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Nirvana Manager Danny Goldberg Talks 25 Years of 'MTV Unplugged In New York'
The Recording Academy speaks to the former manager about the lead-up, taping and lasting legacy of Nirvana's landmark acoustic performance
"Good evening. This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it."
With this unassuming and charmingly self-deprecating kick-off from frontman Kurt Cobain, Nirvana launched into their feverishly anticipated episode of "MTV Unplugged"—a crystallizing performance that quickly became one of, if not the most, beloved and iconic gigs of their all-too-short career. Often celebrated for showcasing both the band and the "Unplugged" format at each of their respective creative heights, the stunningly intimate episode spawned the MTV Unplugged In New York album that was released on Nov. 1, 1994. For the 25th anniversary of the GRAMMY-winning, Billboard-topping, multi-platinum album, MTV Unplugged In New York is getting an impressive expanded vinyl reissue that drops 25 years to the day after the album’s original release.
In addition to the enhanced aesthetic upgrades of an exclusive gatefold layout with celebratory silver-foiled front and back artwork, this MTV Unplugged in New York vinyl reissue finds the album making its double-disc debut with the addition of five extra rehearsal tracks—"Come As You Are," "Polly," "Plateau," "Pennyroyal Tea" and their revered cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World"—that were previously only available in video form on the 2007 DVD release. This reissue is pressed on heavyweight 180-gram black vinyl and the band's website is offering a limited-edition multi-color variant as well.
With both MTV Unplugged In New York and the show itself celebrating milestones this month (the album turns 25 on Nov. 1 and the very first episode of "Unplugged" aired 30 years ago on Nov. 26, 1989), the Recording Academy spoke to former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg about the lead-up, taping and lasting legacy of Nirvana's landmark acoustic performance.
Danny Goldberg: As a music fan, I really liked the idea of "Unplugged." For the band, creatively, it provided an opportunity to experiment with acoustic music, which Kurt really liked. As much as he loved punk music, he was also a really big fan of acoustic singer-songwriters like Jad Fair. Also, the timing of it was perfect because it allowed the band to continue their presence on MTV without them having to be involved with making another music video.
The opportunity to record their own episode of "Unplugged" presented itself at an interesting time in the band's career. After two years of tumultuously navigating the cultural tide change spearheaded by their sophomore album Nevermind, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl released the raucously powerful (and famously unpolished) In Utero in late September of 1993. The album’s lead single, "Heart-Shaped Box," hit number one on the Billboard Modern Rock chart and was accompanied by a stunningly surreal music video that was intricately created by Cobain and directed by photographer Anton Corbijn. The video quickly became an MTV mainstay and went on to win two MTV Video Music Awards at the following year’s VMAs.
Danny Goldberg: The music video for "Heart-Shaped Box" was an extremely elaborate production and Kurt didn’t really have an idea for a follow-up video that was going to live up to that impact. However, he didn't want to stop the connection between the band and MTV on the In Utero cycle prematurely. The relationship between Nirvana and MTV was really important to Kurt from the very beginning. From his point of view, MTV was the number one connector between Nirvana and their fans in the United States.
As "Unplugged" rose to become a legitimate pop cultural force in the early-to-mid 1990s with episodes by Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, and 10,000 Maniacs making major impacts on radio, singles charts and album sales, there became a bit of a creative formula that continually proved successful and held up well to repetition: imaginatively rework your hits on acoustic instrumentation, invite a well-known special guest, and sprinkle in a familiar cover song or two. While those ingredients would still end up being present throughout Nirvana's "Unplugged" performance, the band's creative variations on them were not exactly what MTV was initially envisioning.
Danny Goldberg: MTV had made their requests for guests and song selections that were more in line with the typical "Unplugged" format. They raised the possibility of having guests like Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos—artists who would be well-known to the MTV audience—but I don’t think those suggestions were even passed along to Kurt. He was a real-life artistic genius and complete control freak, so he knew exactly what he was going to do. It wasn't a marketing moment for Kurt, it was a creative moment. He didn't take any creative suggestions about art and to him, Nirvana's "Unplugged" was going to be art.
For their "Unplugged" set, the band was augmented by cellist Lori Goldstein and second guitarist Pat Smear, who had just been invited to tour with the band a few months prior. When it came to the setlist, the band was well aware that the raw, livewire power of their biggest hits—"Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Lithium," "In Bloom"—wouldn’t translate properly into an acoustic format. Instead, they crafted an imagenitively special set around some of the more down-tempo deep cuts from Bleach and Nevermind, as well as three tracks from their recently released In Utero album. The song selection was rounded out by a trio of unexpected (yet wildly successful) covers of The Vaselines, David Bowie, and blues legend Lead Belly, plus three songs accompanied by their special guests, brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood of The Meat Puppets—a band Cobain had become a fan of after seeing them open for Black Flag in the 1980s.
Danny Goldberg: The Meat Puppets were actually touring with Nirvana at the time. It was Kurt's idea to have them on board and he was very much driving the car as far as creative decisions. My assumption is that he knew he could do what he wanted to do on "Unplugged." Whatever misgivings MTV may have had as far as their normal way of measuring commerciality and programming, they weren’t going to piss off Nirvana. And Kurt was right, they totally pulled it off.
Earlier this year, Goldberg released the book "Serving The Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain," in which he devotes a whole chapter to Nirvana's "Unplugged" show. In it, he points to Cobain’s solo performance of "Pennyroyal Tea" as his favorite moment of the episode. However, there were some pre-show uncertainties as to whether it would be a full band version, what key it would be in, or if it would even be played at all. When the song came up on the setlist during the actual taping, it’s fate was still to be determined—a fact evidenced by Cobain turning to ask his bandmates, "Am I going to do this by myself?"
Danny Goldberg: I always liked "Pennyroyal Tea" a lot because I think it's some of his best writing. So, hearing him play it by himself on "Unplugged," I was just so proud of him for pulling it off and so moved by the way he sang it. He had so many different talents—as a songwriter, as an image-maker, as an extremely good guitarist—to me he also had one of the greatest voices ever. I loved the intimacy of his vocal on that performance, especially combined with some of his best lyrics.
After Nirvana's "Unplugged" taping had concluded, Cobain had some mixed feelings about the performance. By the next morning, however, he eventually settled into a clearer picture of the uniquely meaningful moment his band had created together. "At first, Kurt was freaked out about it," attests Goldberg, "but when I talked to him the next day, he had already realized that they had done something special and he was really proud of it."
Nirvana's "Unplugged" episode aired on Dec. 16, 1993, and less than four months later Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home. In the days following his death, MTV played a plethora of Nirvana material, with their "Unplugged" episode serving both artistically and aesthetically as somewhat of a self-made eulogy. MTV Unplugged In New York would be released that following November and it would go on to win a GRAMMY for Best Alternative Music Album and be certified 5x platinum.
Danny Goldberg: I think the Unplugged record is equally important to every other record that they made. That's not always the case for a live record, especially an acoustic one. There's so much creativity in it and there are songs that the band had never recorded before. There was also the intense drama of it being recorded just a few months before Kurt's death. Mainly though, it all comes down to the sheer emotional power and excellence of it. When people talk to me about Nirvana, as many people cite Unplugged as their favorite album as will mention Nevermind or In Utero. The band left such a legacy in such a short amount of time and its deeply affected people. A day rarely goes by that I don't see somebody wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and often it’s people that may not have even been born when Kurt was alive. It speaks to the power and beauty of his art, and "Unplugged" was certainly one of the performances that really showcased that. It’s an incredibly significant part of the band's legacy.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
11 Reasons Why 1993 Was Nirvana's Big Year
While 1991 was the year Nirvana broke, the Seattle grunge pioneers continued their impressive streak. With the release of 'In Utero,' multiple massive shows and now-legendary appearances on MTV programs, 1993 ended up being Nirvana’s most productive year.
By most measures, 1992 was a massive year for Nirvana. The Seattle grunge pioneers achieved international fame when their major label debut, Nevermind, topped the charts and was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the 34th GRAMMY Awards.
But the band (and lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain in particular) quickly became overwhelmed by their unexpected success. Nirvana retreated for most of the year, only playing about a month’s worth of shows and delaying work on a follow up album.
So there was much ground to make up in 1993.
But Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl rose to the challenge. There were a few bumps along the way — such as a kerfuffle when it was reported that Nirvana bowed to record company pressure to remix tracks on their new album, thus making them "sellouts" (the band insisted they alone decided what changes needed to be made) — but '93 ended up being one of Nirvana’s most productive years.
Thirty years ago, Nirvana released an acclaimed third album (In Utero), an indie single ("Oh, The Guilt"), and created one of their most haunting videos ("Heart-Shaped Box"). And throughout their first U.S. tour since 1991, the band proved again and again what a powerful live act they were — whether playing a former movie house or a mega stadium — showing that a noisy band could still pack a punch by going acoustic.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of In Utero (and a forthcoming reissue), GRAMMY.com revisits 11 of Nirvana’s most memorable moments from 1993.
Nirvana Affirm Their Indie Cred With "Oh, The Guilt"
Nirvana recorded three songs during their sole studio session in 1992. "Curmudgeon" ended up as the B-side of "Lithium," "Return of the Rat" appeared on a Greg Sage compilation, and "Oh, The Guilt" finally turned up as part of a split single with Jesus Lizard on Touch and Go Records.
Back in 1988, Cobain had sent several copies of Nirvana’s first demo to the Chicago-based Touch and Go. Following the major label success of Nevermind, Nirvana clearly wanted to make the effort to keep in touch with their indie roots.
"Nirvana became like the Beatles of the ’90s, but they still wanted to do it," Jesus Lizard’s David Yow told Seattle music magazine The Rocket. "And we had to figure out, well, do we want to do this and look like we’re riding on Nirvana’s coattails, or we could just do it and not worry about it, which is what we ended up doing."
Released on Feb. 22, the grinding "Oh, The Guilt" set the stage for the rawer sound of Nirvana’s next album.
The Band Played "One Of The Best Shows Of Their Lives" At The Cow Palace
Nirvana had played only five major U.S. concerts in 1992, so there was much anticipation for this concert in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic organized the show, a benefit for the Tresnjevka Womens’ Group, a Zagreb-based organization aiding Bosnian War rape survivors and refugees.
"The Cow Palace show was high-stakes," says Michael Azerrad, author of Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (due to be reissued next month in an expanded edition), who was at the show. "Some of the people who worked with Nirvana were a little dubious about the material the band had recently recorded for In Utero. Kurt, Krist and Dave knew they had something to prove. But they hadn’t played live in a couple of months — and now they had to get up in front of an audience and play one of the best shows of their lives. And they did just that."
At the April 9 show, the band came roaring out of the gate with "Rape Me," and went on to deliver a fiery 23-song set, debuting a number of songs from In Utero, and encoring with a noise jam that ended with the obligatory instrument destruction. In Azerrad’s view, "The Cow Palace show was truly a triumph."
Fans Got A Taste Of Pre-Fame Nirvana In 1991: The Year Punk Broke
When David Markey packed up his Super-8 camera to follow various indie bands on a European tour in 1991, he had no idea he’d be capturing Nirvana on the verge of becoming the biggest band in the world. In Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana Cobain recalled this as the period when "there’s so much excitement in the air you can just taste it," and it’s riveting to see the band without the baggage of worldwide fame dragging them down.
Markey's documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke, was released on home video in April 1993. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," not yet released as a single, sounds fresh and invigorating; older numbers like "School" and "Negative Creep" are sizzling.
"That tour was easily the most fun I've ever had on any tour, anywhere, anytime," says Markey. "And that feeling was shared by everyone who was on it, I promise. Forget the fact that Nirvana and Sonic Youth were on fire at every stop along the way. Same with the other bands: Dinosaur Jr. Babes In Toyland. Gumball. And of course the Ramones.
"I remember nothing but smiles and laughter," he continues. "The fact that I was tasked with documenting it with nine hours of Super-8 film cartridges shoved into a giant suitcase seemed like an afterthought. It wasn’t just a job. It was everything."
The "Sliver" Video Offers A Glimpse Into Cobain's World
In December 1992, DGC, the same label that put out Nevermind, released Incesticide, a collection of Nirvana’s non-album tracks. The video for "Sliver" was belatedly released to promote it in May 1993, but what’s more interesting is the glimpse it gives into Cobain’s private world.
Originally released as a single on Sub Pop Records, the song is a childhood reminiscence that showed Nirvana charting a new course into more pop-driven territory. The band members look like giddy teenagers practicing in their parent’s garage, and the location is, indeed, Cobain’s own garage. It’s a room filled with ephemera: a wind-up toy of a monkey playing the cymbals, a can of Prairie Belt sausages, a copy of Better Homes and Gardens with the words "Indie punx still sucks" scrawled on the mailing label. It’s no surprise to see a poster of Mudhoney on the wall — but Mikhail Gorbachev as well? As a bonus, Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain pops up repeatedly throughout the proceedings.
Nirvana Go Bigger, And Acoustic, At The Roseland Ballroom
Nirvana was a last-minute addition to the roster of acts performing during the New Music Seminar, a summer convention for music industry professionals in New York City. The July 23 performance served as a dry run for Nirvana’s Unplugged performance later in the year.
The band also experimented with filling out their sound by adding a second guitarist (John Duncan as a temporary fill in). They performed most of the songs from In Utero, sounding a good deal tougher live than on record. Then, to the audience’s surprise, the band sat down and brought on cellist Lori Goldston for a short acoustic set. The set is initially hampered by a poor sound mix (Novoselic can be heard calling out "More cello!") and disinterest on the part of some loudly talking audience members.
Listening now, it’s an impressive moment, as the band works to make their performance more than simply a standard run through of the hits. As Everett True wrote in his review of the show for Melody Maker, "Cobain is, in his way, a master manipulator, a brilliant strategist who understands that noise alone is not drama and that good hooks always draw blood."
Nirvana Raised Money For The Mia Zapata Investigative Fund
Theater in Seattle raised money to help solve the murder of Gits’ singer Mia Zapata, who had been killed the previous month, with TAD headlining. Nirvana was added to the bill to boost sales.
While the crowds turned up, according to guitar tech Earnie Bailey, they nearly missed out. The show was running overtime, meaning a full changeover of gear between TAD’s and Nirvana’s sets would mean Nirvana could only play one or two songs. Instead, the TAD crew allowed Nirvana to use their gear, and Nirvana went on to have great fun with their set, throwing in covers of Led Zeppelin’s "No Quarter," and, more unexpectedly Terry Jacks’ weeper "Seasons in the Sun."
The show has never been released in any form, so there was great excitement when a 20-minute excerpt appeared on YouTube this past August. It was Nirvana’s last show as a trio.
Cobain & Co. Release Their Third Album, In Utero
Nirvana’s long-awaited third album was first released in the U.S. on vinyl on Sept. 14; the CD version, the dominant audio format at the time, followed on Sept. 21, and debuted on Billboard’s Top Albums chart at No. 1.
In Utero stands as Cobain’s most personal work, his response to the turbulent events of 1992: the sudden rush of fame, substance abuse, parenthood, and the demonization of his wife. In contrast to the commercial sheen of Nevermind, In Utero has a harsh, confrontational sound; songs like "Scentless Apprentice," and "tourette’s" are frightening in their intensity. And even if you don’t take lines like "What is wrong with me?" ("Radio Friendly Unit Shifter") and "Look on the bright side is suicide" ("Milk It") as foreshadowing, they’re nonetheless indicative of the pervasive sense of unease that permeates the record.
From the opening salvo of "Serve the Servants" that caustically rejects fame ("Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old") to the plea for transcendence in the closing "All Apologies," In Utero is an album of emotional pain that rivals John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. A 30th anniversary release of In Utero is set for October 2023.
"Heart-Shaped Box" Single And Video Are Released
Released in September, "Heart-Shaped Box" shares the same sonic dynamics as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (quiet verse, loud chorus), but is tempered by an underlying melancholy, along with striking imagery ("meat-eating orchids," "umbilical noose"). The song’s video was equally compelling — and spooky. The main set is a creepy forest where fetuses dangle from the trees and an elderly man in a Santa Claus hat climbs on a cross to be crucified.
In the director’s cut of the video, the last verse shows Cobain lying asleep in a field as mist slowly rises around him, an image that became even more haunting to look at after his death (in the initial cut, Cobain is shown singing the final verse). The hospital sequences echo the album’s themes of illness and decay. Cobain later told MTV, "That video has come closer to what I’ve seen in my mind, what I’ve envisioned, than any other video."
Nirvana Appear On "Saturday Night Live"
This was the first opportunity for most fans to see how In Utero’s songs translated to live performance. First up is "Heart-Shaped Box," more powerful than on record, Cobain’s vocals transitioning easily between the subdued verses and the raging chorus.
"Rape Me" debuted on the 1991 tour; Cobain subsequently added a bridge attacking media hypocrisy, and this performance burns with righteous fury. The show also marked the debut of Pat Smear, formerly guitarist with L.A. punk act the Germs, to the lineup, sharing guitar duties with Cobain. He’s certainly the most animated band member, bouncing around the stage with high-spirited energy. And don’t overlook how forcefully Grohl attacks his drum kit.
Nirvana Do A Masterful Performance On MTV’s "Unplugged"
The idea of an incendiary band like Nirvana doing an "unplugged," sans their raging volume, seemed an oxymoron. Even the group seemed uncertain how to handle the task. The show’s producer, Alex Coletti, later recalled how MTV execs were unhappy that the band didn’t want to perform their signature hits, and that their choice of musical guest was not a similar headliner like Eddie Vedder, but a lesser-known indie act, the Meat Puppets. Before the taping on Nov. 18, the band hadn’t even done a complete run through of the set.
It was a situation ripe for disaster. Instead, Nirvana pulled off what’s considered one of their most masterful performances. The band chose their more acoustically-driven numbers ("About a Girl") and songs that worked in a stripped down format ("Come As You Are"), though they weren’t entirely unplugged; Cobain’s guitar was put through a Fender Twin Reverb amp and effects boxes.
The covers proved to be the most interesting choices — David Bowie’s "The Man Who Sold the World" was mesmerizing — and the Meat Puppets’ numbers underscored Nirvana’s own idiosyncratic indie roots. "I thought the Meat Puppets’ inclusion was especially magical," says Lori Goldston, cellist during Nirvana’s fall tour. "Curt [Kirkwood, Meat Puppets’ guitarist] was used to being the lead, not an accompanist, and afterwards he mentioned that it felt luxurious to play guitar without having to worry about doubling as a vocalist," a hint at how collaborations with other artists might have gone.
The band finished up with an extraordinary performance of Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter’s "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" that left the audience stunned.
Nirvana Close Out 1993 With MTV’s Live and Loud
Pearl Jam’s loss was Nirvana’s gain. After Eddie Vedder declined to appear at MTV’s New Year’s Eve gig (which was actually taped on December 13), Pearl Jam was cut from the lineup and Nirvana’s set was extended (other acts included Cypress Hill and the Breeders).
The band had been on the road for two months now, and were firing on all pistons; the relentless "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" proved to be a powerhouse opening number and there was a scorching performance of "Scentless Apprentice." One moment not seen in the original broadcast (the entire show’s since been released on DVD) was when an audience member shrieked out "MTV sucks!" In response, Cobain smiled and quite sensibly asked, "Then why are you here?" But he perhaps revealed his own feelings about the network when, during the closing jam/end-of-show destruction, he looks straight into the camera and spits onto the lens.
The final destruction sequence was particularly intricate on this night, starting out simply enough with Novoselic strumming his bass, then rising and falling in volume over the course of ten minutes, climaxing with Cobain swinging his guitar and decapitating one of the stage props. It brought Nirvana’s year to a suitably explosive close.
Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
Here's What Happened At The Recording Academy's 2023 Special Merit Awards Ceremony Honoring Nile Rodgers, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, Nirvana, The Supremes & More
In addition to seven music legends receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, the GRAMMY Week event honored recipients of the Music Educator Award, Trustees Awards and Technical GRAMMY Awards.
Amid the madness of GRAMMY Week, there was an air of tranquility surrounding the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on the afternoon of Feb. 4. The sunlit streets were nearly empty, the red carpet was discreetly hidden from public view. Inside the theater, music royalty, entertainment journalists and GRAMMY nominees congregated for one of the week's most emotionally charged events: the Special Merit Awards Ceremony.
Music teacher Pamela Dawson beamed as Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. handed her the 2023 GRAMMY Music Educator Award. Mama Dawson, as she is known among her students at DeSoto High School in Texas, is loved by all for her relentless positivity and encouragement. "I thank you God for giving me the gift of music," she said. "My mother believed in me even when I didn't. My heritage is a big loving heart that I can give to others."
In the Technical GRAMMY Award department, the Academy recognized the efforts of the Audio Engineering Society and Dr. Andy Hildebrand — inventor of the Auto-Tune software program.
The Trustees Awards honorees were Henry Diltz, who photographed iconic album covers of the '60s and '70s; the late Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist and educator; and the late Jim Stewart, founder of the mythical Stax Records.
"Dad had an open-door policy that helped create a utopian reality," said Stewart's daughter Lori, addressing the label's unusual-for-the-time policy of working with talented artists regardless of their racial or ethnic background. "More than a business, Stax was a family."
Then, it was time to salute the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the gallery of selected artists painted a wondrous picture of popular music — from classic rock and grunge to soul, hip-hop, funk, jazz, and blues.
In his typical unconventional fashion, 10-time GRAMMY winner Bobby McFerrin accepted his award doing what he does best: singing. "I want to have some fun today," began the "Don't Worry Be Happy" hitmaker in his inimitable falsetto. Backed briefly on vocals by his three adult children, McFerrin smiled and improvised, surprised and delighted, crediting his late father — the first Black singer to be offered a contract at the Metropolitan Opera — as a major inspiration. "Have fun," he concluded. "Play. Don't think. Be good to yourself.'
Equally moving — but in a more grungy, Seattle kind of way — was seeing the surviving members of '90s pioneers Nirvana. "Kurt Cobain is never far away," said the band's bassist and founding member Krist Novoselic. "Just turn on the radio." He also thanked young people from all over the world for the many fan letters he continues to receive, as drummer Dave Grohl and guitarist Pat Smear stood by his side, nodding approvingly.
Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939) received a long-overdue induction to the Lifetime Achievement gallery. On hand to collect the award were her great nephew, Frank Nix, and great great niece Cassandra Behler. "Ma was an amazing performer and businesswoman," said Behler. "I can't imagine the sacrifices she made for her career and lifestyle."
Prolific beyond any reasonable expectation, guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers was visibly moved — almost lost for words. "I'm sorry to be so emotional," he told the crowd, which responded with an even bigger round of applause. "This journey was a series of steps."
The founder of disco-funk collective CHIC, Rodgers is known for his unmistakable guitar sound — adding waves of funk to every single genre it touches — and sensitive production work. When he thanked the musicians that he worked with, the list was regal, including David Bowie, Diana Ross, Bryan Ferry, and Beyoncé — the latter of whom he would go on to win Best R&B Song with at the 2023 GRAMMYs (and accept on her behalf!).
"Do you like my coat?," asked English-American rapper and producer Slick Rick "The Ruler," showing off an elegant, light purple coat over his suit and matching tie. "Macy's women's section." Slick's speech was as witty as his rapping. He mentioned listening to Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" as a kid, then outlined his love for the music of the Beatles, the Supremes, Jamaican dancehall and hip-hop — and his fateful move to the U.S. in 1976.
Fittingly, the Supremes were also honorees this year. During their induction, Florence Ballard's daughter Lisa Chapman explained that she couldn't share any personal anecdotes because her mother died when she was only 3 years old. "I thank [the late] Mary Wilson, because she never left my Mom's side," she said. "They're probably sipping on the finest champagne right now," added Wilson's daughter Turkessa Babich. "They are always with us."
The last artists to be honored were two immensely talented sisters, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart. The sibling duo changed the nature of the game for women in hard rock, and guitarist Nancy Wilson spoke of her beginnings in music. "I left college in 1974 to join the band," she recalled. "Our dream was to be the Beatles. Not to be their girlfriends, or marry one of them, but to be them — and we did it."
Wilson was effusive in praising her sister, powerhouse singer Ann. "We survived the sheer insanity of a rock 'n' roll circus. We were two military brats, two badasses, and we stood up. We rocked our butts off, and we did all of it together."
Wilson's last words — bringing the event to its conclusion — were dedicated to the fans: "You were always the reason for us to catch dreams in our butterfly nets."
Photo: Gutchie Kojima/Shinko Music/Getty Images
Nirvana Receives The Lifetime Achievement Award At The 2023 GRAMMYs
This Lifetime Achievement Award honors performers who have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.
Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana didn’t invent grunge, but they mainstreamed it in the early ’90s, arguably accidentally and maybe even regretfully. In the process, they almost overnight changed the tenor of rock from exuberant hair metal to a heavier, socially disaffected sound. They became the defining rock band of their era, but also the face of the many troubled musicians who emerged from the Northwest underground scene.
As a punk-rooted, pop-obsessed indie rock band that worshipped at the altar of metal progenitors Black Sabbath, Nirvana created a unique sound accessible to multiple audiences while setting up an untenable paradox with which the band would ultimately have to wrestle. Their pop melodies played against guitar noise and boldly dynamic verse/chorus constructions led to unlikely chart and sales success. But that success fed their own backlash against the trappings of pop stardom, influenced in no small part by lead singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain’s drug addictions and mental illness. After Cobain’s suicide in 1994, Nirvana’s story would become tabloid fodder, but their legacy would prove out as instrumental in turning alternative rock into a ’90s phenomenon.
Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic met while attending high school in the Seattle area. They kicked around for a few years under various band names and with a number of drummers. In 1989, their debut album Bleach hinted at how the noise, menace, melodies, and songcraft would distill into their fully formed sound just two years later. Drummer Dave Grohl would join permanently in 1990, and the band would sign with major label DGC for Nevermind, the breakthrough album that would set them on the course to unlikely superstardom. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would become an MTV staple, ultimately affirmed in the pop-culture zeitgeist by a Weird Al Yankovic parody.
Their response to sudden fame was 1993’s follow-up In Utero, sometimes referred to as Cobain’s "suicide note," a deliberately difficult and dour record whose attitude might have been best summed up by "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," on which Cobain sings “Use just once and destroy/ Invasion of our privacy." Still, it was a stunning work of willful personal dissonance.
In April of 1994, Cobain was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. "MTV Unplugged" In New York would be released posthumously, winning a GRAMMY for Best Alternative Music Performance and clearly showing a band that was, like all great bands, growing and redefining its sound.
Cobain’s suicide followed the overdose death of Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood and would be followed years later by fellow Seattle-scene rockers Layne Staley of Alice In Chains and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, sadly, seemingly preordained finales for musicians who sang authentically about such real-world trauma as social alienation, abuse, isolation, and addiction. Seldom has a genre of music so deeply reflected the raw emotions and turmoil of the artists.
In 2005, the Library of Congress added Nevermind to its National Recording Registry of culturally important recordings. Pitchfork called Nirvana "the greatest and most legendary band of the 1990s." The band were first-ballot inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
If the mark of greatness is that your art changes the medium, then Nirvana’s greatness is unassailable.