November 1st, 1994, Nirvana released their MTV Unplugged In New York album through DGC Records. By the time Nirvana recorded their performance for MTV Unplugged on November 18th, 1993, they were the biggest band in the world. Not that they looked like it. Dave Grohl wearing a turtleneck and ponytail, wore the face of a man deep in concentration as he went against all his natural inclinations to beat the absolute shit out of his drum set and, instead, tap lightly. Krist Novoselic wrangled a giant borrowed acoustic bass and debuted his accordion skills as if playing at a school recital. Kurt Cobain, struggling to act relaxed in a room filled with people who thought he was a prophet, spun side to side on his swivel chair, his knee bouncing as he dragged on a cigarette.
Yet despite the fish-out-of-water feel, what the band delivered was genuinely transcendental. It was a moment of unbridled beauty captured in a setting the band and audience weren’t unaccustomed to. Nirvana’s essence lay in delivering caustic, abrasive shards of punk rock, sweetened with Beatle-esque pop hooks and wild abandon. The MTV Unplugged format forced Nirvana to ditch the volume and vitriol, which laid bare the band’s sophisticated melodies and bruised beauty.
Nirvana rehearsed for two days at SST Rehearsal Facility in Weehawken, New Jersey. The rehearsals were tense and difficult, with the band having problems performing various songs. During the sessions, Cobain disagreed with MTV about the performance. Producer Alex Coletti recalled that the network was unhappy with the lack of hit Nirvana songs and with the choice of the Meat Puppets as guests, saying: “They wanted to hear the ‘right’ names – Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who.” The day before filming, Cobain refused to play, but he appeared at the studio the following afternoon.
Nirvana’s performance was recorded on November 18th, 1993, at Sony Studios in New York City. Cobain suggested the stage be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. Coletti asked, “You mean like a funeral?” Cobain replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral.” The band were augmented by newly instated guitarist Pat Smear, who joined at the beginning of the In Utero tour and was now a full-fledged member, and cellist Lori Goldston.
“We’re just musically and rhythmically inept,” Cobain rather self-deprecatingly told Guitar World after the release of Nevermind in 1991. “We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough.” For musicians whose sound was so essentially electric, the MTV Unplugged format could be daunting. The idea of playing acoustic—or, as it came to pass, a subdued, semi-amplified setting with acoustic instruments—was akin to going on stage naked.
Up to 24 hours before the Unplugged taping, Cobain considered having Dave Grohl sit out because he thought his drumming would overpower the rest of the band. Thankfully, Cobain relented and trusted in Grohl to deliver, which he did, giving a beautifully weighted and nuanced drum performance throughout. However, these insecurities add an underlying tension throughout the performance. Not the type of tension where band members are at each other’s throats, but rather a deep concentration, an understanding that they were in uncharted territory and exposed.
Maybe sensing that all eyes were on him and his place on the recording was hanging by a thread, Dave Grohl sits quietly throughout. With only a stripped-down kit and a pair of brushes to protect him from Kurt, who repeatedly spins around on his chair and motions at the drummer over hunched shoulders. At one point, Kurt passively tells Grohl not to play on “Penny Royal Tea,” saying, “Am I going to play this alone?” Dave immediately understands that it’s not a question but a command and lays down his brushes on his snare: “Do it alone.” Grohl then nervously turns to guitarist Pat Smear, asking, “Do you have a smoke, Pat?”
The acoustic setting effectively amputated a vital element of Nirvana’s approach. The band had expertly used the loud, quite dynamic in their songwriting approach for years; add to that, the barely controlled chaos of ripping feedback and corrosive noise they used to stunning effect live and on record. Shorn of these primal, ingrained elements, one can understand Cobain’s nervousness going into the recording.
What he didn’t bank on was the breathtaking power his songs had when stripped to the bone. Also, with Unplugged, Nirvana proved themselves expert interpreters of other bands’ songs. Looking back, their choice of covers seems inspired. More than simply giving bands that influenced Kurt a “leg-up” and some much-needed exposure (which their inclusion most certainly did), these songs added to the atmosphere and pathos of the performance.
The Vasolines were formed in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1986 by Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee. Though they were not widely known outside Scotland during their short career, their association with Nirvana brought exposure to the band. Kurt Cobain once described Kelly and McKee as his “favourite songwriters in the whole world”. Before the Unplugged recording, Nirvana covered The Vasolines “Son of a Gun” and “Molly’s Lips” on their Incesticide album. For Unplugged, they chose “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” a song that had become a staple of their set during the In Utero tour.
The Meat Puppets was formed in 1980 by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood. Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, the band established their unique style, blending punk with country and psychedelic rock. Kurt Cobain became a fan after seeing them open for Black Flag in the ’80s and often cited them as influences. For Unplugged, Kurt invited Cris and Curt Kirkwood onstage to perform three Meat Puppets numbers. For the vast majority of viewers watching when the performance first aired on MTV, the sight of the Kirkwood brothers strolling on stage, looking like they’d just walked off a Freak Brothers comic strip, was met with a resounding “Who are these guys?” Three songs later, these incredible songwriters were unknowns no more.
The performances of “Plateau”, “Oh Me”, and “Lake of Fire” (all originally from the album Meat Puppets II) are breathtakingly beautiful. Kurt’s deep respect and love for the songs shine through, pouring every ounce of his being into his vocal performances. “Lake of Fire” became a cult favourite due to Cobain’s heart-wrenching vocal performance. “Kurt purposely wanted the Meat Puppets songs to be a struggle for him vocally,” remarked Coletti. “So instead of finding a key he could sing them in comfortably, he chose to strain.”
David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” was chosen at the suggestion of Pat Smear. In his journals, Kurt ranked Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World album at number 45 in his top 50 favourite albums. Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic were introduced to the album by Nirvana’s original drummer Chad Channing, who bought a used LP version and converted it to a cassette. For the performance, Cobain ran his acoustic guitar through a fuzz pedal. Cobain’s haunting vocals overtook and descended the Bowie lyric into an arena of darkness and hallucination that seemed to be Bowie’s original intent but which he didn’t achieve on his own recording.
Huddie William Ledbetter, better known by the stage name Lead Belly, was born in 1888 and died in 1949. He was an American folk and blues singer best known for songs like “Good Night Irene,” “Midnight Special”, “Cotton Fields,” “Boll Weevil,” and “In The Pines,” which was also known as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
In 1990, Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan invited Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic into the studio to cover Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for his debut solo album, The Winding Sheet, four years before Nirvana popularized the song on Unplugged. Lanegan and Cobain had a deep love of Blues music. Lanegan wrote about the sessions in his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. “Sometimes Kurt would come down and stay with us for a couple of days,” recalled Lanegan, “Sometimes I’d hang out with him in Olympia, listening to the old blues records we both loved. One afternoon at his place, we started talking about making a record. ‘We should do a record of this stuff,’ one of us suggested. And then the other, ‘We should do a record of all Lead Belly covers.” Ultimately, the album never came to fruition.
Judging by the Unplugged performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the thoughts of two of the greatest voices of the era, Lanegan and Cobain, teaming up to deliver an album of material like this is one of the great “what ifs.” Cobain’s performance of the song during Unplugged is utterly sublime. His intensity is palpable, crescendoing on the final words; as he sings “the whole night,” he stops, his eyes shoot open with the manic gaze of a man snapped out of deep meditation; he takes a gulp of air, and sings the final word “through…” Cobain’s passion is unnerving; with every word he delivers, it sounds as though his skeleton is trying to climb from his mouth.
The band’s choice of original material is also perfectly pitched. Eschewing mega-hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium,” and the recently released single “Heart-Shaped Box”, the band chose songs from their back catalogue that sat comfortably within the acoustic format. “About A Girl”, from their debut album Bleach, indicated that Cobain’s songwriting was far more melodically adept than the band’s pummelling output had suggested up to that point. Its addition here solidifies its place as one of Nirvana’s more beautifully introspective moments.
“Come As You Are” and “On A Plain” are brilliant songs that suffer no dip in emotional impact when shorn of their electric edge. “Polly” was Kurt’s attempt at tapping a deep well of American traditional folk, sharing similarities of theme with songs like “Pretty Polly” by 1930’s banjo player Dock Boggs. “Something In The Way” is devastating in its simplicity and mournful sadness.
“Dumb” and the stunning “All Apologies” were recent precursors to the acoustic brilliance of their Unplugged set, having just been released on the band’s In Utero album in September of 1993. “All Apologies” is a beautifully arranged masterpiece; Grohls’ lightly tapped drums and Novoselic’s melodic bass breeze along, supporting Kurt’s simple but beautiful guitar hook.
There’s no avoiding it: Listening to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York is an unsettling experience when one considers the tragedy that was soon to unfold in the lives of these musicians. When the show first aired, it served to reinforce what many already knew about Kurt Cobain, even if he wasn’t sure himself: that his songs could be stripped down to basics without losing their innate melodies, that he had a fondness for beautiful, mournful tunes, and that there was an intense, lonely vulnerability lurking behind that scraggly blond hair and those dark eyes.
Hunched over his guitar, wearing an old-man cardigan and cracking a few self-deprecating jokes, Cobain didn’t exactly seem happy to be alive that evening. And we hardly expected him to be any other way — by then, his unhappiness with fame and success was practically part of the appeal, and that uneasiness drew us to him.
The performance first aired on MTV on December 16th, 1993 and took on a whole new significance a few months later with the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain. Unplugged In New York didn’t make Nirvana’s previous albums redundant or irrelevant: those remain formidable rock records. However, in the outpouring of grief that followed Kurt’s passing, the Unplugged album captured the zeitgeist and somehow helped console. The stripped-back nature of the recording felt like a funeral dirge, and Kurt’s impassioned performance took on a far more significant meaning.
The performance showed how Cobain could artfully weave together pop’s contrasting strands and stands as a beautiful epitaph to one of the most extraordinary talents of our time.