On 18 November 1993, Nirvana taped an acoustic performance for MTV’s Unplugged strand. I’ve been meaning to post something about the resulting show/album since I saw someone post something on Facebook about the 25th anniversary of the recording last month. Other writing commitments and general seasonal business got in the way. I decided to write about the record as the first in a series of posts about live albums (all old staples of my record collection).
So here we go, the first of them (which as we shall see isn’t a double album and is generally not very gonzo).
They obviously had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do. And they were secure in that, and it turned out to be incredibly right.
Joel Stillerman, Executive Producer, MTV Unplugged
MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded at Sony Music Studios, Hell’s Kitchen, on 18 November 1993. The show’s production team had been after Nirvana for a while, although quite what they had expected the band to do in such a setting is a little mystifying. Nirvana had included a couple of acoustic songs on Nevermind, but essentially they were a rock band, and an unusually raw and ragged one at that. Whatever it is that MTV producer Alex Coletti had wanted them to do at the outset, Nirvana’s performance turned out to be one of the absolute signature moments of the show. In the annals of MTV Unplugged, it’s Nirvana, Clapton and then everyone else.
The first problem the band had when approaching the show, other than Kurt Cobain’s basic unreliability due to his drug use, was material. That old saw about a song not being a good song if you can’t play it with one acoustic guitar or a piano is actually a vast oversimplification. Would Strawberry Fields Forever sound like Lennon’s best work played on one guitar? Would, say, I Feel Love sound like a classic that needed to be heard over 12 minutes to get the full impact if played by one earnest guitar player? Cobain was a first-rate songwriter, but that didn’t mean that all of his songs sounded their best played on an acoustic guitar and a brushed snare drum. They relied on the intensity of a full-bore rock band to put them in their proper context. Shorn of the power of volume, which of their songs would work?
Something in the Way and Polly from Nevermind were natural fits, of course. As was Dumb from In Utero, and it would have been easy enough for the band to imagine About a Girl being played on acoustic guitars. What else would they do, though? They needed, like, 10 other songs.
In the event, they chose to play acoustic arrangements of a few other Nirvana songs, then filled the rest of the set with works by other songwriters. Cobain, Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic had always sought to deflect attention away from themselves and on to their peers and influences; it was a big part of how they handled their runaway success, and a very laudable part, too. So naturally, they covered shambling twee-pop duo the Vaselines for the umpteenth time, recorded a song popularised by Lead Belly (a big hero of Cobain’s since Slim Moon had played him Lead Belly’s Last Sessions in the late 1980s), did an obscure David Bowie song (again, a favourite from the early days of the band; this time the man who got Cobain hooked was Chad Channing, Nirvana’s pre-Grohl drummer) and invited their friends the Meat Puppets to sit in with them as they played no fewer than three of the band’s songs.
Having already expanded to a four-piece for the In Utero tour with the addition of former Germs guitarist Pat Smear, the band also incorporated cellist Lori Goldston for the Unplugged show. When Curt and Cris Kirkwood sat in on bass and guitar for the three Meat Puppets songs, Goldston and Smear sat out, Cobain put down his guitar and Novoselic moved to play second guitar.*
They began with About a Girl, sounding a little tentative; Cobain’s tempo in the intro is all over the place. As it progresses, the band seem more at ease, and the song, played acoustically rather than electric, sounds more Lennon-esque than ever (despite, or perhaps because of, its bizarre key change from E minor to C# for the chorus).
Come as You Are, enthusiastically received by the audience, demonstrates the good and the not-so-good of the band as an acoustic ensemble. Cobain is as committed vocally as he was in any rock show, and Grohl’s adaptation to the acoustic environment is impressive for a legendarily hard-hitting drummer. But Novoselic is often ahead of the beat and Smear, whether by lack of imagination or diktat from Cobain, never explores what different voicings or complementary parts could do for the song. Cobain plays the riff; Smear doubles it. Cobain strums open chords; Smear does too. It’s not a bad approach, but it’s noticeable how arranged the next two songs are in comparison.
Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam (the Vaselines cover misidentified by Cobain as a rendition of a Christian song) sees Novoselic pick up an accordion (his first instrument) while Grohl plays bass and pedals his hi-hat. Immediately, the sound opens out, and the effect is charming even if the song’s snidiness is not as clever as it thinks it is.
The Man Who Sold the World sees Nirvana stretch the Unplugged format. Cobain refused to play unless he could use his usual Fender amp and effects pedals, so Alex Coletti had the set dressers build a box to disguise the amp and make it look like a monitor wedge. His tone was horrible (the result of playing a rare Martin dreadnought, a D18-E, that came outfitted with two large magnetic pickups. It sounded so bad that Martin ceased production after one year). However, if Cobain hadn’t insisted on using his amp and pedals, we’d not have got the gorgeous arrangement the band put together for The Man Who Sold the World, where Cobain’s guitar and Goldston’s cello merge and become one instrument for around a minute in the outro. As for the reading of the song itself, it’s spellbinding, with one of Cobain’s best vocals. In Bowie’s recording, the jolly organ and the let’s-all-play-our-scales chorus distracted the listener somewhat from the song’s unsettling premise; Nirvana cut right to the heart of it, and there is unease (dread, even) in Cobain’s voice as he sings it.
Next were two songs from In Utero. For my money, of Cobain’s material, Pennyroyal Tea was the only song to fall down in its acoustic incarnation, despite his instruction to the band that he would be playing it by himself (he phrases it as a question – “am I going to do this by myself?” – but it’s clearly not a question). The idea of Cobain doing one of his songs solo, all the audience’s attention on Cobain’s voice and lyrics, sounds great. The problem is that, structurally simple and melodically repetitive, Pennyroyal Tea feels like an unfinished first draft without Dave Grohl’s bombastic drums and vocal harmonies. Dumb fares much better – again, its the extra touches (Grohl’s harmonies and Goldston’s cello) make it sing.
Polly and On a Plain were dispatched without fuss, the latter adding a note or two of levity to the performance with a lyric that contained several in-jokes and an admission from Cobain that he didn’t always know what he was trying to say. Grohl later said that he felt Cobain wanted to bring the Unplugged performance “down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level”. If so, Something in the Way succeeded in this aim. The cello is, again, a nice touch.
The three Meat Puppets songs are all great. I’m a particular fan of Oh Me, which has a gorgeous E major riff and a lovely short lead guitar passage by Curt Kirkwood that’s beautifully phrased and possibly the prettiest moment in the whole set. Kirkwood’s guitar playing is impressive throughout, actually, from the fingerpicking riff to Plateau to the pentatonic lead at the end of Lake of Fire.
Looking at the gig as a whole, the Nirvana songs that work best acoustically for me are About a Girl and All Apologies. I genuinely can’t choose which versions I prefer, the acoustic or album versions. That said, there’s something about the version of All Apologies on Unplugged – it’s so naked and vulnerable, and in the end as Cobain and Grohl sing the mantra “All in all is all we are” in harmony, so weirdly celebratory, it may even beat the In Utero recording, which is probably my favourite song on my favourite Nirvana album.
Which just leaves Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Nirvana’s take on Lead Belly’s take on In the Pines. Cobain had history with this song. As we said earlier, he’d been listening to Lead Belly since he was played Lead Belly’s Last Sessions by Slim Moon, founder of the indie label Kill Rock Stars, in the late 1980s while living in Olympia. In Nirvana’s early days, he and Novoselic had a side project with the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel playing electric arrangements of old blues songs: they cut their version for Lanegan’s solo debut album, The Winding Sheet, a record that everyone in the band thought was magical and was consciously trying to emulate in their Unplugged set.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night is hard to write about now, with so much myth-making surrounding it. Suffice it to say, it’s as breathtaking as everyone says it is. Cobain’s vocal in that final verse is unearthly, his screech on the word “shiver” so hair-raising it seems to bring the whole band to a halt, as if they’ve been shocked into silence by what they’re hearing. The band did no encore. As Cobain protested to Coletti when he tried to talk them into doing another song, there was no way they could top what they’d just done.
MTV Unplugged in New York is not a flawless album. It’s full of mistakes and flubs and missed notes. The arrangements are sometimes simplistic, the guitar tones tinny. It is, though, an incredibly human album. A lot of listeners have no use for live records; why hear a rough approximation of a song’s studio incarnation when you could listen to the real thing? But for fans who do love live records, it’s the humanity that we’re drawn to, I think: the subtleties of real-time reaction between musicians, the knife-edge moments where the performance seems dangerously close to coming apart but doesn’t.
Unplugged in New York is full of those moments, and if you’re of the opinion that Nevermind is too slick to be the real Nirvana and In Utero downplays the band’s melodic side too much (I hold neither of these opinions, by the way), I can easily see how Unplugged could be your favourite Nirvana album. Even without electric instrumentation – the serrated edge of Cobain’s distorted Fender, the thrilling power Grohl brought to the snare drum and cymbals – it genuinely captures the spirit of the band, and remains essential.
*The mix for the audio released, by Scott Litt, puts Cobain’s guitar a little off centre to the left and Pat Smear’s about halfway over to the right. Curt Kirkwood plays Smear’s guitar, which Litt turns up for the three songs and brings slightly closer to the centre. Novoselic’s guitar on those is about halfway to the left and tends to come in and out of the mix, plainly audible in some sections and all but absent from others.