Tag Archives: Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Double Live Gonzos, part 1: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana

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).

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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.

unplugged

*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.

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Pill Hill Serenade – Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan is an unnervingly intense guy who’s made a lot of excellent heavy rock music, with his former band the Screaming Trees, with the Queens of the Stone Age/Desert Sessions guys and with Greg Dulli as the Gutter Twins. But it’s the stream of low-key, spare, acoustic solo albums he’s recorded over the years – the ones that give his voice the space to shine that it never had when it was fighting to make itself heard over the wall of guitar constructed by Gary Lee Connor and Josh Homme – that tell you the most about him as a singer. It’s on these records that you hear Lanegan’s full range as a vocalist, the rough grain of his knotted baritone, the surprising ease with which he moves up into the tenor range. He’s got the requisite technical gifts, but over the years he developed the emotional range to become a fine interpretive singer and a spellbinding singer-songwriter.

One of the chief pleasures of a Lanegan solo record for long-time alternative rock fans like me is to read the sleevenotes and see who’s guesting with him this time. Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden? Bill Reiflin from Ministry (and KMFDM, and later, surprisingly, R.E.M.)? Chris Goss from the Masters of Reality? Mike Johnson from Dinosaur Jr? Hell, even Duff McKagan, the bassist from Guns N’ Roses? All these just from 2001’s Field Songs alone, from which our chosen song today, Pill Hill Serenade, is taken.

Pill Hill Serenade has an Al Green kind of vibe to it, and there’s even a little hint of Otis Redding in there: the chord sequence, the 12/8 guitar arpeggios, the organ. It’s clearly derived from soul music, and ultimately from church music. Al could have sung this in his sweet falsetto. Otis might have built the intensity till he was stomping and roaring with preacher-man fervour. But possibly neither could have sung it with the same quiet intensity and tenderness that Lanegan does. In a career not short of fine vocal performances (Field Songs on its own offers up the sepulchral gravel of One Way Street, the wailing blues lament of Fix, and the tender Kimiko’s Dream House), Pill Hill Serenade may be his finest moment as a singer.

The song is included on his 3-disc retrospective Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 19882011, which if you’re interested in catching up on nearly 25 years of solo Lanegan, may be the place to start. Although starting at the beginning with the skeletal but riveting The Winding Sheet and working through is an equally good idea; Nirvana fans who aren’t familiar with his solo debut will be interested to hear a guest Kurt Cobain vocal on Down in the Dark and the version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night featuring Cobain on guitar and Krist Novoselic on bass*.

Lanegan
Mark Lanegan promo pic, circa Field Songs

*In 1989 Cobain and Novoselic began playing heavy blues tunes with Lanegan and Screaming Trees drummer, leadbell Mark Pickerel, mining the Leadbelly catalogue for inspiration. Where Did You Sleep Last Night was from a Jury session at Reciprocal with Jack Endino recording. It ended up on Lanegan’s solo record once the band sputtered out. Ain’t It a Shame, with Cobain singing, came out on the Nirvana box set.

Merry Go Round – Fred Neil

‘Nik [Venet, record prodcer],’ says Fred, ‘this is very short. And there’s no reason to stretch it, ’cause it says it, and you know…’

By the standards of Sessions (1967), the nearly 6-minute-long Merry Go Round is a short track. Fred Neil’s music had travelled a long way from the straightforward, very white, trad folk of Tear Down the Walls, the record he’d made in the early sixties with singing partner Vince Martin (in case that sounds dismissive, let me say quickly that it’s a record I greatly enjoy for the most part, and that Martin and Neil sounded wonderful together). Neil’s progress continued through Bleecker & McDougal, which felt its way towards folk-rock (with the presence of an electric lead guitarist), as well as back to jug-band music and the blues (John Sebastian’s harmonica playing, which is all over the album), and even down south of the border (Felix Pappalardi’s guitarrón). It was one of the three great Fred Neil records.

Better yet – maybe best of all, and certainly the one I’d recommend to anyone looking to hear him for the first time – was 1966’s Fred Neil, an album of full-on, deep-as-an-ocean folk-rock, from one of its finest writers (Everbody’s Talkin’, The Dolphins) and singers (his interpretations of Shake Sugaree, retitled I’ve Got a Secret, and Fare Thee Well, which is credited to Neil, but frankly, that’s bobbins). It’s a world away from what was brewing in a certain North London studio in 1966, but it’s one of that year’s finest records.

Its clipped discipline was succeeded by the extraordinarily loose Sessions. Which is an apt name. As an album, it doesn’t cohere: it’s just a bunch of songs, recorded at a bunch of sessions. But what songs, and what sessions! The extended, improvisatory nature of Sessions owed a greater debt to jazz than New York folk; Neil hung out with jazz musicians, and their influence on him was evident in his demeanour and his syncopated strumming style (Neil is one of the truly great rhythm guitarists). But exploring these musical territories suited Neil vocally, too. His baritone had always been at home with the blues and his willingness to explore a vocal melody seemed constrained by the confines of the strophic story song and continuous two-part harmony. Rejecting a linear, narrative approach to lyrics, instead beginning with a dark joke about not being able to find the back of a merry-go-round and then repurposing the lyrics to In the Pines (also known as Where Did you Sleep Last Night?, made famous to younger generations by Nirvana’s version during their MTV Unplugged performance), Neil is working at something dreamier, deeper, more allusive, than anything he had cut previously.

The album’s influence has percolated down through the years, as the great works have a tendency to: Sessions was a key record for Tim Buckley, as he made his journey away from the laughable earnestness of his early work to the far cooler jazz-folk of Happy/Sad and through to the experimental Lorca and Starsailor, and, being more widely heard than Fred Neil, Tim Buckley’s music passed the loose, risk-taking spirit and elongated song structures down to contemporary songwriters innumerable.

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