly pain.

Insomnia

Moreover as we pointed out earlier, the singer is suffering from insomnia.  This was also a very-real issue in Curt Kobain’s life as he was apparently addicted to Rohypnol. This is a drug which is used to treat serious cases of said condition.

What Kurt Cobain has said about “Pennyroyal Tea”

So once again going back to Cobain’s own words, he has explained that this track is about a “person who is beyond depressed… in their death bed, pretty much”. So in combining this explanation with the lyrics, we know that yes, the narrator is in fact in low spirits. But this wouldn’t be the case of an individual’s mind simply being overtaken with negative thoughts. Rather he is suffering from diseases which are contributing to this negativity.

Conclusion

So at the end of the day, “Pennyroyal Tea” is not about a tea at all. Rather it is focused on someone who is severely depressed and likewise physically ill.  Moreover there is a subtheme of addiction. So basically, what the title of the track represents is his attempts to actually remedy all of these unfortunate maladies.

Writing Credits for “Pennyroyal Tea”

This song was written by Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), the lead singer of Nirvana. And according to the music legend, he developed its musical score “in about 30 seconds” and had written the lyrics within the time span of “half-an-hour”.

That was back in 1990, a few years before the track actually came out.  Indeed Nirvana actually debuted this song during a live performance in Seattle back in 1991.

The producer of “Pennyroyal Tea” was a regular Nirvana collaborator known as Steve Albini.

Other Versions of “Pennyroyal Tea”

Another producer, Scott Litt, did a remix of the song which appears on certain editions of “In Utero” (those distributed by Kmart and Wal-Mart) as well as the compilation albums “Nirvana” (2002) and “Icon” (2010).

Moreover there is an acoustic version of “Pennyroyal Tea” which makes an appearance on the 1994 Nirvana album “MTV Unplugged in New York”.

Additionally true fans of the band may want to check out an acoustic demo of the tune, recorded in 1990, which was unearthed in 2015.

When did “Pennyroyal Tea” come out?

Geffen Records originally released this song on 21 September 1993. It was part of Nirvana’s last album, “In Utero”.

Moreover “Pennyroyal Tea” was slated to be issued as the third single from “In Utero” in April of 1994. However, that was the same month in which Curt Kobain committed suicide. Owing to this, the release of the song as a single was cancelled.

Likewise a music video to the track, which had Jeffery Plansker slated as its director, never materialized due to this tragedy.

A Great Tune

Yet despite never coming out as a single during its time, “Pennyroyal Tea” has still been recognized by the likes of NME as one of Nirvana’s greatest tunes.

About two decades after it originally came out as part of “In Utero”, “Pennyroyal Tea” was officially released as a single on Record Store Day (19 April), 2014. It managed to top Billboard’s Hot Singles Sales chart. Also, it appeared on the UK Singles Chart as well as a couple of other listings in the United Kingdom.

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