A crisp new vinyl reissue of MTV Unplugged in New York celebrates the band that could have been
As the audience filed into Sony Music Studios at 460 W. 54th Street in New York City to witness Nirvana’s appearance on MTV Unplugged on November 18, 1993, we had no idea what to expect.
I was fortunate enough to be there because Lori Goldston, cellist with the band on their fall 1993 tour, had put me on the guest list.
It seemed wildly improbable that Nirvana had been chosen for such a showcase. Nirvana shows were loud and raucous affairs, all sweaty mosh pits and crowd surfing, with an orgy of instrument destruction at the end. How they possibly set aside their mighty wall of sound and pull off an “unplugged”? Surely their music would fare poorly once stripped of all that volume? Of course, it ended up being one of the band’s most legendary performances, celebrated in a new 25th anniversary vinyl reissue that features the complete show, and five bonus songs from the show’s rehearsal (there’s a colored vinyl edition too).
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged first aired on December 16, 1993, but in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death in April 1994, it took on a new, haunting resonance. The autumnal glow of the set, with its heavy maroon drapes, scores of candelabras, and stargazer lilies, underscored the bittersweet melancholy of the event. Nirvana never recorded anything that could be considered an unabashedly upbeat pop tune; there was always a dark undercurrent that ran through their music, something that was enhanced tenfold by hearing the songs in such a raw, unadorned state.
For a few precious weeks after the show aired, it had simply been mesmerizing to watch Cobain put his own distinctive spin on songs like David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” After his death, his delivery of the lines “I must have died alone/a long, long time ago” had a new world-weary gravitas. It was, as Alan de Perna observed in Guitar World, as if Cobain was singing at his own funeral.
VIDEO: Nirvana performs David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” on MTV Unplugged
But at the time, that night, it felt magical, and I couldn’t believe my luck in acquiring a ticket. My first thought when I walked into the staging area was that the place looked like a funeral home, but it wasn’t in any morbid sense; it seemed like the kind of Northwest Noir aesthetic you’d see on Twin Peaks. And for all the anticipation, the atmosphere was surprisingly subdued, with little of the standard pre-show liveliness in the audience. People spoke quietly to each other; at one point I noticed Dave Grohl casually wandering around with a Beck’s beer in his hand.
Goldston later told me how nervous everyone in the band was when they came out to play; they’d never managed to do a complete run through of the entire set. But their unease wasn’t evident that evening, nor can you really sense it on the later recordings. The down time between songs felt relaxed, the band members chatting among themselves and joking with the audience; one such exchange led to a brief jam on “Sweet Home Alabama,” to our collective amusement.
Cobain started the show on a somewhat petulant note, introducing “About a Girl” by saying, “This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it.” Invariably described as “Beatlesque,” it’s a song that favors the acid touch of Lennon over McCartney’s romanticism in its acerbic depiction of a relationship: “I’ll take advantage while/you hang me out to dry.” And as was quickly apparent when the band began to play, the show wasn’t entirely unplugged; Cobain had his Martin D-18E put through a Fender Twin Reverb amp and various effects boxes (Alex Coletti, the show’s producer, hid the amp inside a box designed to look like a stage monitor).
The Nirvana songs the band chose to perform were well suited to this semi-acoustic approach. “Polly” and “Something in the Way” had originally been recorded with Cobain playing a 12-string Stella acoustic guitar he’d purchased from a pawn shop for $32.21, and “Dumb” and “Pennyroyal Tea” were cut from the same singer-songwriter cloth. “All Apologies,” too, shorn of its anthemic, cascading denouement, fell into the same camp.
“On a Plain” was the most unexpected choice. The song was hastily written during the Nevermind sessions, when another track was needed to fill out the album; Cobain even mocks his made-to-order craftsmanship in his lyric (“One more special message to go/And then I’m done and I can go home”). Almost breezy on Nevermind, it’s far more plaintive in its Unplugged incarnation.
VIDEO: Nirvana performs “On A Plain” on MTV Unplugged
“Come as You Are” was something of a sop to MTV, who’d begged the band to include at least some of their hits. But MTV wasn’t going to get an acoustic “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” nor would they get any celebrity guests — at least not anyone MTV considered a celebrity. But by inviting the Meat Puppets (or “the Brothers Meat,” as Cobain called them) to join the party, Nirvana was continuing a longstanding tradition of introducing their audience to their favorite acts (which was also why the set included a mournful version of “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” which Cobain knew through the Vaselines’ recording of it; Nirvana slightly amended the title to “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”).
Five years earlier, Nirvana had opened for the Meat Puppets at a Seattle show in 1988. Now, Cobain’s voice cracked as he worked his way through “Lake of Fire,” and less fractured, but equally twisted, “Plateau” and “Oh Me” from Meat Puppets II, as Curt and Cris Kirkwood provided accompaniment.
Unusually for an Unplugged taping, there were no retakes; the band played their set straight through. A few signs of Cobain’s nervousness were apparent. “I guarantee you I will screw this song up,” he stated before doing “The Man Who Sold the World,” though he didn’t, to his own surprise. “But here’s another one I could screw up,” he went on to say, before performing “Pennyroyal Tea” solo, at drummer Dave Grohl’s suggestion. This time he did falter, almost coming in on the wrong note in the last verse, but catching himself in time. Another act might have chosen to perform the song again, in the hopes of getting a better take. But such flawed moments only further enhanced the show; such a heartfelt performance didn’t need to be perfect.
Cobain also questioned the show’s pacing, saying he hadn’t wanted to perform “Polly” right after “Dumb,” “because they’re exactly the same song.” But he knew precisely how to end the set, bringing the evening to its emotional climax. Cobain had played guitar when Mark Lanegan recorded Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for his 1990 album The Winding Sheet, and Nirvana had performed it themselves at a few shows in 1993. Now, Cobain turned it into one of the most riveting performances of his entire life, building from a low-key beginning that steadily rises until the song burns with a white-hot intensity. When Cobain goes up an octave in the final verse, his voice becomes absolutely scalding, as if the song is being drawn out from the very depths of his soul. Coletti, tried to get the band to do an encore, but Cobain knew he’d already given his all. “I can’t top that last song,” he told Coletti. And he was right.
VIDEO: Nirvana performs Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on MTV Unplugged
During his last year, Cobain had talked about taking Nirvana’s music in a new direction. “That kind of classic rock and roll verse-chorus-verse, mid-tempo pop song is getting real boring,” he told his biographer Michael Azerrad. The band’s Unplugged performance gave them the chance to stretch a bit creatively; untethered from the expectations of an arena rock show, Cobain was free to experiment, and go wherever his muse took him. And for one brief, tantalizing moment, we saw what could have been.
AUDIO: Nirvana MTV Unplugged In New York (full album)