#279: MTV Unplugged In New York, Nirvana
I don’t remember not being a Nirvana fan, though the intensity of my fandom peaked around 16. Kurt Cobain died six months before I was born, and I’ve been paying attention to the radio since I was zero years old, so my guess is I’ve been a Nirvana fan for about that long.
This installment of MTV’s Unplugged series is legendary, which is incredible considering that Cobain was submerged in heroin addiction. In fact, he nearly didn’t show up to the session. But he did, and when he starts playing he has a piss-poor attitude. Because launching into the first song “About A Girl,” he says “This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it.” Why would you say that? The crowd eats it up! They named a movie after it!
There was some conflict between Cobain and MTV’s producers about, well, everything: the setlist, the decor, the Meat Puppets. (Oh, we’ll get to the Meat Puppets.) They got upset with him for not playing an encore, too. Hindsight makes that scene even sadder to me. It sounds like he was pretty openly overwhelmed.
It must have been bizarre to be in the audience of this show. Not only is Cobain being positively anarchical, they did hardly played any hits. Nope, they play the lethargically wry “Dumb,” the horrifyingly bleak character study “Something In The Way,” and “Polly,” which is empathetic in the same way that Silence of the Lambs is empathetic. “On A Plain” is a poem about how writing is torture, which is only true half of the time in my experience. Every song is an ode to self-hatred, and everything Cobain says is heavily weighed down with bitterness and loathing, possibly for himself but also possibly for the audience themselves. He even looks bored.
But something about the performance is magnetic, even when he’s floundering. For instance: At the beginning of “Pennroyal Tea,” Cobain murmurs that he’s going to try playing it in a different key. As a former choirgirl, I always instinctively cringe the second he starts singing. NO KURT. THAT’S THE WRONG KEY. He even struggles with the guitar. And yet I love this rendition, because you can pinpoint exactly the moment he makes the wrong choice.
This was one of a very few Unplugged albums that was recorded in a single take, no do-overs. And despite the fact that basically half of the record is covers, the covers are so full of darkness and depth that they’re the best part. Even though Cobain guarantees that he will screw up David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” he doesn’t. I must have died alone/A long long time ago. The Vaseline’s “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” is blasphemous and sweet, but Nirvana’s cover is blasphemous and full of despair.
Then (YES) Kurt Cobain calls the Meat Puppets onstage. Well okay actually he doesn’t call them onstage, but Curt and Cris Kirkwood join them to perform three covers of their own songs, all off of their second album, Meat Puppets II. I’m always peeved on their behalf that nobody freaking acknowledges them until after they perform their first song, “Plateau,” a surreal song about drifting through limbo. “I’m Thing 1, that’s Thing 2,” they manage to chime in, before the set quickly moves on to their other, equally weird songs.
“Oh Me” is about the horrors of egoism. I’m an egomaniac so I’m haunted by the bored way he delivers these lines: I don’t have to think/I only have to do it/The results are always perfect/But that’s old news. “Lake of Fire” is excellent, too, a departure from the Meat Puppets’ original recording by taking everything down a notch other than the hellish wail. (Yeah, I got really into the Meat Puppets because of this record.)
The finale, a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” is the best song on the album, even though Kurt Cobain introduces it by telling an extremely obnoxious story that nobody laughs at. “This guy representing the Lead Belly estate wants to sell me Lead Belly’s guitar for $500,000. Yeah. I even asked David Geffen personally if he’d buy it for me.” It’s uncomfortable, because he sounds like an asshole, but all I feel is pity. And by the end of the song you’ve forgotten all about that anyway, because the song becomes desperate.
They do play two hits, probably so that the crowd didn’t riot: “Come As You Are,” which you can tell is not unplugged at all, and “All Apologies,” which is a wave of soft guitar strings and quiet harmonies. You can totally tell that the crowd is unfamiliar with it, though. No one even claps when they start playing!
If you want a sense of how special this record is, listen to the Alice in Chains Unplugged record. It’s a great record, don’t get me wrong. But the difference in attitude is palpable: They’re grateful to be there. Theirs was recorded after a years-long hiatus, unlike Nirvana, who did theirs at the height of their fame and dysfunction.
I’m not one of those people that thinks being miserable makes anyone a better artist, and I’m always careful to keep my love of Nirvana from turning into reverence for Kurt Cobain. But Nirvana has always, to me, represented something important about emotion and music, and maybe even emotion and art in general. I don’t remember NOT being loving Nirvana, and I can’t imagine not loving music, and those things are intricately connected.