22 Years Ago: Nirvana Unplug For MTV and Create Another Landmark Album
There is a distinct hierarchy to a band’s discography. The studio albums come first – these are the canonical texts upon which the band’s legacy rests. Next up are the live albums, which occasionally rise to the level of canonical text (Cheap Trick‘s Live At Budokan, for example), but more often than not, they’re relegated to gap fillers in fans’ collections.
Then there are the greatest hits collections with their remixes and bonus tracks and the ephemeral recordings (the B-sides, radio shows, bootlegs, television appearances and other odds and ends that are only of interest to completists). Leave it to Nirvana to become the first band to release canonical ephemera. For most bands, performing on MTV’s acoustic series Unplugged was little more than a contractual obligation album and another venue for publicity. But for Nirvana, it became a once-in-a-generation show that would also be turned into one of the most significant albums of the decade.
Several factors play on the importance of Unplugged in the Nirvana catalog and the first is the small size of their studio discography. With only three official studio releases, the Nirvana canon is awfully sparse if not augmented with other recordings.
The next is the untimely death of Kurt Cobain. Unplugged was recorded 22 years ago today – just five months before the singer’s suicide. The album MTV Unplugged in New York was released the following November – seven months after his death. Cynics saw the move as a crude corporate cash-in, but back in ’94, cynics saw anything a band like Nirvana did as a crude corporate cash-in.
But the only real factor in the success of the album is this: It’s a truly outstanding record that’s every bit as good as Nirvana’s studio albums and arguably better than at least one of them (their 1989 debut Bleach).
When the Unplugged series debuted on MTV in 1989, it soon became the premiere venue for bands who wanted to show another side of themselves, or perhaps just wanted to be on MTV. The breadth of artists that appeared on Unplugged is remarkable – everyone from LL Cool J to Poison to Roxette to Eric Clapton. The night before Nirvana recorded their appearance, Duran Duran recorded theirs.
The typical format was to come in and rearrange your big hits for an acoustic show a la Eric Clapton‘s reimagined “Layla.” At the time, Nirvana’s latest, In Utero, had only been out for around two months when they showed up at New York City’s Sony Music Studios, so chances are the audience that night expected run-throughs of “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Dumb” and the rest of the album. But what they got was something completely different, and not entirely planned. In Nirvana: In the Words of the People Who Were There, Carrie Borzillo writes:
November 18, 1993: In the morning, Nirvana rehearses for their pivotal ‘MTV Unplugged’ performance, and isn’t 100% clear on what they’re going to play. ‘I just remember after rehearsals, [band manager] John Silva was around and he was saying, not just to me, that they have not a clue what they’re going to do,’ says [publicist] Jim Merlis.
Merlis goes on to explain that Stone Temple Pilots had recently recorded their own Unplugged episode and during a four to six hour period, they played the same songs repeatedly. “I was just like, ‘Oh God, this is going to be miserable.'”
In the same book, Borzillo cites a Guitar World article wherein Unplugged producer Alex Coletti noted MTV’s concern with Nirvana having the relative unknowns in the Meat Puppets onstage as special guests. “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. Great.”
But not playing their hits was a wise artistic choice. The beauty of acoustic arrangements lies in the subtleties they reveal and nothing about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is built for subtlety. Playing that song on acoustic guitars would have been about as delicate as driving a monster truck in a funeral procession, still Nevermind is very well-represented on Unplugged. “Come As You Are,” “Polly,” “On a Plain” and “Something in the Way” account for nearly a third of the album’s 14 tracks. Of the four, “On a Plain” might’ve been the most transformed by the acoustic format.
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In Utero is represented by three tracks – “Pennyroyal Tea,” “Dumb,” and “All Apologies” – while Bleach gets only one track, but it’s fittingly the opener “About a Girl.”
That leaves six tracks (nearly half the album) dedicated to covers of songs that most casual listeners had never heard. Their special guests, Cris and Curt Kirkwood (“The brothers Meat Puppet,” as Cobain called them) accounted for three of those (“Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and “Lake of Fire”) and the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” brings the total of somewhat obscure alternative/punk covers to four.
But it was the remaining two that made the biggest splash. Nirvana’s cover of David Bowie‘s 1970 “The Man Who Sold the World” essentially erased the original from the collective memory, much like Johnny Cash‘s version of “Hurt” transferred ownership of that song from Trent Reznor to the Man in Black. As of the date of this article, Nirvana’s version of the song has received 75 million views on YouTube, while no uploaded clip of Bowie’s original has reached even 7 million.
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The last cover is also the album’s closer: an emotionally intense take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that served as an entire generation’s introduction to the blues legend. Rather than speculate regarding why Cobain sounds so invested in the song, we’ll stick to the verifiable facts: Leadbelly was one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite musicians.
In the Cobain biography Never Fade Away, author Dave Thompson calls the MTV performance a “relaxed, joyous occasion.” Borzillo’s oral biography of the band elaborates quite nicely:
The ‘Unplugged’ performance was very important to Kurt and, at the time, to the future of Nirvana. ‘He loved doing ‘Unplugged,”’ says [manager] Danny Goldberg. ‘He called me afterward and he was very proud of it and said it was the best thing they’d ever done and it was gonna broaden the band’s appeal.’ Jim [Merlis] remembers Kurt calling his mother afterwards to tell her about the show: ‘He was really proud, I mean really proud. It was very special.’
And there you have it. None other than Kurt Cobain – probably Nirvana’s harshest critic – felt that their performance that night on the MTV stage was as good (if not better) than the band’s studio output. That alone makes Unplugged In New York the rare ephemeral recording that is at least as essential as everything else they “officially” released.