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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.
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins
Photo: Newspix/Getty Images
Dave Grohl Calls Early Foo's Recordings "Total F****** Chaos"
The rocker reveals lesser-known details about his early records and reflects on fallen friends
Dave Grohl founded the GRAMMY-winning rock band Foo Fighters just a year after Kurt Cobain passed away and Nirvana subsequently disbanded. Given the Foo's current place as one of the biggest rock bands in the entire world, it can be hard to imagine they had humble beginnings, and likewise it's easy to forget that Grohl had to essentially start over from scratch following Nirvana's breakup.
In a recent interview with Hot Press, Grohl reflected on losing his bandmate Cobain, then experiencing similar loss with close friend Chris Cornell much later in life. "I just want everyone to survive," he says. "You cross your fingers and say your prayers and hope everyone makes it home safe at night."
Of starting anew with the Foo Fighters in 1995, he refers to the decision as a type of therapy. "[Our] hearts were broken when Kurt died. … I felt I had to do it — to exorcise something in my soul," Grohl says. "We still feel like that every time we make a record — every time we step on stage."
Grohl also admits that he was more than surprised when the Foo's second album, The Colour And The Shape, broke through and launched him and his band back into the spotlight, especially in light of the working conditions under which the record was made.
"I remember making that record while not having a place to live. I was sleeping in my friend’s back room in a sleeping bag. His dog would come in and p on the sleeping bag every f night," Grohl says wryly. "It was total f* chaos. The fact we survived that means we could survive anything."
The Week In Music: March Madness
A field of 64 bands set to vie for ESPN's best rock band crown
March Madness is here, that captivating time of year when 68 teams set out on the Road to the Final Four in their quest for NCAA men's college basketball supremacy. This year's tournament is scheduled to get underway March 17, with brackets to be announced March 13. However, those wishing to take part in some early madness with a side of musical fun can get a head start with ESPN's Herd Rock Band Bracket, a 64-artist field devised by radio host Colin Cowherd to crown the best rock band. Formal ESPN analysis is still pending, but we'll chime in with a few first-round matchups to keep an eye on. Teen spirit and Kurt Cobain will face off against the head games of Mick Jones when Nirvana and Foreigner clash in the West: Seattle Region. It will be all pinball wizardry and anarchy when the Who and the Sex Pistols battle it out in the East: New York Region. Metal will look to bring the heat against '60s psychedelia as Metallica takes on Jefferson Airplane in the Midwest: Cleveland Region. And shred guitar prowess will duel angst-ridden prog rock as Van Halen and Tool duke it out in the Far East: London region. Upset alert: Though arguably a mismatch on paper, can Scott Stapp and the No. 16-seeded upstart Creed deliver a knockout blow to the Fab Four, the No. 1-seeded Beatles, in the Far East: London region? Fill out your brackets here. Rock's March Madness survivor will be crowned later this month.
The man who went against all odds, fronted Genesis and brought us pop gems such as "Sussudio" is calling it a career. Following an onslaught of speculation on the reasons behind his retirement, Phil Collins surfaced this week to clear the air with "breaking news" on his website. "I'm not stopping because of dodgy reviews or bad treatment in the press," said Collins. "I am stopping so I can be a full-time father to my two young sons on a daily basis." Collins did take the press to task for painting him as "a tormented weirdo…who feels very sorry for himself, and is retiring hurt because of the bad press over the years." An eight-time GRAMMY winner, Collins assured that his retirement decision was a no "straitjacket" required proposition.
If you're a musician with an appetite for rock-solid financial planning from someone who has been there, done that, you're in luck. Former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan is launching Meridian Rock, a wealth management firm designed to educate musicians about their finances. While McKagan made a name for himself in GNR and the GRAMMY-winning rock band Velvet Revolver, he now fronts his own project, Loaded, and is fully loaded when it comes to financial credibility. After making millions with Axl, Slash and friends, in the '90s McKagan took basic finance courses at Santa Monica Community College in Southern California, and later earned a degree in finance at Seattle University. What type of clients does he think his firm can help? All are welcome, especially those musicians who may be timid. "If they're anything like me when I was 30, they're too embarrassed to ask," said McKagan. "I didn't know what a stock was [or] what a bond was."
With possibly one too many guys trying to touch her junk, Ke$ha has launched a safe-sex campaign. You may file it under just say no way, but the party animal/cannibal has issued 10,000 Ke$ha condoms with her face on them, which will be fired from a canon into the audience at her live shows (fortunately, there's nothing symbolic about that method of distribution). With Ke$ha condoms and a bottle of jack, we should be ready to go until the police shut us down, down.
When's the last time you took a ride down the western country line on a train? Better yet, when's the last time you took that ride with three indie bands? This April, GRAMMY nominees Mumford & Sons will embark on a six-stop tour with Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show. Titled The Railroad Revival Tour, these three bands will take a ride on a 1,500-foot long train featuring 15 vintage railcars pulled by two locomotives and are set to travel more than 2,000 miles across five states. The tour kicks off April 21 in Oakland, Calif., with stops in San Pedro, Calif., (April 22), Chandler, Ariz., (April 23), Marfa, Texas, (April 24), Austin, Texas, (April 26), and New Orleans (April 27). Could the railcar be the new tour bus? With gas prices these days, we're not sure if that'd be less or more costly.
While Lady Gaga was born this way, up-and-coming artist Maria Aragon was just born…10 years ago. After uploading a video of her cover of Gaga's "Born This Way" to YouTube, Aragon was invited onstage to perform a duet with the Lead Monster herself during a March 3 concert in Toronto. "Maria represents what this song is all about," said Gaga before leading into the song. "It's all about the next generation and the future and no more divisiveness, only unity." Let's hope this is a story that inspires future generations of Little Monsters. Don't be a drag, just be a queen.
Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Jennifer Lopez's "On The Floor" (featuring Pitbull) is atop the iTunes singles chart.
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Last Week In Music
Joan as Police Woman
Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.
Thursday, April 2
[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.
[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it.
Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy.
[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always.
[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment.
I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.
[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.
[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh.
Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot.
[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).
[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music.
[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night.
If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website.