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Nirvana's MTV Unplugged at 25: fascinating facts about the landmark live show

Everyone thought it would be a disaster, but it became one of the most important live albums of all time.

Everyone thought it would be a disaster, but it became one of the most important live albums of all time

Nirvana recorded their live album MTV Unplugged in New York on November 18, 1993. (YouTube)

When they set out to record a live session at the MTV studios in New York, iconic Seattle grunge band Nirvana had no idea the recording would become one of rock music's most famous live albums.

Neither did they know that MTV Unplugged in New York would mark their final full-length recording, because the band's lead singer Kurt Cobain would die by suicide just a few short months later.

MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded 25 years ago this week. To mark the anniversary, we've gathered fascinating facts about that day — from the hits they didn't play to the funereal decor to drummer Dave Grohl's trouble with toning it down.

At the bottom of the post you'll also find a video of the full performance, which is just as arresting today as it was a quarter century ago.

They wanted it to be different from other MTV Unplugged albums

In an interview, Dave Grohl said they always knew they were capable of creating an unplugged album; it was just a matter of doing it right — and that meant doing things differently.

"We'd seen a lot of other bands do Unplugged tapings, and what they'd done was basically rock out the songs as if they were playing electric instruments. They didn't do anything to change the songs; they just basically plugged in acoustic guitars instead of electric ones. There was no way we were going to try to pull off Smells Like Teen Spirit with f--king acoustic guitars. It wouldn't work," said Grohl.

"I think Kurt wanted to bring it down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level, which was really fun. I think that's what made it so special; it wasn't just acoustic versions of Nevermind."

They didn't play the hits

Much to the chagrin of the MTV producers, the band refused to play most of their biggest hits — although many of the songs on the album went on to become hits in their own right. They mostly performed covers — songs by the Vaselines, David Bowie, Lead Belly, and Meat Puppets — as well as acoustic renditions of tracks from the band's third album In Utero, which had just been released.

In all, they ended up playing one song from their debut album Bleach, four songs from 1991's Nevermind, three tracks from In Utero, and six covers.

"We got a setlist out of the band, and other than Come As You Are, there were no real Nirvana hits," producer Alex Coletti remembered. "I wish Kurt or someone in the band or management clued us into, 'We put thought into this, this works this way, trust us.' Instead it was just, 'This is what we're doing.' Not being familiar with some of the covers, some of the people here became very tense about, 'We've got to get them to do more hits.'" 

They expected it to be a disaster

By the time MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded, Nirvana was at the height of fame. Their landmark album Nevermind had generated a string of unforgettable hits, they were headlining festivals, and In Utero was getting rave reviews. Still, the band didn't have high expectations for the Unplugged recording.

"That show was supposed to be a disaster," remembered Grohl in an interview. "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. Even the people from MTV 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."

They were nervous

It was unlike the band to be nervous, but Cobain was so unnerved by the taping that he asked only people he knew to line the front row, and he didn't want his wife Courtney Love or their daughter in the studio. "Amy, can you sit in the front when we play? You and Janet and everyone I know?" he reportedly said at the dress rehearsal. "'Cause I hate strangers."

"It was the first time in a long while I'd seen them all so nervous about doing something," the band's tour manager, Alex MacLeod, told Guitar World in 1995. "They were really nervous about doing Unplugged, because they were really leaving themselves wide open." 

Kurt Cobain was reportedly going through withdrawal

During the dress rehearsal, Cobain was reportedly very unwell, suffering from a mix of gastrointestinal problems and withdrawal from heroin, and was vomiting bile and blood. With the performance fast approaching, someone suggested that the MTV producers find him some "medicine." 

"They told me that, 'He's not going to make it on the show if we don't help him out,'" said Finnerty. "And I was like, 'I've never done heroin, and I don't know where to find it.'" Cobain reportedly got through the performance by taking Valium. 

It wasn't totally unplugged

For the MTV Unplugged series, bands went stripped-down acoustic — but that wasn't entirely true for Cobain, who insisted on putting his guitar through his trusted Fender Twin Reverb amp and an array of effects boxes. The producer then disguised the various gadgets.

"Maybe I shouldn't give this secret away," Coletti confessed, "but I built a fake box out in front of the amp to make it look like a monitor wedge. It was Kurt's security blanket. He was used to hearing this guitar through his Fender. He wanted those effects. You can hear it on The Man Who Sold The World. It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp. There's no trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. I actually fought pretty hard to leave that song out [of the final edit of the show], because I felt it wasn't as genuine as the rest of the songs. But I'm a huge Bowie fan, so I couldn't fight too hard against the song."

The set was decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and an old chandelier — all things used to make the stage look "funereal." (YouTube)

Cobain wanted a certain look for the set

The mix of stargazer lilies, black candles and a crystal chandelier gave the stage an ominous look — and it turns out the dark design was at Cobain's request. In trying to capture what he wanted, the show producer asked, "You mean like a funeral?" Cobain reportedly replied, "Exactly. Like a funeral."

Dave Grohl had to seriously tone it down

Nirvana drummer (and now Foo Fighters frontman) Dave Grohl was known for his gigantic rock drumming, so getting him to tone it down for the acoustic gig was reportedly a challenge. During the short rehearsals, Cobain became increasingly frustrated, but Coletti saved the day by presenting Grohl with brushes and sizzle sticks, commonly used in jazz and classical music; it was around the holidays so he wrapped them in Christmas paper. 

"I figured I'd be remembered forever as the dick MTV producer," Coletti said. "I was afraid Dave would just roll his eyes, like, 'Oh great, the asshole from MTV is trying to be my friend.' But instead he opened the package and said, 'Cool, I've never had brushes before. I've never even tried using them.' As it turned out, he used both the sticks and the brushes, which helped [audio producer] Scott Litt out immensely, I believe. It's nice that the band was so amenable to trying new things."

Grohl later said the sticks "made a huge difference and actually saved the whole show."

They brought in members of the Meat Puppets

Cobain was quick to applaud his favourite acts, and the Meat Puppets were squarely on his list, so he asked them to join the band on stage for some of the songs. But it turns out they weren't exactly what MTV had in mind.

"I said to MTV, 'They're going to bring some guests on,'" remembered Coletti. "And at first everybody's eyes lit up, like, 'Who's it gonna be?' They wanted to hear the right names — Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos…But when I said the Meat Puppets, it was kind of like, 'Oh, great. They're not doing any hits, and they're inviting guests who don't have any hits to come play. Perfect.'" In a 2014 interview, the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood remembered hearing that the MTV brass had wanted bigger names, and feeling like they had somehow "snuck in." 

"We'd been outsiders up to that point, so I figured it was just par for the course," he said. "We're outsiders. They're outsiders, too. Nirvana was definitely coming from the outside … But I kind of got a kick out of it, like, 'Oh they don't want us here? Good.'"

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. Even the people from MTV thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked.- Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, now frontman with the Foo Fighters

Cobain refused to do an encore

After the final song, a jaw-dropping cover of Where Did You Sleep Last Night — also known as "In the Pines," it's a haunting track made famous by blues giant Lead Belly — Cobain left the stage and refused to go back.

"I really tried to get him to do an encore," said Coletti. "I had Dave, Chris and Pat ready to do it. But Kurt just wasn't into it. I was just doing my job for MTV at that point, trying to get that one extra song in the can, to see if the night could produce one more gem. The pleading went on for about five minutes. Finally Kurt said, 'I can't top that last song.' And when he said that, I backed off, 'cause I knew he was right."

Neil Young reportedly described that final note of Cobain's rendition as "Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable." MTV producer Ann Finnerty was also moved by the moment. "When you saw the sight of his face before the last note," she said in an interview, "it was almost as if it was the last breath of life in him."



The recording was not a suicide note

Less than six months after the taping, and before the album was released, Kurt Cobain died by suicide. In hindsight, many fans believe the acoustic session was a hint at what was to come, but producer Alex Coletti insists that wasn't true.

"That absolutely wasn't the case. This wasn't just Kurt. This was a band, at their prime, doing great work and enjoying it. This was not a suicide note in any way, shape or form," he told MTV. "It became his funeral for his fans, but in that moment, he was really happy with it. He came in the control room after to watch some of it back with us ... he walked right in, grabbed some beers. It was actually kind of cute." 

Cobain's guitar was an oddball — and is no longer in the family

For the taping, Cobain played a Martin D-18E guitar that he bought at Voltage Guitar in Los Angeles, and it was reportedly a rarity. According to Guitar World, the D-18E was one of the guitar maker's earliest electrified guitars, and was basically a D-18 acoustic with two pickups, three control knobs and a selector switch grafted on. The guitar was introduced in 1958, and discontinued the following year; only 302 were ever made.

As of the spring of 2018, however, the guitar was no longer in Cobain's family: despite an outcry from fans, it was awarded to the ex-husband of Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean, in a divorce settlement.

The album was an enormous success

There was no plan to release the performance as an album, but after Cobain's death, MTV put the performance in regular rotation. Concerned about bootlegging, they made a deal with the surviving Nirvana members to release the concert as an album. It was released November 1, 1994, and reached number one on the charts in North America, Australia and across Europe. Of course there was a pall that hung over the album's success, since it marked the final full-length recording by the band.

"Beyond inducing a sense of loss for Cobain himself, Unplugged elicits a feeling of musical loss, too," wrote a critic in Entertainment Weekly, "the delicacy and intimacy of these acoustic rearrangements hint at where Nirvana (or at least Cobain, who was said to be frustrated with the limitations of the band) could have gone." 

Here is the performance in full:


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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