Counterbalance: Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’

I gazed a gazeless stare. We walked a million hills. As the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death approaches, Counterbalance takes a look at Nirvana's landmark acoustic performance.
MTV Unplugged in New York

Mendelsohn: It seems surreal to me that Kurt Cobain thrust off his mortal coil 20 years ago. It might just be my inability to come to grips with my own age, but here we are, Klinger, two solid decades since Cobain’s death. In that time, the music industry has changed dramatically and I find myself wondering, would Cobain have been more comfortable in the music industry of today, where artists enjoy an unprecedented amount of creative freedom and independence thanks to niche labels and the slow decline of the major labels? Or would the pervasive nature of social media that lets the public directly scrutinize the artist’s each and every move made him feel even more uneasy than the unrelenting fame he seemed so unequipped to handle?

I don’t really want you to answer that question, and I’m sorry for waxing philosophic but I find myself thinking these things as I made my way through Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. I am awed by the flashes of beauty on this record, a record I hadn’t listened to in nearly those 20 years, but going back to it now, it strikes me that this might have been Cobain writing his own eulogy. Here he is, stripping down his music, laying bare his influences, and the result is an enigmatic and enduring performance that bookends Nirvana’s short run.

Klinger: I’m finding this album surprisingly hard to talk about. For some reason I can’t listen to it as part of some greater rock star mythology. Kurt Cobain was about 18 months older than me, and he seemed like a lot of guys I knew around that time. Including the drugs. Including the depression. And including the humor and the self-awareness that make this Unplugged in New York album such a powerful experience.

My generation grew up in a dead rock star culture. We made our jokes about a big fat Elvis dying on a toilet. We knowingly pointed at the “Not to Be Taken Away” stenciled on Keith Moon’s chair. And we woke up one Tuesday morning to find out that someone shot the cool Beatle. We knew that sometimes rock stars were supposed to die. But they were supposed to choke on vomit. They were supposed to go down in a plane on their way to a gig. They weren’t supposed to put a gun their mouth. So hearing this again just brings up the anger and the sadness and the feeling that there was just something permanently screwed up about us. It reminds me of those gray April days when hanging out in a bar felt like attending a wake for some friend of a friend, where people stand around awkwardly trying not to say the wrong thing. Hearing Cobain banter with his bandmates and the audience punctures the myth that could emerge from the howling, jarring, stirring vocals of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, but that’s more than appropriate. It’s necessary, because it’s so human.

Mendelsohn: Being permanently screwed up is just part of the human condition. There always have been, and always will be, tortured artists. In a way, we are all lost souls, searching for meaning through our art or adoration of others, trying to fill the eternal void of consciousness. It’s the reason Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, or why all comics are damaged goods despite careers peddling laughs. Cobain decided he’d had enough. It is sad and shocking to see someone willingly toss off the cloak of mortality. There is something very inhuman about it, and it acts as a stark reminder that we too, no matter how hard we fight, will one day take the long sleep. It’s tough to look into that mirror, especially through the lens of Cobain’s life and this record — a record that is flawed and emotional, humorous and dark. It deflates the myth of Nirvana, reducing the band to a couple of guys on stage, playing some music, having a good time.

For a band that rewrote the rules of rock ‘n’ roll, traded in the feedback and reverb of Alternative Nation, Unplugged is surprisingly intimate, taking on a folk-rock quality that, at first blush, does not mesh with the image of Nirvana.

Klinger: Well, what I think this album does is cast a light on the sense of melody that’s always a component of Nirvana’s songwriting. From the frankly quite Beatlesque “About a Girl” to the incandescent “All Apologies”, Cobain had a knack for setting elegant melodies on top of the chords and riffs. We’ve talked about how Nevermind took all of those capabilities and writ them large with huge technicolor production, but this Unplugged album shows you the inner workings of even the most gigantic-sounding songs like “On a Plain” and “Come as You Are”.

Even so, I’m struck by how unprocessed Unplugged in New York sounds. Almost from its inception, the Unplugged television series seemed like a pretty pointless gimmick to me, with bands playing essentially note-for-note covers of their biggest hits, only on acoustic guitars. Maybe they played them a little slower, or (in the case of Eric Clapton and “Layla”) took a wrenching, desperate cry into the wilderness and turned it into a front-porch good-timey lemonade singalong. Nirvana lets the frayed ends hang out all throughout this album. There are a few bum notes. Cobain’s vocals sound genuinely unsure in places. It’s way more ragged than we have any reason to expect from an album with an MTV logo on the front.

Mendelsohn: After the success of Nevermind, it seems like Nirvana was always trying to find their own plane, one where they felt comfortable doing whatever it is they wanted to do. In Utero is a great example, and I think Unplugged took it –– not so much the willful obstinance, but maybe disregard — to a whole new level. The production is rough on purpose. They got together, spent a couple days hashing it out, and then went on stage. The set list the band chose follows the same path. All of their hits, save “Come as You Are” and “All Apologies”, are absent. In their place are cover songs from David Bowie, Lead Belly, the Meat Puppets, and a twisted remake of an old Christian testimonial by the Vaselines. That’s about as contrary as you can get. Add in the gloomy set design and a cellist and what you have is nearly the antitheses of the Nevermind-era Nirvana.

I guess the inevitable question is: would this record be as highly regarded (No. 318 on the Great List) if Cobain had lived?

Klinger: Well, I think that the searing performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, still one of the most haunting vocal performances in rock, would rescue the album from obscurity, but I really think that the staying power of Unplugged in New York would depend on what they were able to accomplish next. In Utero still seems like such a transitional record in so many ways that it’s tempting to think that what came next would have made this seem like a side note.

But you have a point when you say that it’s the acoustic nature of this album that makes it a unique experience and a valid addition to the canon. In 1996, DGC released another live album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, that sold according to plan and was critically acclaimed but is currently relaxing at No. 2233 on the Great List (impressive for an after-the-fact live album, but still). In the end, the intimacy bordering on uncomfortable closeness is what sets Unplugged in New York apart. I’ll throw your question back at you, though.

Mendelsohn: My knee jerk reaction is this: had Cobain not decided to trip the light fantastic with a shotgun, this record would not have the impact it has today — if it had been made at all. Nirvana would have continued to make music and the Unplugged episode would have slowly faded into obscurity as a goofy one-off remembered only by hardcore fans and passed around as a bootleg. Commercially speaking, I couldn’t see the record label making the decision to release a less-than perfect record from one of their biggest bands that contained nary the hit song or potential single material.

This is going to sound really cynical, because it is, but at its heart, Unplugged is nothing more than a monumental cash grab, looking to make bank on the death of a beloved rock star. But as crass of a business move as it was, I think it was completely necessary. Not only to help cement Cobain’s legacy as the preeminent singer-songwriter of his generation, but also as a salve for his mourning fans. Unplugged gave the listeners unprecedented access to a musician who did his best to keep them at arms-length. The intimate nature of the record brings Cobain and his music down to earth, the bum notes and audience banter ground this album, making it accessible, and as you noted, very human. That’s the power of this album — it is transformative, not only for Cobain, but for his fans, allowing everyone to meet in the middle, one last time, and revel in the power of music.