A lot of people find it challenging to interpret the meaning behind that smell lyrics, and a great deal of theories have been put forward. One such theory, which Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain himself endorsed, was that the song is mocking those who believe that all they need to do to spark a revolution is to put up a poster of Che Guevara on their wall and then watch as a new dawn breaks.
However, another interpretation is that the song is a warning against drug abuse and addiction. The song’s protagonist is described as a person who is flirting with death, and they are urged to stop their self-destructive ways before it’s too late. The singer even compares their problem to a rotting corpse, indicating that they are a mere breath away from meeting their end.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins wrote the song after a band member, guitarist Gary Rossington, had an alcohol related accident. Rather than just taking the song as a general statement of danger, the pair chose to use it as a warning to themselves and other members of the band. The opening lines “Whiskey bottles and brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way” clearly refer to the reckless lifestyle that the band was falling into, while “the smell of death surrounds you” hints at their potential demise. It is a stark reminder that the pleasures of drugs and alcohol are fleeting, and are not worth the damage they do to your body and mind.