The Most Memorable Live Performance Ever?
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York Album at Twenty-Five
ON 18th November, 1993…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Nirvana took to the MTV stage and delivered what is, I think, one of the best live performances ever. Whilst some prefer their live sets to be bombastic, energised and full of spectacle, the sheer beauty and emotion of Nirvana’s stripped-back set will survive the test of time. For a band who built their name with these raw anthems…to captivate in such a way back in 1993 was hugely impressive. I guess Nirvana had performed some acoustic sets before – though I cannot verify that -, but few bands like them were playing MTV Unplugged. Nirvana released their final studio album, In Utero, in September 1993, so it was an unusual step to transition from their heaviest and rawest album to perform for MTV the way they did. I am revisiting this landmark gig, because the album of the performance is twenty-five today (1st November). Filmed at the Sony Music Studios in New York City, this Beth McCarthy-directed performance did not have the smoothest of starts. Quite a while before the day of recording, the band had been negotiating with MTV. The band did not want to repeat what most people did for an MTV Unplugged show: give us the hits and the big numbers, only replacing electronic guitars for acoustic. For a Grunge band like Nirvana, perhaps you would have expected them to play a lot of Nevermind songs and a few from In Utero – maybe one or two from their debut, Bleach.
Instead, Nirvana wanted to mix things up and give a performance that had some covers in. One can only imagine whether Nirvana’s performance would have been as memorable if they had neglected David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World and Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Kurt Cobain was nervous about playing an acoustic show because it would put him more to the fore. Nirvana’s usual gigs would have a lot of energy and, in that mode, Cobain could be buried in sound; he was lost in the sheer rush and headiness of the gig. With cameras on him and the volume turned down, this was a very different prospect. I can imagine how anxious Cobain would have been before Nirvana stepped on the stage before the gig – if he suffered stage fright or got a song wrong, that would have been recorded and would live forever. It is a testament to his focus and talent that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged remains one of the most sensational and fascinating live performances ever. The fact the cardigan Cobain wore during the set sold for a whopping sum at auction proves how iconic that performance was. If there was this ordinary set that was quite drab…maybe the performance would not hit the senses quite as hard. Nirvana decked out their stage with lilies, black candles and chandeliers. Again, here was this huge Grunge band going against expectation and doing things their own way.
The funeral tone of the stage, to some, is a forebearer to Cobain’s suicide in 1994. I think any speculation that this was intended to be a farewell seems rash. Instead, there is this romance and calming vibe that, in my view, helped ease Cobain’s nerves. With guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston alongside Kurt Cobain and band members Dave Grohl (in a reduced percussive role) and Krist Novoselic on bass, Nirvana delivered a masterpiece. Although Nirvana were playing for MTV Unplugged, Cobain put his acoustic through an amp to give it more kick and electricity. I think Nirvana’s 1993 gig will inspire artists for decades to come. They performed the set in a single take – moist acts on the series didn’t – and didn’t really play many hits. Perhaps Come as You Are is their best-known song from the set: there was no Smells Like Teen Spirit or Breed, for instance. Kurt Cobain died on 5th April, 1994, and many look back to that Nirvana gig the year before to look for clues; to see whether there were hints at what was to happen. Rather than provide morbid theories and think of death, one should embrace the beauty and power of a generation-defining set. It would be incredibly hard to fault a performance as sublime and spine-tingling as Nirvana’s MTV set in 1993. Indeed, the reviews for the performance are near-perfect in their adoration and praise.
In this review, AllMusic provided their take:
“If In Utero is a suicide note, MTV Unplugged in New York is a message from beyond the grave, a summation of Kurt Cobain's talents and pain so fascinating, it's hard to listen to repeatedly. Is it the choice of material or the spare surroundings that make it so effective? Well, it's certainly a combination of both, how the version of the Vaselines' "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" or the three covers of Meat Puppets II songs mean as much as "All Apologies" or "Something in the Way." This, in many senses, isn't just an abnormal Nirvana record, capturing them in their sincerest desire to be R.E.M. circa Automatic for the People, it's the Nirvana record that nobody, especially Kurt, wanted revealed. It's a nakedly emotional record, unintentionally so, as the subtext means more than the main themes of how Nirvana wanted to prove its worth and diversity, showcasing the depth of their songwriting. As it turns out, it accomplishes its goals rather too well; this is a band, and songwriter, on the verge of discovering a new sound and style. Then, there's the subtexts, as Kurt's hurt and suicidal impulses bubble to the surface even as he's trying to suppress them. Few records are as unblinkingly bare and naked as this, especially albums recorded by their peers. No other band could have offered covers of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and the folk standard "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on the same record, turning in chilling performances of both -- performances that reveal as much as their original songs”.
Even if you were not around in 1993, just look on YouTube and see the videos. You will be blown away and moved by the performance! There is an anniversary edition of the gig that you should snap up and keep. Even after all these years, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York remains unsurpassed. I think it is one of the finest gigs ever put down (maybe stronger than Nirvana’s set at Reading in 1992). Ahead of the album release of MTV Unplugged in New York, people are revisiting this wonderful musical moment. Before wrapping up, I want to introduce a feature from The Quietus that passionately details this era-defining performance:
“Perhaps Cobain understood that the essence of any given piece of music might just as easily lie in its supposed artificiality, that this artificiality is no more or less authentic than a strummed-and-hummed version. Whether he would have thought about it or put it that way, who knows; he was an artist, a great one, and he may have been operating on instinct rather than theory. But instinct should not be confused with accident. And none of the things that make MTV Unplugged In New York so marvellous were accidental.
For a start, there is the performance he turned in; a performance of such wrenching emotional tension and commitment and – let’s not pretend otherwise – craft (he was a showbiz pro by this point; he knew exactly what he was doing) that it would have graced any format, any arrangement. This is not to suggest the other members of the band, and the wider ensemble on the night, were dispensible. Just that Cobain was, as ever, the glowing centre of the thing, and it was always going to stand or fall on what he did.
Also: he cheated. This performance wasn’t “unplugged” at all, in the customary sense that the only amplification was via microphone. Cobain ran his acoustic guitar through pedals and an amp, this rig being disguised as a monitor. And because pop music is not a sporting contest, nor a feat of spectacle like chainsaw juggling, but an art form, he was right to cheat. Cheating is, frequently, how you make the good things happen. Everybody should cheat in pop music whenever possible, as long as it makes the results more enthralling. Which this did.
Cobain was always a terrific singer, and on MTV Unplugged In New York he compressed his voice into a haunted rasp. This, alongside the sensitive playing of his fellow musicians, made his own songs, the earliest of which had been released four years prior to the session, sound steeped in folk, blues and bluegrass and as old as the hills. Or at least as old as the tour-de-force of a closing number, a version of Lead Belly’s 1944 arrangement of the traditional song ‘In The Pines’, which that greatest of folk-blues musicians had retitled ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Cobain knew of Lead Belly, and the song, thanks to Mark Lanegan, the Screaming Trees singer. He had played guitar on Lanegan’s own version on the latter’s first solo record, The Winding Sheet (1990) – which album was the most specific and immediate inspiration for the Unplugged recording. If Lanegan’s (superb) solo output since has at times resembled Nirvana’s record in mood and tone, that’s not him imitating them; it’s him carrying on with the idiom they borrowed from him.
When you’re reinventing yourself as the epitome of gritty, rootsy, “authentic” Americana, perhaps the least apt thing you can do is throw in an emphatic acknowledgement of all that stands in seeming opposition to that: something glam and queer and synthetic and altogether European. Which is exactly what Nirvana did; and again, this was no accident. Not only did they cover David Bowie, they covered one of his (then) more obscure songs, and certainly one of the strangest, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
MTV Unplugged In New York is the sound of Nirvana taking all the ground they want, and not giving an inch of it away. It’s the sound of them wrong-footing both their fans and their critics. It’s a magnificent set of songs, magnificently rendered. It didn’t make their previous albums redundant, or irrelevant: those remain formidable rock records, and the hits will be played as long as there are student discos. But nothing else they did has such breadth, or depth, or texture. Nothing else gives so full a picture of Cobain’s talent and sensibilities. Nothing else shows how artfully he could weave together pop’s contrasting strands. It almost didn’t happen. A day before the taping, Cobain was refusing to play. He made a lot of poor decisions in his all too brief time here; changing his mind on that was surely one of the best.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kurt Cobain during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City on 18th November, 1993/PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Micelotta
Maybe there are more celebrated live performances and live albums that are poured over in greater detail. Even were it not for Cobain’s suicide in 1994, I still think MTV Unplugged in New York would still be regarded as this classic; a moment in time where one of the world’s biggest bands stunned people into silence. I can envisage the relief on Cobain’s face when he left the stage and realised he has had got through it. Look back at the gig and you can feel the concentration and focus he has. If you are a fan of the concert or fresh to it, take some time to witness this incredible band deliver a truly spellbinding performance. In terms of its legacy, power and memorability, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York…
MIGHT never be bettered.