Nirvana – Unplugged In New York

Vert, very, very almost 19 years ago to the exact day (14th December 1993), MTV aired Nirvana Unplugged on their global Music Television Network.

MTV Unplugged was a very successful format and artists such as Bruce Springsteen and The Eagles benefitted financially by releasing their respective performances as actual albums.

The format could be looked at cynically if desired but every now and then a performance would take on extra dimensions and show a band in a ‘new’, ‘different’, light.

Pearl Jam did not release their Unplugged 1992 set until 2009 and I have always seen this as a mark of respect for Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s passing. I have always, near, despised Pearl Jam and I could be totally wrong about their reasoning for delaying their Unplugged set for so long. I’d like to think they did not cash in as they did not want to capitalise on Cobain’s death.

Nirvana did Unplugged differently that is for sure. This was no powerhouse, hits, performance and the band clearly thought about the format considerably.

MTV and Nirvana do not, naturally, go hand-in-hand. A huge corporate Music Channel channeling ‘cool’ just was not where Nirvana were at. I am surprised Nirvana did the show at all but in hindsight am glad they did as it captures the band at their most intimate.

Nirvana used their ill-fated success to nod to their influences and expose lesser known artists who performed with them on the recording.

The recording is not genuinely unplugged as Kurt quite clearly is using an amp even if this is hidden from the cameras. The session was recorded at a time when Kurt had major heroin problems – even if this too is almost hidden from the cameras. Looking subtle but damaged Kurt does look relatively healthy for the show.

I can only imagine the producers of the show really thinking the band could blow it or do something unplanned. Nirvana were a genuine beast, earnest and direct they connected with people in a way few other bands ever have.

The Unplugged session begins with the only track they play from their debut album Bleach. About A Girl showcases just what a voice Kurt had. The sound is very gentle as Dave Grohl brushes his drum kit and if anything it is better than the studio recording on their first album.

Come As You Are offers a frankly beautifully rounded sound. Kurt looks hollow and distant and the shrine like studio setting makes the viewing difficult again considering the loss all Nirvana fans must still feel. The version is quite mesmerizing and will always be so. If anything the natural sound shows the band could have stepped out of the shadow of Nevermind. Damn, this is a hard write up, bites lip and thinks ‘magical band’.

Nirvana cover Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam by little known band The Vaselines and are joined by Pat Smear on acoustic guitar and Lori Golston on cello. Krist Novocelic puts down his bass and charmingly plays accordion.

David Bowie’s – The Man Who Sold The World is played next and I must admit to having never heard the song before Nirvana covered it. An evocative gentle guitar run adds to the soft charm and powerfully understated delivery.

Kurt’s tangible worry is almost covered with humour as he and Dave Grohl mildly banter about the next song Pennyroyal Tea. His voice strains beautifully but you can actually feel the pain. At one point the track almost breaks down yet this adds to this take in a way it’s hard to get across with written words.

The band stick with In Utero and play Dumb next which is a song that could have sat on any of their three studio albums. The band look focussed on the performance and the version has eerie qualities where the viewer may think are they going to get into this or remain taught.

Polly from Nevermind sits well after Dumb. The two tracks are very similar and Kurt jokes about this. One downward left-handed strum seems to break the tension and the song glides from then onwards. The band are natural artists and the click from the frontman lifts the whole performance somehow.

Nirvana now stick with some of the softer songs from Nevermind and play On A Plain next. Seated, you almost feel the band urge to rack it up for the first time. Novoselic gets lost in the music and visually this is quite a magic sight.

Something In The Way and Nirvana despite this sparse ‘Unplugged’ sound gell like the complete band they were. This does not look like a band playing a corporate game but a band linking and just playing out a beautiful sound.

Plateau and Nirvana are joined by Cris & Curt Kirkwood (the latter of whom wrote the song) from The Meat Puppets. Again Nirvana nod to their influences and this is the ultimate mark of respect.

Oh, Me pays more Meat Puppets respect and Kurt puts down his guitar. He cuts a lonely figure centre stage and the track ambles by.

Lake Of Fire is yet another Meat Puppets cover and again features Cris & Curt Kirkwood. Guitarless Kurt’s voice shows a side that studio albums did not. It is a rasping, gravelly take and the instrumentation fits superbly well.

All Apologies and we are back to one of In Utero’s finest songs. Lyrically the song plays out in a way that will touch Nirvana fans forever, the ‘married, buried’ line still gets me.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night is a traditional song arranged by Lead Belly. Watching this when the performance first aired one could feel the relief, by the band, that they’d got through the set. Kurt moves and whilst still looking focussed on the task in hand one can sense him want to take the song to a higher place. For a free-flowing repetitive track it goes up and down a gear with shimmering beauty before the vocalist lets something out. What it is I’m not sure but it has real touching qualities and is as rich as it is earnest.

I see the song as Nirvana’s last despite the fact that they did not write it and the countless ‘new’ recordings being ‘found’. It just closes the door.

Nirvana Unplugged was released almost a full year after it aired and seven months after the frontmans suicide. Geffen dared not release it earlier as many looked in anger in all corners trying to come to terms with the loss of the finest artist of a generation and beyond. It is a recording that, sadly, marks the end of Nirvana well. Whilst listening to it one can only think Nirvana really could and should have outdone R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic For The People’ and they had a ‘softer’ album in them that really would have seen them gain even more respect than they have. They were a remarkable band…

MTV Unplugged: Nirvana

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2 thoughts on “Nirvana – Unplugged In New York

  1. Stipe has since claimed that he and Cobain were talking about working together, and that he regrets not trying harder to get Cobain away from Seattle in 93-94 in order to do this (and hopefully clean him up). It would have been an interesting collaboration.
    Unplugged is indeed a magical live album. Grohl had trouble setting his drums up for it – he struggled hugely to play as quietly as Cobain wished, even with brushes. If Cobain had ever written a ‘softer’ album, my bet is that it would have been post-Nirvana, and certainly post-Grohl, a fine but one-dimensional drummer.
    I’ve never heard before that PJ didn’t release their Unplugged out of respect for Cobain. They tussled mightily with the record label over releasing the Unplugged version of Black as a single, and won – the first time they realised they could stand up to the label, and a pre-cursor to many more struggles with the music industry through the 90s. PJ Unplugged is a very different beast to the Nirvana one, but then they recorded it the best part of two years earlier (March 92 from memory) and had been together as a band for not much more than a year compared to Nirvana’s six years. Why do you despise PJ? You surely don’t buy into the whole fabricated Nirvana vs PJ nonsense, nor that somehow NIrvana (who willingly signed to a major) embody ‘art’ to PJ’s ‘commerce’. Vedder is and remains one of the most thoughtful lyricists of his generation, poetic and challenging, never compromised; live the band continue to excel, especially now that Cameron is behind the drums.

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