Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged at 25: A bizarre phenomenon that epitomised the Nineties’ spirit

Nirvana were the last band on the planet one might expect to cuddle up to MTV. Ed Power looks at how the unlikely format provided breathing space for the tender subtleties of Kurt Cobain’s music

Saturday 26 October 2019 12:14 BST
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In bloom: Cobain during the taping of MTV Unplugged in 1993
In bloom: Cobain during the taping of MTV Unplugged in 1993

Rock’n’roll’s most famous scruffy cardigan is expected to fetch somewhere in the region of £200,000 when it goes up for auction shortly. To look at, there is little to distinguish the acrylic, mohair and Lycra blend knit from any other item of thrift-store comfort-wear. Aside from an iffy brown stain on the left pocket which, according to its current owner, smells of “chocolate or vomit”, it is perfectly unremarkable.

Dubious odours notwithstanding, the garment occupies an exalted place in popular music. It’s up there with Elvis’s rhinestone jumpsuit, Madonna’s cone-bra and Elton John’s duck outfit. Kurt Cobain wore it when he slouched on stage at Sony Music Studios in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, twice in the same evening on 18 November 1993 and recast from the ground-up the concept of acoustic rock.

The first performance was for a run through of that night’s hugely anticipated MTV Unplugged set. It was a stuttering rehearsal. Cobain told his drummer David Grohl – a little too sharply observers thought – he was singing out of tune. Cobain attempted “About a Girl” twice, complaining both times of feedback when he turned his head. “Pennyroyal Tea” was abandoned at half way.

Two-and-a-half hours later Nirvana returned for the live filming, the line-up again augmented by touring guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston. The accompanying 14-track MTV Unplugged in New York album was released 25 years ago this November. It stands tall as among rock’s great live documents.

Truly essential live albums capture a side of an artist that does not typically come through in their recorded work. Unplugged in New York achieves that and more. Not only did the hushed setting provide breathing space for the tender subtleties that lay behind the frontal assault of Cobain’s music. It also saw him position himself not as furious headbanger but as lonely bluesman.

That the interior of the Sony studio – since demolished to make way for luxury apartments – was decorated “like a funeral” accentuated the haunting qualities. Cobain would die by suicide six months later. Unplugged in New York is a haunting glimpse of where his future may have lain.

After his death, the cardigan was given to his family’s nanny, Jackie Farry. She reluctantly sold it at auction in 2014 to pay for medical expenses following a cancer diagnosis. That collector has now decided to put it under the hammer. On the quarter century anniversary of the release of the Unplugged album, it has undeniably earned its place in music’s sartorial hall of fame.

“Kurt wanted something that would break away from just the normal, dull TV set,” Nirvana’s tour manager Alex MacLeod told Guitar World in 2008. “He didn’t want it to look like just a bare stage. He had seen a lot of Unplugged shows before, and felt they weren’t really unplugged.”

“We’d seen the other Unplugged shows and didn’t like many of them,” Grohl agreed, talking to Rolling Stone. “Most bands would treat them like rock shows – play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.”

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MTV Unplugged was even at the time perceived as rather corporate and naff. For every knockout performance by Neil Young or 10,000 Maniacs, there was an artist taking advantage of the acoustic format to reduce their catalogue to saccharine and slush.

Examples included REM’s sappy 1991 session. Watched today it’s impossible to get past Michael Stipe’s oversized felt hat and the weird stool-shuffle he attempts halfway through “Pop Song 89”. Sorrier still was the turn by Eric Clapton. Bleeding all the sexual energy out of “Layla”, he reduced his signature moment to a toothless rocking-chair amble (bagging a boatload of Grammys for his troubles).

Nirvana were the last band on the planet one might expect to cuddle up to MTV. It’s no secret that in private Cobain was a good deal more ambitious than his nonconformist public persona suggested. He would ring up his record label and management demanding to know why his band’s videos were not receiving heavier rotation. Nonetheless Nirvana were the face of anti-corporate rock. And they had a patchy history with MTV, having very nearly derailed the 1992 Music Video Awards in Los Angeles.

Nirvana had declined MTV’s invitation to bash out mega-hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Instead they offered to perform “Rape Me”. That was vetoed. Nirvana went ahead and played it anyway in rehearsal. During the broadcast proper, MTV producers in the control booth were prepped to cut to an ad break should Cobain and company repeat the stunt. It seemed they were about to Cobain strummed the opening to “Rape Me”. But before MTV had a chance to kill the feed, he segued into the riff from “Lithium”.

Kurt Cobain performing during the 1992 MTV Music Awards

The performance ended with bassist Krist Novoselic nearly poleaxing himself throwing his instrument in the air. Next Grohl ran up to the mic and shouted “Hi, Axl! Where’s Axl?” This was in reference to a simmering feud between the titans of hair metal and their grunge usurpers. A fight had earlier threatened to break out backstage between Cobain and his wife Courtney Love on one side and Axl Rose and his security on the either.

In revenge, as the spotlight dimmed and the stricken Novoselic staggered away, Cobain descended into the stage pit where Rose’s piano was prepped and waiting. He gobbed all over the keys. Later, perhaps as retaliation, Guns ‘n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan tried to beat up his Nirvana opposite number, Novoselic. All told, it was a lively evening. MTV must have wondered if they wanted to bring it on themselves all over again.

The Unplugged format itself was an unlikely phenomenon. First broadcast in November 1989, the show had been loosely inspired by an acoustic set Bon Jovi had tacked on at the end of the 1988 world tour. Jim Burns and Robert Small, the Unplugged producers, wanted to transpose to MTV the earthy energy Bon Jovi had brought when he adjusted his mullet and whipped out his acoustic guitar.

They started modestly. The first broadcast featuring Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook and Cars guitarist Elliot Easton. The format soon caught on, though. By season two stars were clamouring to appear. Paul McCartney was one of the first to see the slot’s potential. In the car back from his 1991 Unplugged taping he had his producer play the recording and decided there and then to release it as an album. Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) reached seven in the UK charts and gave Macca his biggest hit in America in over a decade.

Cobain never publicly explaining why he had agreed to do Unplugged. One reason may have been loyalty to MTV producer Amy Finnerty. Aged just 20 she had championed Nirvana when they were an unheralded indie band, pushing her reluctant bosses to play the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

Ego may also have played in his willingness to participate in what was the very definition of a corporate rock dog-and-pony show. Cobain was known to be disgruntled at being regarded as a screamer rather than a songwriter.

The sense that he had somehow been slighted by the world was catalysed when, on the road touring Nevermind, he read a magazine article lauding his Seattle rival Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam as an outstanding lyricist and arranger. He put the publication down and squinted into the middle distance. Why wasn’t anyone writing that about him?

Still, Nirvana were only ever going to play by their own rules. MTV producers were thrilled when the band revealed their plans to feature guest performers. Eddie Vedder and Tori Amos were MTV’s preferences. Nirvana wanted Meat Puppets, an obscure Phoenix, Arizona outfit Nirvana had fallen in love with during the making of their debut, Bleach.

There would be cover versions, too: of little-known Glaswegians The Vaselines and of David Bowie. The latter must have seemed especially alarming to MTV. Back then, Bowie was still regarded as a sort of super-naff crazy uncle to Phil Collins. It is hard to convey just how uncool he still was in the early Nineties. Cobain was taking a risk referencing the tall-haired family entertainer from Labyrinth. Later, it would be noted that of the six covers performed, five mentioned death.

Cobain was a bundle of jitters before the taping. In rehearsals, he shouted out to Amy Finnerty, asking that she and her friends sit up front during the performance proper. He was anxious and wanted to gaze out at some supportive faces. Nirvana’s tilt at Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” had stuttered ominously. And then there were the technical complications with “Pennyroyal Tea” and “About a Girl”, which Cobain tried twice before abandoning.

The major worry for MTV producers meanwhile was that Cobain was skimping on the hits. As at the VMAs, Nirvana had ruled out reprising “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. They were amenable to dusting down “Come As You Are”. But that was it as far as smashes went. Up in the sound booth, producer Scott Litt was taken aside by panicked MTV executives and asked if he could “get more hit songs” out of the band.

So there was real nervousness, on stage and off, as New York members of the Nirvana fan club filed in and took their front-row seats (so much for Kurt’s hopes of seeing Finnerty and her friends). Yet nerves brought out something Cobain, whose performance is both steely and charmingly loose. “The Man Who Sold the World”, for instance, would have not been half as moving had he not preceded it by stating “I guarantee you I will screw this song up”.

He meant it too, having done just that in rehearsal. Disorganisation similar raises its head going into “Pennyroyal Tea”. “Am I doing this by myself or what?” Cobain asks. “Do it yourself,” Dave Grohl responds. They’re making it up as they go. All these decades on seeing Kurt and the gang fly by the seat of their trousers still warms the cockles.

Even more stunning was the closing performance of Lead Belly’s arrangement of the old folk dirge “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The song is about being adrift in an uncaring world. Cobain seems to burn out his vocal chords singing. As applause echoed around the tiny studio, the band went backstage where MTV producer Alex Coletti was waiting to beg for an encore.

“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.”

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