Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York was never meant to be a big deal. It was a lark, an afterthought, something recorded in roughly an hour that the band didn’t plan to release. It was ultimately Nirvana’s final album, giving fans one of the most unbelievable Kurt Cobain performances, as well as a strange foreshadowing of Cobain’s death. In hindsight, the show mirrors Cobain’s life, one that was tried by depression and addiction.
The performance, recorded on November 18, 1993, has been called “personal” and “raw,” but it’s really just Nirvana doing what they do best. The band, their friends, and producers for MTV have spoken at length about the concert and they’ve noted that while the band was falling apart at the time, they were having a blast. They were tired of playing the hits and they wanted to give their fans something special.
After Cobain’s death, the Unplugged album took on the grim tone of a funeral – each song was suddenly a dirge that signaled the singer’s fate. Of course, that was never the case. No one in Nirvana knew that Cobain would take his life only a few months later, but it’s the way audiences contextualized the recording. The narrative that Nirvana’s Unplugged album is “Kurt Cobain’s final goodbye” is too suggestive and hyperbolic, but the stories behind the filming provide a new and interesting lens through which the performance can be seen. In the weeks leading up to the show, the band was breaking up, producers were freaking out, and Cobain was doing his best to stay clean. The stories behind the album won’t change the way it sounds, or the way it makes you feel, but they do add a new layer of meaning to the performance.
In a 2015 interview with KNKX, Kurt Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross dropped some very heavy info on the audience, specifically that Cobain was allegedly still using at the time of the recording and that he was suffering from withdrawal prior to performing. The author explains that Cobain was very sickjust prior to the show and he was “struggling that day with withdrawals.” He was reportedly throwing up backstage and spent most of the pre-show lying on a sofa.
Cross claims that “someone from MTV” bought Cobain benzodiazepines to help soothe his symptoms, and that “MTV on their dime went and bought drugs from a corrupt pharmacist so Kurt could go onstage and perform.”
Dave Grohl once said that it’s not important if “drums stand out to people,” but rather that they sound“like a big bomb going off.” That’s an awesome approach when you’re touring with acts like Dinosaur Jr. and the Melvins, but it’s not so great for playing an acoustic show. Throughout rehearsals for Unplugged, everyone – producers, managers, Kurt Cobain – was unsure about whether or not Grohl would be able to play softly.
Producer Alex Coletti said that he had to gently nudge Grohl towards playing with a pair of swizzle sticks to keep him from drumming too hard:
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.
In the end, Coletti gave the sticks to Grohl in Christmas wrapping paper in an effort to not offend the rock star.
According to Kurt Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross, prior to recording Unplugged, the band was falling apart at the seams. Not only were the pressures of fame weighing on them, but Cobain was renegotiating the group’s publishing so he could get a bigger cut of the royalties. Cross told KNKX, “This was in many ways the end of Nirvana as people thought of Nirvana.” After telling the band he wanted a bigger cut of new and previous songs, the band more or less broke up.
Cross encapsulated the show by saying, “The truth was that Nirvana was essentially over by the end of 1993 anyways.”
In spite of keeping a cool head on stage, Dave Grohl admitted years later that he thought the Unplugged show was going to go down in flames. Grohl said that even though the show “became one of the band’s most memorable,” it was “supposed to be a disaster.” Not only was the band unprepared for the success, they were also fully unaware of how to perform in an acoustic setting. Grohl said, “We hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible.”
The set never came together, but they decided to go on with the show anyway: “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.”
You don’t have to be a gearhead to realize Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York is hardly “unplugged.” Everyone used acoustic guitars, and Kurt Cobain’s guitar, a Martin D-18E, was outfitted with electric pickups as well as a tone and volume knob. He also ran the guitar through a few different effects pedals, which can most notably be heard on the band’s cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.” All of that was run through an amp (either a ‘60s Twin Reverb or Bassman) that the production team actually hid on stage.
Producer Alex Coletti discussed the nightmare that this created for MTV, who at the time really thought that the acoustic aspect of the show – as opposed to the big name acts – was driving viewership:
I guess it was [the guitar tech] Earnie, saying, “Look, he really wants his Fender amp on stage.” And I was like, “Dude, it’s Unplugged.” And he was like, “Oh, but his reverb…” And I said, “We have all those effects. I can give him what he wants.” But I saw it was an issue.
The production staff finally built a case for the amp that made it look like a monitor, and it’s incredibly hard to spot even after knowing it’s there.
An interesting piece of Nirvana lore is how close Kurt Cobain was with comedian and director Bobcat Goldthwait. The two were so close that Goldthwait was backstage at the show to hang out with Cobain and help him deal with the pressure of the show.
Peter Baron from Geffen Records said that he walked “into the sort of green room or whatever it was, and Kurt was sitting there with Bobcat Goldthwait, like literally together,” to which Goldthwait added, “I definitely did feel often that it would just be him and I, kind of a little bit of padding between him and the world.”
The executives behind Unplugged thought Nirvana would bring along Seattle rock royalty to the show. According to the producers, when Kurt Cobain said he was going to have musical guests, everyone expected Eddie Vedder to show up and duet with the band. Director Beth McCarthy-Miller said, “[MTV] thought a tour bus was going to roll in from Seattle” and drop off Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and the guys from Alice in Chains. Instead, Cobain brought along the Meat Puppets, a band that Nirvana was touring with at the time.
Cobain biographer Chris R. Cross expounded on the miscommunication in an interview with KNKX:
[MTV] literally thought that Kurt would bring Eddie Vedder… Chris Cornell, and Layne Stayley on and they would all do Temple of the Dog or who knows, but that’s what MTV wanted with this, and what Kurt did instead was brought his two friends instead.
The show may have been immortalized as a serious piece of art and the perfect finale for Nirvana, but at the time of filming everyone was fairly laid back. According to people at the show, the only time the band was really stressed was right before they played, but they settled into a groove after the first song and the show was a lot of fun.
Journalist Gillian Gaar, who was in attendance for the performance said, “In the TV edit, it just seems more somber and serious, but in between [songs] you could see them laughing and making jokes.” Comedian and director Bobcat Goldthwait agreed, saying, “I remember during that show, [Kurt Cobain] was funny, cracking jokes. Someone yelled out ‘Free Bird,’ and they did [a few notes of] ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ which is kind of meta.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the performance is how much it avoided the hits. Aside from “Come As You Are,” there aren’t any singles in the setlist, and that’s the way the band wanted it.
Nirvana crafted the set to not only avoid their biggest hits but so it would have an elegant flow. Musically, the band took chances, adding a cellist, changing the arrangement of “Pennyroyal Tea,” and performing six cover songs – five of which were essentially unknown to broader audiences.
Throughout the set, Kurt Cobain made sure to stay away from anything that made the performance sound too polished. This is especially noticeable on songs like “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “All Apologies.”
The raw sound of “All Apologies” comes from Cobain struggling to reach for many of the notes in the song. Initially, producers asked if the band wanted to change the key of the song or if Cobain wanted to use a capo (a tool that raises the pitch of a guitar), but Cobain said that he wanted to reach for the notes.
Producer Alex Coletti told MTV, “He wanted to strain on a couple of those notes and that’s the way he wanted it to sound.”
After the band finished filming, Kurt Cobain went to the control room with the producers to watch the performance. Some of the producers thought this was “nerve-wracking,” but he was actually pleased with the performance.
The only request Cobain made was that they keep in a shot of him smiling at the end. In a retrospective of the performance, director Beth McCarthy-Miller explained, “He said, ‘There’s a song that at the end I smile, and my manager told me to smile more so can you please put that shot in the show.'”
The producers thought Cobain was kidding, but they made sure to keep the shot in the final edit.
Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets recalled Kurt Cobain asking him and his brother to play with the group for the Unplugged show basically while they were hanging out backstage on tour:
I was talking to Kurt backstage at one of the shows; I forget where. He was just saying what they were going to go do [Unplugged] and they wanted to do three of our songs and just asked us real simply if Cris and I would like to come up and do the guitar stuff on them…
I was just part of the audience up until our part. Then I knew when I was supposed to go on. We had done a live rehearsal there at the stage before. It wasn’t a real big place; it’s pretty intimate. Everybody there knew why they were there – it wasn’t like anybody had to be sold. By the time we got on it was a really good show. It was just going great so it was pretty normal.
Nirvana’s Unplugged performance is a perfect encapsulation of the band at their breaking point in 1993. Nirvana played 14 songs, but the producers wanted a little more from the band. After Kurt Cobain’s heartbreaking rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the singer walked off stage and was met with requests for an encore. He declined, feeling he had left everything on the stage.
Producer Alex Coletti says he threw out suggests of random B-sides to Cobain like “Marigold” and “Verse Chorus Verse,” but Cobain simply answered, “I don’t think we can top that last song.” And that was that.
Because this performance was outside the norm for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain was incredibly nervous about the show. Life was weighing down on him, and putting on an acoustic performance for the first time only added pressure.
While the audience was filled with fans both regular and celebrity (Kate Moss was allegedly in attendance), Cobain made sure people he knew were sitting in the front row. Amy Finnerty, the former VP of talent at MTV, told The Ringer, “In the rehearsals, he was like, ‘Can you sit up front? Can you make sure [manager] Janet [Billig Rich] and all of our friends are up front so I can just look at you guys so I won’t be nervous?'”
The sets for Unplugged performances are simple, basic even. They’re meant to symbolize the artists, stripped down to their very core. Pearl Jam performed in front of velvet curtains, and Alice in Chains illuminated their stage with purple lights. That’s not what Nirvana wanted, and Kurt Cobain made sure that his set had a vibe all to itself. When speaking with producers for the show, Cobain insisted that the stage should be covered in flowers and candles.
In an MTV retrospective, producer Alex Coletti explained, “The set was a conversation with Kurt. He asked for stargazer lilies, he thought that would be nice. I went up to see Kurt in Massachusetts, I showed him the drawings and he said, ‘I need more flowers and candles.’ I said, ‘like a funeral?’ And he said, ‘Yeah like a funeral.'”
Production designer Tom McPhillips told The Ringer that Cobain’s wish for specific flowers created a unique problem:
Well, where do you get stargazer lilies that time of year? We managed to find a couple of places that had them, but we couldn’t really get them in quantity. And they were really, really expensive. So I managed to find locally, [where I was based] in Pennsylvania, [a company that made] a kind of fabric flower, and they did stargazer lilies. So I had bunches of those. It was a mix of real and artificial flowers – real lilies for the foreground, artificial to fill in further back.
While every other member of Nirvana sat on a large wooden stool straight out of a coffee house for Unplugged, Kurt Cobain was on an office chair. At the last minute, Cobain decided to grab a chair from the control room so he could be more comfortable. Producer Alex Coletti said:
I remember Kurt, he wasn’t happy with the stool, so he came into the control room and grabbed an office chair and wheeled it out, and said, “I’m gonna use this.” And we said, “OK. It’s not the best-looking chair, but if it makes you happy.”