Nirvana's Tense, Brilliant Unplugged in New York, 20 Years Later

Recorded four months before Kurt Cobain's death, Nirvana's MTV performance was intimate, awkward, and totally genius.

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.

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Andrew Wallace Chamings is a British writer, journalist, and screenwriter in San Francisco. He contributes to the San Francisco ChronicleSF Weekly, and Drowned in Sound.

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