Deep 10: Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York
More than two decades after its release, Nirvana's performance on MTV's "Unplugged" still stands as a convincing testimonial to Kurt Cobain's unmistakable musical genius and enigmatic charisma.
Recorded less than five months before his death at the age of 27, the telecast and subsequent album capture the Seattle trio at its creative and commercial peak. Cobain and bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic had already become internationally recognized as the godfathers of grunge, which was as much a marketing construct as it was a musical movement. But with their "Unplugged" performance, the band netted an even broader audience while performing in the more intimate Sony Studios in New York rather than the arenas they'd begun headlining.
Cobain would not live to see the 1994 release of the MTV Unplugged In New York album, which debuted at No. 1 and went on to win a GRAMMY for Best Alternative Music Performance. (Among the albums it bested was Grohl's Foo Fighters debut.) But his artistic spirit lives on in what many consider to be one of the greatest live albums ever.
Following are 10 lesser-known facts about the album and performance that marked the premature end of a promising career.
1. Six of MTV Unplugged In New York's 14 tracks are covers, and mostly obscure ones at that.
While David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World" was familiar to mainstream audiences, Nirvana also used the telecast to bring attention to esoteric personal favorites such as the Vaselines' "Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam" and Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." The group was also joined onstage by Chris and Curt Kirkwood for three songs by their band, the Meat Puppets.
2. According to producer Alex Coletti, MTV had been hoping for guest artist appearances from the likes of Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos.
In a 1995 Guitar World interview with GRAMMY.com contributor Alan di Perna, Coletti recalled how "everybody's eyes lit up" when he told the network that Nirvana would be bringing along some special guests. "But when I said 'the Meat Puppets,' it was kind of like, 'Oh, great. They're not doing any hits, and they're inviting guests who don't have any hits to come play. Perfect."
3. Other than "Come As You Are," the band refused to play their own hits.
MTV tried its best to convince Cobain and the band to incorporate "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and other well-known Nirvana material into the set, but to no avail. "We knew we didn't want to do an acoustic version of 'Teen Spirit,'" Grohl later said of the band's breakthrough single. "That would've been horrendously stupid." When prompted by an audience member request, Cobain asked, "How are we supposed to play 'In Bloom' acoustically?"
4. Cobain had an especially good reason for turning down one audience member's request.
"I don't think MTV will let us play that," he responded when someone called out for the song "Rape Me." The network had, in fact, previously banned Nirvana from playing the song during the band's performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
5. The black candles, white lilies, chandelier, and draperies were all Cobain's idea.
The darkly atmospheric stage set, as seen on the album cover, seemed to take on added significance when the network repeatedly rebroadcast the band's performance after Cobain's death on April 5, 1994. But even before the taping, some on the set found it ominous. When Coletti asked Cobain about the décor, the singer confirmed that he meant for it to look like a funeral.
6. Rehearsals for the show went so poorly there was talk of Grohl not performing at all.
"[Rehearsals] didn't sound good," according to Grohl, who admitted he was struggling to attain a lighter touch on the drums. "Any time you have a band that's so electric and try to unplug them, there's always a lot of challenges, creatively," explained "Unplugged" director Beth McCarthy-Miller. Plus, she pointed out, "Dave [played] drums like Animal from 'The Muppet Show.'"
7. Nirvana's "Unplugged" performance was considerably more unplugged than most, but Cobain used some electric tools.
While Grohl toned down his drumming with brushes and percussion, Cobain strummed his '50s Martin acoustic guitar. However, Cobain insisted on running his guitar, featuring two electric pickups, through the "security blanket" of a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, which yielded a distorted sound on "The Man Who Sold The World." Meanwhile, Novoselic contributed acoustic bass and accordion and touring guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston rounded out the lineup.
8. Cobain's iconic green cardigan worn during the "Unplugged" taping fetched more than $140,000.
The vintage Manhattan cardigan was sold via auction by Julien's Auctions in 2015. While its worth was estimated at $60,000, the five-button sweater — a blend of acrylic, mohair and Lycra — was snapped up for a final bid of $140,800.
9. Geffen Records initially planned to release Nirvana's "Unplugged" performance as part of a double album package called Verse Chorus Verse.
The idea was to combine the "Unplugged" performance with live material from throughout the band's career. But the project was quickly shelved once Grohl and Novoselic realized how emotionally overwhelming it would be to go through the tapes.
10. At his manager's suggestion, Cobain asked producers to include shots of him smiling.
Unfortunately, they could only find one, which can be seen at the end of "About A Girl," and which came through gritted teeth.
(Bill Forman is a writer and music editor for the Colorado Springs Independent and the former publications director for The Recording Academy.)