It was a Thursday when Nirvana finally moved into the newly-opened Sony Music Studios at 460 W. 54th Street to set up for a taping of MTV’s popular Unplugged series. I say “finally” because the negotiations to get Nirvana to agree to appear on the show were fraught with complications.
No one in Nirvana was a fan of the Unplugged shows they’d seen. The idea of regurgitating their hits acoustically did not appeal to anyone. Besides, Kurt wasn’t sure he or the band could pull it off. To him, Nirvana was a loud and raw punk rock band and not an outfit suited for quiet performances.
Eventually, though, Kurt was strong-armed into accepting the gig, perhaps after convincing himself that this was the sort of artistic challenge he needed. He’d been moving into the realm of more quiet compositions and an acoustic set has been recently added to Nirvana’s live show.
The rest of the band, of course, went along with him.
There were conditions. Nirvana must have complete control over what songs they played. The big hits would not make the setlist. It would not be an acoustic version of Nevermind. There would be covers, some obscure. The studio had to be decked out in a certain way. And Kurt got to choose the special guests.
MTV was not happy with these terms. They wanted assurances that hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would make the set. Rumour had it that overtures had already been made to people like Tori Amos and Eddie Vedder.
“Nope,” said Kurt. “My rules or nothing.”
Desperate to nail down the show, MTV gave in.
Nirvana rehearsed for two days with members of the Meat Puppets, guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldstone filling out the lineup. Things didn’t go well, either. The group wasn’t used to performing acoustically and thought they sounded terrible. What’s more, MTV agreed. The band was awful.
Still, they pushed forward. The studio was ordered decorated per Kurt’s instructions with a crystal chandelier, black candles, and stargazer lilies, a flower that was extremely hard to source that time of year. (The producers ended up using a mix of real and fake lilies.)
“Like a funeral?” someone asked.
“Exactly,” said Kurt.
There were other rules, too. Although the premise of the show was that all the performances were entirely acoustic, Kurt insisted on running his acoustic guitar through an amp and effects pedals because this was the way he was used to hearing the music. His amp was hidden in such a way that it looked like a monitor. That explains why “The Man Who Sold the World” hardly sounds like it was played on an acoustic guitar. The feedback gave it away, too.
On the day of the taping–Thursday, November 18, 1993–Kurt was blitzed. His drug issues were out of control and he’d been trying to come heroin. On top of the usual withdrawal symptoms were his chronic gastrointestinal issues. He hadn’t slept properly in weeks. In short, he was a mess.
Plus he was ultra-nervous about the gig. What we see and hear is Kurt on a shitload of Valium. Kurt was morose, unsmiling, zombie-like. People were genuinely concerned that the evening was going to be a disaster. Which makes this next bit all that more amazing.
Nirvana performed their Unplugged set in one take. Fourteen songs in about 54 minutes, all in a row, no breaks, no retakes. It was as close to perfect as anyone could ever get. (For reference it took Stone Temple Pilots more than four hours to record their Unplugged.)
Only one genuine hit made the cut: “Come As You Are.” “All Apologies” had just come out on In Utero a few months earlier but had yet to become the major hit that we know it today.
The last song in the set was a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Listen to how Kurt moves up an octave with the last line, taking the song to an astonishing emotional level. If you’ve seen the video, you’ll know that he opened his eyes and stared down the camera as his voice cracks with emotion.
There was no encore. The producers wanted one, but Kurt refused. “How am I gonna beat what I just did?” he said.
One hundred and thirty-nine days later, he’d be dead.
I remember being very, very angry when I heard Nirvana Unplugged for the first time when it was released on November 1, 1994. The world had spent seven months trying to come to terms with why Kurt did what he did. And suddenly, we were shown a master class in live performance. It was a band in their prime, light-years beyond so many of their contemporaries.
All I could think of the promise and the talent we lost with Kurt. Such a fantastic performer. Such a once-in-a-generation singer. Such a…well, you know.
A couple of random facts about the recording of this album:
- During rehearsals, Dave Grohl had a very hard time keeping his playing to an appropriate volume. It was only after an MTV producer gave him a set of brushes (wrapped in Christmas paper, no less) that the problem was solved. Dave had never played with brushes before that night.
- Krist Novoselic had never touched an acoustic bass guitar until just a few nights before the taping. He spent hours running over the basslines in “The Man Who Sold the World” because he was positive he was going to screw up.
- Kurt’s guitar was a Martin D-18E that he bought at Voltage Guitar in LA. It’s a rare model, one of only 302 ever made and built sometime in 1958 or 1959.
- That guitar that was at the centre of the lawsuit and bitter divorce of Frances Bean Cobain and Isaiah Silva. She had gifted to him as a wedding present and wanted it back after they broke up. The guitar finally came back to Frances’ possession in 2018.
- In 2015, the cardigan Kurt wore for the show was auctioned off for $137,500.
- “Serve the Servants,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Been a Son,” “Rape Me,” “Sliver,” and “Verse Chorus Verse” were all on the original setlist but dropped for time constraints.
- Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and model Kate Moss were in the audience that night.
- The fire marshal was panicky about the candles. There were extinguishers and sand onstage just in case something got tipped over and caught fire.
- At the send of the show, someone in the audience yelled “Free Bird!” The band then rolled into a few notes of “Sweet Home Alabama” instead.