It’s been fourteen years since Nirvana taped their infamous MTV Unplugged performance and thirteen years since the CD of that performance was originally released. In other words, there’s been a lot of water under the Ship Canal Bridge. Yet, the more time that goes by, the more that people seem to give more credence to conspiracy theories, fabrications and conjecture about the death of Kurt Cobain. As we near the twentieth anniversary of Bleach, one has to wonder if this so-called `mystery’ will either hit a wall or be ever-expanding like the plot of some Pynchonian novel. The events surrounding and including Nirvana’s Unplugged performance weigh heavily in this drama, mainly due to the fact that Cobain died a mere five months after recording. Because this was essentially Cobain’s last mass public performance, the album version of unplugged was a huge success. It’s impossible to deny the fact that Cobain’s death directly influenced sales, but it’s also impossible to deny that this performance is quite possibly the best Nirvana performance ever given, despite of, or even because of its flaws, and easily the best Unplugged show ever aired.
The original idea of MTV’s Unplugged series was to have established electric rock acts play their `hits’ acoustically. After the show began to pick up a fanbase, artists started releasing these performances as albums or EPs. Shows ventured from the obvious (10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Neil Young) to the abstract (LL Cool J, Yo! MTV Raps), yet the common themes were establishment and song recognition. For instance, you’d probably see a Modest Mouse Unplugged show today with songs like “Float On” and “Dashboard,” but you wouldn’t see a Jesu Unplugged, not that it would even work. You get my point, however. Nirvana changed things up without really notifying the MTV team. They turned in their setlist and didn’t discuss it. Just over half of the songs in their performance were actually theirs, meaning nearly half were covers. At the time, only one of the songs performed had been a single, “Come As You Are,” and they played that second. The MTV execs were in a tizzy.
But, as is usually the problem with execs, they couldn’t see the artistry. This was finally the real Nirvana. This was, for me as a fan, what I had been waiting to see. The feedback laden shows and over the top screaming was all fodder for angry male youth, but Cobain’s influences, as stated in numerous magazines, were far from that mark. Grohl was the metal fan; Cobain liked Queen. So, the band meticulously chose their setlist for the night, picking and choosing slower, more funereal songs to go along with the stargazer lilies and candles surrounding the stage. Songs such as “Something in the Way,” “About a Girl” and especially the solo performed “Pennyroyal Tea” took on new life and meaning in this atmosphere. “All Apologies,” due to be released as a single a mere month later, was the penultimate song performed, and is often played in place of the studio version.
But the real highlights of the performance, show and DVD are the covers. The first appears in a Vaselines cover of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam,” a song that vaulted the Vaselines out of obscurity and into the indie limelight. “The Man Who Sold the World” practically introduced a new generation to David Bowie at a time when he was sinking into irrelevance (it’s true, even though it pains me to write it). They then teased the audience and MTV brass by saying they had `special guests.’ In watching the interviews on the DVD, I’m sure they were all hoping for Eddie Vedder or even members of Sonic Youth (as Lee Ranaldo was apparently in attendance), but instead Nirvana brought out the Meat Puppets, an SST band from the ’80s. While the muckety-mucks were scratching their heads and simmering in the control room, Cobain, Nirvana and the brothers Kirkwood then went on to play some of the most interesting three songs of the night, “Plateau,” “Oh, Me” and “Lake of Fire” from the Puppets’ second LP back in 1984. But the song that still haunts me to this day, one of the truly finest performances I’ve ever heard from anyone, is Nirvana’s rendition of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” It’s pained, and therefore glorious. It’s as if Cobain were exorcising his own demons mere months before tragedy would befall him.
It’s one thing to hear the CD, another to see the performance in its entirety. In an eerie circumstance, the DVD just happens to begin playing the performance as soon as you enter it into the player. There are no introductory menus, no choices, no logos, merely Kurt sitting in his stool, green mohair sweater on under his stringy blond hair and wispy facial hair. The way that Cobain states the term `good evening’ seems angry, nervous, and disaffected. True, these can all be signposts to depression, but isn’t that true of every single pop song written?
Jeff Buckley- Live in Chicago
Jeff Tweedy- Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest
Nirvana- Live! Tonight! Sold Out!