The final months of Kurt Cobain's life were chaotic to say the least, but in the midst of it all, the singer and his band Nirvana delivered a poignant and beloved live performance that proved to be one of their most popular releases. That would be the band's MTV Unplugged performance, recorded in November 1993, that would eventually be released on Nov. 1, 1994, in the aftermath of Cobain's death.
At the time, Nirvana had seen their popularity reach new heights and the band had become one of the most familiar faces on the music video network thanks to videos like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Come as You Are," "In Bloom" and "Heart-Shaped Box." At the same time, MTV had spawned one of the most popular music showcases of the day with their MTV Unplugged series, showcasing some of the biggest acts performing their songs in an acoustic setting.
Nirvana, who had released their In Utero album just two months prior to the taping, had been pursued by the network for what would definitely be considered a coup for the show. But the band wasn't exactly keen on replicating what had been done by others before. As Dave Grohl stated, "We'd seen the other Unpluggeds and didn't like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows -- play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars." Instead the band looked at Mark Lanegan's 1990 album The Winding Sheet as a source of inspiration. The disc featured a more stripped back sound and it should be noted that both Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic made guest appearances on the Lanegan disc.
Unlike a lot of their peers, Nirvana didn't view this as a "greatest hits" show, instead opting to go deeper in choosing cuts and including a number of cover songs, something that didn't exactly sit well with the network. Among the set list, only "Come As You Are" could be considered a major hit for the band.
Speaking of covers, three of those belonged to the Meat Puppets, whom Nirvana had been touring with just prior to the taping. Cris and Curt Kirwook joined the band for performances of "Plateau," "Oh, Me," and "Lake of Fire," the latter of which would receive plenty of play in the aftermath of the airing. Producer Alex Coletti told Guitar World, "[The network] wanted to hear the 'right' names -- Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who."
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Curt Kirkwood was asked about the band's influence on Nirvana. He stated, "We'll never know how much influence we had on Kurt because we can't ask him that.
We can ask Krist Novoselic, I guess. Musically -- by the time we heard them -- we were too far gone into our own thing. I think they immediately warmed my heart because I immediately felt some sort of spiritual kinship. They were one of the only bands I'd seen since the Butthole Surfers that I really felt was in the same ballpark as us nihilistically and aesthetically and spiritually."
Other covers included David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," which would serve as a single from the album release, Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," which closed out the set, and a re-titled "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam," which was initially done by The Vaselines.
As for the Lead Belly cover, the song dated back for Cobain to the aforementioned Mark Lanegan disc The Winding Sheet. According to the New York Times, the two musicians bonded over the original song that Lead Belly recorded in 1944 and Cobain played guitar on Lanegan's version. When it came time to do the MTV Unplugged special and feeling the spirit of the moment, the band closed out their show with their memorable rendition of the song.
The road to the taping did prove to provide many challenges. The band dedicated two days to rehearsing for the show and reportedly were not happy with Dave Grohl's drum sound. “What I didn’t know was up until the day [of the Unplugged performance], there was talk of Dave [Grohl] not playing at all in the show,” Coletti remembered. “Kurt wasn’t happy with the way rehearsals were going; he didn’t like the way Dave sounded playing drums with sticks … He’s a heavy hitter, and the thing about Unplugged, especially with rock bands, is if the drummer doesn’t really, really get it under control and tries to play a rock show on a smaller kit, then it brings the show to a bad-sounding electric show instead of a good-sounding acoustic show.” Eventually, Coletti sent a production assistant to a local Sam Ash to get Grohl some wire brushes and sizzle sticks, which proved to do the trick.
Cobain was also nervous about the performance, fretting over everything from the sound to the look. Coletti recalls, "The set was a conversation with Kurt. He asked for stargazer lilies and when I went up to see Kurt and showed him the drawings, he said, 'I need more flowers and candles.' I said, 'Like a funeral?' He said, 'Exactly, like a funeral.'" In Charles Cross' bio about Cobain, one observer stated about the show that at one point the singer was refusing to play. He added, "There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him ... Therefore, everyone was more than a little worried about his performance."
But the worry was for naught as Nirvana pulled together one of the more memorable live performances in music history with the show. The lineup featured the familiar Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl, bolstered with touring guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston. The show opened with a beautifully reserved version of "About a Girl" from the band's Bleach album. The song was a key turning point in defining Nirvana's sound early in their career and it's pop-leaning influence set the tone for what was to come. When the Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York was released a year after the performance, "About a Girl" got the first nod as a single.
"All Apologies," which was recorded for the In Utero album and was initially released as a double-A side with "Rape Me," is probably better known for the MTV Unplugged version, which dominated the MTV airwaves in the aftermath of Cobain's death. The song was nominated for Best Rock Performance By a Duo or Group and Best Rock Song Grammy Awards in 1995. "The Man Who Sold the World," "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" and "Lake of Fire" also generated plenty of attention off the disc.
Cobain would die on April 8, 1994, just five months after the recording of the MTV Unplugged special. Initially, DGC asked for something they could release to combat bootlegs flooding the market. The band intended to release a double album featuring live performances from throughout their career with the addition of the MTV Unplugged special. But after having trouble emotionally investing themselves in the project, the surviving members opted instead to just release the Unplugged performance, turning it over to producer Scott Litt to oversee the record.
On Nov. 1, 1994, the album was released, immediately debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. The disc would go on to be certified 5 times platinum and has universally been considered one of the greatest live albums of all-time. Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York would also win the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996 and the DVD would be released in 2007.
"I think it's a really important performance for Nirvana fans because I think it showed another side to them that unfortunately we never got to see again," concluded MTV Unplugged director Beth McCarthy-Miller.