‘Fuck you all, this is the last song of the evening’…
…and with this caustic phrase, Kurt Cobain introduces Nirvana’s cover of Lead Belly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. The audience laughs but remains fascinated. To some of us, watching these moments on YouTube is both distressing and bittersweet, since we know that the intense blue of Kurt’s eyes is now lost to eternity.
I believe that certain topics in music history are very difficult to examine, particularly when the legend overshadows the facts, or clichés threaten to completely engulf reality. The trajectory of Nirvana from the murky depths of grunge to rock stars is one such subject. It’s made even more problematic by the fact that, at a personal level, Cobain’s music had a powerful impact on my vision of the world and on how I relate to people. In a very strange way, his tormented life is on my mind again; a life that is emblematic of the artist as an uncompromising and frequently misunderstood individual. Cobain was, if anything, an absorbing paradox: simultaneously courting and rejecting stardom; tentatively welcoming his status as a spokesman for a whole generation of frustrated youngsters, but consciously attempting to shed his casual fans after Nevermind made Nirvana an unexpected success story of the alternative scene; a gifted songwriter whose personal issues eventually got the best of him; and last but not least, a figure fighting for indie credentials who was also in love with pop music.
Talking about MTV Unplugged in New York in 2017 is a challenging task, largely because of the almost automatic association with Cobain’s death in the spring of 1994. The bleak setting of this now-famous Unplugged session certainly didn’t make things any easier for those who attended it or watched it in their homes: the use of candles, red curtains and flowers had all the poignancy of a mock funeral, convincing people of the reality of Kurt’s mental instability and his depression; yet how many could have predicted that he would take his own life only a few months later? Perhaps it is the wrong question to ask. What is more important to me is to focus not on his passing, but on the beauty of his short existence as a guiding light which shone all too briefly, however painful that may seem in retrospect. The echoes of his suicide can still be heard, but I must press on.
If we stop and think about MTV Unplugged in New York simply as another step for Nirvana, it becomes quite clear that Kurt intended it as a concert which was meant to showcase his talents and his maturity in an unadulterated fashion, away from the distortion and noise of In Utero or the punky catchiness of Nevermind. The arrangements are stripped down, and the acoustic versions of compositions like ‘About a Girl’, ‘Come as You Are’ or ‘On a Plain’ are typically much more haunting than anything on the original records because the textures do a wonderful job of emphasizing Cobain’s sombre lyrics and hopelessness. Between songs, Kurt jokes around and taunts the audience, although a pervasive feeling of sadness can be extracted from the tone of his voice. Scruffily dressed, he maintains a high degree of sobriety and witty cynicism, but occasionally he appears to be lost in deep thought, as if nothing could contain his anguish.
Against all expectations, the core of MTV Unplugged in New York is represented by the six covers that Nirvana selected to play, as well as a conspicuous lack of major hits. The covers say more about Kurt and his passions than his own creative output, as the choices forcefully reflect his appreciation for numerous other artists which were mentioned many times in interviews. The renditions of Meat Puppets’ ‘Plateau’, ‘Oh, Me’, and ‘Lake of Fire’, guest starring band members Curt and Cris Kirkwood, are nothing short of bewitching; the pensive lament of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, originally a David Bowie track, is so consuming and heart-wrenching that it’s hard not to get teary-eyed; on The Vaselines’ ‘Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam’, the spectres of self-loathing and religious scepticism hang above every chord; lastly, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ is possibly Nirvana’s most memorable live performance, with Cobain’s tortured vocals and eerie stare enduring to this very day.
To quote music critic Robert Christgau, ‘Not only did Kurt Cobain transcend alt-rock by rocking so hard, he transcended alt-rock by feeling so deep’ . If Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero are mostly about rocking, then this album is all about Kurt Cobain’s honesty, vulnerability, and sensitive spirit. MTV Unplugged in New York is an inadvertent self-epitaph to a beautiful soul who was, in many ways, too real for this world and too troubled to overcome his suffering, and nowhere else is he as brutally genuine and as exposed as he is here. Only one other Unplugged session manages to connect with me so intimately, and that is Alice in Chains’ concert of 1996. The fact that Kurt is no longer with us, of course, makes the record unbearably hard to listen to, these lines hard to write, and my evaluation nearly impossible to dissociate from his harrowing absence – after all, we are only human and we tend to get carried away by emotions and irrationality. Maybe his death is all the more reason to remember Nirvana and to quietly celebrate Kurt’s amazing life and the purifying nature of his music.
‘We passed upon the stair’…
*Note: MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded and aired on cable television in late 1993. After Cobain’s death, it was released as an album in November 1994.
 https://www.robertchristgau.com/get_album.php?id=2588, accessed 5 May 2017.
- About a Girl
- Come as You Are
- Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam
- The Man Who Sold the World
- Pennyroyal Tea
- On a Plain
- Something in the Way
- Oh, Me
- Lake of Fire
- All Apologies
- Where Did You Sleep Last Night
Text by Vlad Nicu
Picture research by Juliey Pham; featured image from jackseattle.cbslocal.com.