Nirvana’s legendary Unplugged in New York has never really had the chance to be evaluated outside of the canonization of Kurt Cobain that followed his entry into the “27 Club.” It’s admittedly hard to hear him sing lines like “I swear I don’t have a gun.” and “Don’t expect me to die,” without thinking about what would tragically follow, only four months after the performance.
But on the 20th anniversary of the song set's airing, it’s worth considering the performance as a work of music, not mythology. Because as music, it’s incredible. The band run through a tense and brilliant 14-song set in one scintillating take, something unusual at the time for the popular MTV series, and the result is one of the greatest live albums ever—an unforgettable document of raw tension and artistic genius.
The stripped-down MTV franchise was a big success at the start of the ‘90s. Acoustic guitars hadn’t been as popular since the folky early ‘60s. Old, established acts like Springsteen and Clapton used it as chance to have some fun reworking old favorites and make some money without having to write new songs. Of course, this isn’t how Cobain approached the opportunity, choosing to play six obscure covers (three with relatively unknown act the Meat Puppets, who joined Nirvana on stage) and only one real hit, “Come As You Are.” He requested the set be dressed as a funeral with Stargazer Lilies and candles, and willfully ignored the crowd's frustrated shouts for requests: “You want me to play ‘In Bloom’ acoustically?!”
While intimacy was an intended part of the concept (Clapton’s delicate “Tears In Heaven” was given a second life by his Unplugged rendition), parts of the Nirvana set at Sony’s Hells Kitchen studio feel so personal it’s awkward. It’s not an album you put on twice in one day, and listening to it through can be a draining experience.
Watching the video of the performance only heightens the effect. At the end of the first song Kurt looks at the camera and gives a gnarly forced smile. He later told the producers to make sure it was edited in because, “My manager tells me I need to smile more.” It’s a rare glimpse of humor from an agitated and prickly soul. Even Kurt’s closest allies seem wary of him. Dave Grohl sits quietly throughout, with only a stripped-down kit and a pair of brushes to protect him from Kurt, who repeatedly spins around on his chair and glares at the drummer over hunched shoulders. At one point Kurt passively tells Grohl to not play on “Penny Royal Tea,” saying, “Am I going to play this, alone?” Dave immediately understands that it’s not a question but a command and lays down his brushes on his snare: “Do it alone.” Grohl then nervously turns to guitarist Pat Smear, asking, “Do you have a smoke, Pat?”
Kurt goes on to play the very personal song alone with his eyes closed. As it ends Grohl shouts out “That was really great!” Kurt responds, “Shut up.” It’s a sore moment revealing a singer uncomfortable in his own skin, through addiction and depression, and a friend who seems to only want him to pull through.
Despite this tense air, when the band members do play together they sound inspired. This is Nirvana without the noisy adrenaline and anger, closing in on a something sweet. Kurt’s method had often been to tear a hole in the middle of the beautiful melodies and chord progressions that seemed to come so naturally to him. Previous glimpses of this stripped down splendor can be found on the studio versions of “Polly” and “Something in the Way,” but it really comes through here. When Novoselic picks up the accordion in “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” alongside Lori Goldston’s gorgeous cello, it creates the prettiest noise the band has ever made.
People have argued before about the validity of the praise heaped upon Cobain. “Legend” status engulfed him the second the news of his death spread. Writers like to speculate about the mediocre music he would have inevitably gone on to produce as a middle-aged grunger, but to describe Cobain as a grunge musician is like calling John Lennon an icon of Merseybeat, and whatever would have transpired it wouldn’t have changed one single note of this performance. We’ve seen Iggy Pop sell insurance and John Lydon sell butter, but it doesn’t make “Lust for Life” or “Pretty Vacant” sound any less vital. Like Freddy Mercury’s majestic “The Show Must Go On,” or Johnny Cash’s heartbreakingly defiant “Hurt,” there is no way of listening to Unplugged in New York without invoking death; it’s in every note, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a masterpiece.
Those unconvinced should skip to the final track, a rendition of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” It ranks among the greatest single rock performances of all time. All night, Cobain, while never quite able to hide his anxiety—sniping at band mates, grimacing and grasping at half smoked cigarettes—has remained definitely present and in control. That is, until the very end, when he briefly loses it.
For the final line, “I would shiver the whole night through,” Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word “shiver” so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word “whole” and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that’s hard to describe: He opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity. Then he finishes the song.
When Neil Young first watched the performance, he described that final note of Cobain’s as “Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.” Four months later Cobain would quote Young in a scrawled letter to “Boddah,” his imaginary childhood friend, before shooting himself in the head with a shotgun at his Seattle home on Lake Washington Boulevard: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
The producers and crowd needed an encore, and requested it directly of Kurt, but he refused. That wasn’t him posturing or being a diva. He simply had nothing more to give.