My Top 20 Albums – ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’ by Nirvana.

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In the fall of 1993 Seattle three-piece Nirvana was arguably the biggest rock band in the world. Their debut album Bleach had planted seeds of vehement potential, while everybody and his dog picked up a copy of its all-conquering follow-up Nevermind. Then came the eclectic rarities compilation Incesticide, before recently released third LP In Utero, an abrasive departure that further enhanced the band’s reputation as trailblazers.

A huge part of Nirvana’s appeal was of course down to the magnetism of troubled front man Kurt Cobain, whose internal struggles attracted as much attention as the music itself. Debilitating drug addiction? Check! Hatred for the music industry and everything it stood for? Damn right! Provocative other half who made Yoko Ono look like Mother Teresa? And then some!  No wonder MTV, (yet to become the entertainment industry’s axis of evil), was so desperate to scoop the group up for one of their popular Unplugged performances. In fact, they’d been in negotiations for some time, the stumbling block having been Kurt’s reticence about performing a set of strictly acoustic songs.

3 The collectionsmallersmallerEven when the band finally agreed to play, there was much discussion as to how they would go about the job. “We’d seen the other Unpluggeds and didn’t like many of them” explained drummer Dave Grohl, “because most bands would treat them like rock shows, play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars”. With this in mind, Kurt, Dave and towering bassist Krist Novoselic agreed to leave the hit tunes out, which of course meant no Smells Like Teen Spirit. This went down like a fart in a lift with the network, and soon enough tensions between the man and the men began to spiral.

There was also conflict over Cobain’s decision to invite his pals The Meat Puppets (relatively unknown to the average Joe), to join Nirvana onstage. A punch to the bloated stomachs of MTV bigwigs, the matter was compounded further by the singer’s intention to cover no less than three Meat Puppet tunes during the concert! With rehearsals underway, you could just about cut the tension with a knife. Stressed out, inherently paranoid and suffering from drug withdrawal, Kurt was not a happy bunny and the sessions became messy as the group struggled to get a number of songs up to scratch. Having at one point threatened to pull out altogether; everyone involved, his own band mates included, found themselves more than a little concerned about Cobain’s fragile state of mind.

Ultimately though the talent won the battle and Kurt got to do things his way. Buoyed by what felt like a David and Goliath style victory, his final demand was that the stage be decked out in Stargazer Lilies and black candles. Increasingly confused and frustrated, the show’s producer Alex Coletti asked the prickly singer what aesthetic he was trying to achieve, “you mean like a funeral?” to which Kurt replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral”.

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Back coverIt seems unlikely the gathered crowd had even an inkling of what a momentous, historical concert they were about to witness as they took their seats that evening on November the 18th, 1993. Nevertheless, the record begins with rapturous applause and Cobain’s mumbled introduction to the first number. “This song is off our first record, most people don’t own it” he says before rapidly launching into About a Girl. A slowed down version of the song taken from Bleach, here the melody is pushed to the forefront amid pristine plucking from Cobain, Novoselic and guest rhythm guitarist Pat Smear. Written about his fractured relationship with ex Tracy Marander, Kurt’s delivery is calm and measured as he talks of needing ‘‘an easy friend’’, someone ‘‘with an ear to lend”. It’s a tight, efficient beginning to the evening, Cobain signing off with a forced grin-cum-grimace for the camera, a mocking response to his manager’s advice that he needed to smile more.

Still soaking up a wave of applause, the band waste no time getting started on Come asComeasyouare You Are, the adored 1992 single from Nevermind and their only hit to make the set list. Summoning his signature death rattle rasp, the audience sits in spellbound silence as Kurt ups the stakes with his attack on the contradictory nature of society’s demands. “Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late” he growls, while on the nonchalant bridge Grohl provides soft, sympathetic backing vocals, an undeniably beautiful juxtaposition.

“This was written by The Vaselines,” croaks Kurt, “Well it’s a rendition of an old Christian song I think, but we do it The Vaselines way”. The first of six covers that evening, Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam is a sweet, jaunty tune driven by Novoselic’s chirpy accordion, an eye-brow raising example of the instrument actually enhancing a rock song! An atheistic parody of an old Christian hymn, I’ll be a Sunbeam, Cobain channels pure serenity as he warns: “Don’t expect me to cry, don’t expect me to lie, don’t expect me to die for thee”.

There’s a much grittier feel meanwhile to the band’s take on David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. “I guarantee you I will screw this up,” mutters Kurt with typical self-deprecation. He then proceeds to knock out what is today regarded as the song’s definitive version. Detailing the thoughts and feelings of a man who feels like he’s sold his soul, the track was a perfect fit for the unsettled singer, whose steely delivery carries a heartfelt honesty that impressed even Bowie himself. “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt liked my work,” he later admitted.

Pennyroyal TeaWith an edgy, taut undercurrent running through the night’s proceedings, there’s a particularly uncomfortable moment when the front man decides to go solo on Pennyroyal Tea. “Am I gonna do this by myself” he asks the others casually, as if the matter hasn’t already been decided. “Yeah, do it by yourself” answers Grohl with faux cheerfulness, before nervously asking Smear if he has a smoke. Stripped of even the minimal accompaniments provided thus far, what unfurls is a performance so raw and skeletal you can close your eyes and picture its narrator on the bony branch of a leafless tree, deep in the heart of some godforsaken desert. “I’m on warm milk and laxatives, cherry flavored antacids” he moans, a reference to the crippling stomach problems that had for so long contributed to his state of misery.

There’s a happy-go-lucky sense of detachment at least to the Beatlesy Dumb, an example of Nirvana’s poppier leanings and a playful tribute to the all-American simpleton. Written about people who are content watching TV all day, at the expense of a social life, girlfriend or meaningful career, (“I’m having fun, I think I’m dumb, or maybe just happy”), Cobain sounds both critical and compassionate as his words ride the swelling surf of Lori Goldston’s somber cello.

PollyThen comes the stark and harrowing Polly, a Nevermind favourite that, having been predominantly acoustic to begin with, must have felt like a no-brainer when the band drew up their track list. Written after reading a newspaper article about the abduction, torture and rape of a fourteen-year-old girl, it’s arguably the darkest thing Cobain ever wrote, his hushed reflective vocals in perfect symmetry with the mournful body language of Grohl, Novoselic, Smear and Goldston.

As such, it comes as something of a relief when the band pick up the pace with a zippy rendition of On a Plain. “I love myself better than you, I know it’s wrong so what should I do” shrugs Kurt on a song which, covering familiar territory, touches on drug addiction, depression, relationship trouble and writer’s block.

The raw and fragile Something in the Way stands as an astonishing triumph, in that it somehow conspires to sound even gloomier than its original studio cut. A myth making extension of its author’s claim to have spent a period sleeping rough under Aberdeen Washington’s Young Street Bridge; there is talk of ‘‘living off of grass and the drippings from my ceiling”, as well as fish for supper and trapped animals, who “have all become my pets”. Believed by many to be a metaphor for depression, sources close to the singer later revealed that while Cobain had been technically homeless for a spell, the singer had in fact claimed shelter with various friends and the odd hospital waiting room.

cb2628dca393d748a91d341b11f1c875.640x480x1“Brothers meat, come up onstage!” says Cobain warmly and on trot Meat Puppet twins Chris and Curt Kirkwood to polite applause, a mop-haired mass of hunched shoulders and clumsy smiles. Yet despite MTV’s concerns, the duo’s unassuming stage presence and the fact that the audience is largely unfamiliar with the material, what follows is a powerful trio of covers. First comes Plateau, an ambiguous affair that has enlightenment-seeking pilgrims forging a path up a mythical mountain, passing ‘‘holy ghosts and talk show hosts” along the way. Clearly delighted to be getting down with his pals’ material, Cobain mimics Kirkwood’s strangled falsetto on the quirky chorus, where the adventurers reach the summit only to find “a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds”. There’s more spirituality on the inward-looking Oh Me, a sorrowful ballad that has Cobain admitting: “I can’t see the end of me, my whole expanse I cannot see”. Then, for the evening’s final slice of carnal puppetry, there’s some impressive shrieking to Lake of Fire’s menacing guitars. A gleeful and no doubt ironic warning to society’s sinners, it is claimed that bad folk “don’t go to heaven where the angels fly”, but rather to “a lake of fire {to} fry”.

With the Kirkwood’s having bumbled offstage, the evening’s final cut of original material goes to All Apologies, an aching screw you to the people who burdened the singer with unrealistic demands and expectations. “What else should I be?” “What else should I say?” he muses to more cello-friendly rhythms and subtle Grohl harmonies.

Much more of a showman than he’d ever have admitted, Cobain saves the best for last with a foreboding take on Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A chilling tale of infidelity and jealousy, Nirvana’s commander-in-chief is in talismanic form as he leads us to ‘‘the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine”. Gradually increasing in volume and intensity, it’s a spine-tingling, bubbling cauldron of a piece, not least as he takes one last deep breath during the final line, “shiiiiiiiiiveeeerrrrr the whole (exhales) night throuuuuuuuuuuugh”, an ear-splitting wail of ground concrete that has to be experienced to be believed. Physically and emotionally drained, he has the look of a man that’s just exorcised a few of the many demons that would soon conspire to claim his life. It’s such a flawless end to proceedings that there’s no need for an encore, which indeed Cobain refused to do, despite the crowd’s obvious desire and pressure from the network.

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Like most 90s teens I went through a big Nirvana phase when I was growing up. But while both Nevermind and In Utero remain cherished records to me over twenty years later, it’s their MTV show that stands apart as the group’s defining masterpiece. It’s the sound of a heavy rock band stripping back the all-consuming ferocity of their work to its essential values. Delightfully de-fuzzed, out goes the feedback and in comes an accordion (!), unobtrusive drumming, pretty backing vocals and a dramatic, sweeping cello. And if that at all sounds like Nirvana Tamed, then you couldn’t be more mistaken! Quite possibly the most commanding live performance I’ve ever witnessed, there’s a painful honesty to Kurt’s delivery that in light of his tragic death just over four months later, feels like a man embarking on one last artistic hurrah before trudging off towards his grisly fate.

A genre-defining record that should ideally be seen as well as heard, the DVD version presents Nirvana as they’d never been seen before: seated, sober, polite, hushed, and for the most part bashful and vulnerable. Released one year after its conception and eight months on from Cobain’s suicide, you couldn’t dream up a more fitting epitaph to one of the finest rock groups of all time.

Choice Quote: “That show was supposed to be a disaster. We hadn’t rehearsed, we weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible. Everyone thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked. It became one of the band’s most memorable performances” – Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.

Choice Lyric: “Everything is my fault, I’ll take the blame. Aqua seafoam shame, sunburn freezer burn, choking on the ashes of her enemy’’ – From All Apologies.

Like this? Nirvana’s MTV set also served as a much-needed shot in the arm for perennial underachievers The Meat Puppets, who belatedly got the props they deserved as songwriters and performers. The three songs covered by Nirvana that evening come from the band’s 1984 release Meat Puppets II, a wonderful little record that the American music journalist Robert Christgau described as ‘‘calmly demented country music’’.

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3 thoughts on “My Top 20 Albums – ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’ by Nirvana.

  1. Pingback: My Top 20 Albums – ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’ by Nirvana. | natty4t's Blog

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