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Nirvana taped their appearance on MTV Unplugged 20 years ago this week, resulting in the most memorable episode of that venerable franchise, as well as what's generally regarded as one of rock's best live albums ever. After Kurt Cobain died five months later, this unusually quiet turn for the band became even more beloved, as a sort of prophetic self-eulogy the mercurial rocker left his fans.
The band's appearance at Sony Studios in New York on Nov. 18, 1993 went down so smoothly that few could have guessed just how closely the show flirted with disaster, or what kind of turmoil had gone on between the scenes beforehand — between Cobain and MTV, Cobain and his bandmates, and Cobain and his own misery-wracked body. That they got through the show at all, let alone pulled off something that would turn into a 5-million-selling album, fell into the category of miracle.
Relations between Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl (later to be a star frontman in his own right, with the Foo Fighters) were not necessarily at their peak, for starters.
"I had this small cocktail drum set and these really light sticks," Grohl recalled to the A.V. Club in 2006. "In rehearsal, we would do a song, and Kurt would turn to me and say, 'Hey, do you think you could play it a little bit lighter?' 'Oh yeah, I'll try.' So we'd do another take, and he'd turn around and go, 'Could you bring it down just a little bit more?' And we'd do another take, and he'd say, 'You know what, just still, could you bring it down?' And I was like, 'Should I even f---ing be here?'"
The brass at MTV, meanwhile, freaked out when they learned Nirvana had no plans to include "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (although that shouldn't have been a surprise, since the group hadn't performed their signature hit on stage for nearly two years at that point). In its place, nearly half the setlist was made up of obscure cover songs.
"We got a setlist out of the band, and other than 'Come As You Are,' there are no real Nirvana hits," producer Alex Coletti remembered in a 1999 TV special about the taping. "I wish Kurt or someone in the band or management clued us into 'We put thought into this, this works this way, trust us.' Instead it was just [defiantly] 'This is what we’re doing.'...Not being familiar with some of the covers, some of the people here became very tense about 'We’ve got to get them to do more hits.'"
Coletti elaborated on the network's distress in a 1995 Guitar World article. "I said to MTV, They're going to bring some guests on.' And at first everybody's eyes lit up, like, ‘Who's it gonna be?’ They wanted to hear the 'right names' — Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos…But when I said 'the Meat Puppets,' it was kind of like, 'Oh, great. They're not doing any hits, and they're inviting guests who don't have any hits to come play. Perfect.'"
It got worse. The day before the taping, Cobain informed MTV he was pulling the plug on the taping altogether. "He did it just to get us worked up. He enjoyed that power," MTV's Amy Finnerty said in Charles R. Cross's Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven.
Cobain quickly reneged on his no-show threats. But the next day, when the band did a dress rehearsal a few hours before the real taping, it went so disastrously that MTV execs might've been wondering if he should have pulled the plug.
"We played the songs through a few times," said the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood, who joined Nirvana on stage for three Meat Puppets cover songs, "but never a rehearsal set. There was never any concerted practice." It showed. In the ominous dress rehearsal, they were never able to get through "Pennyroyal Tea" or their version of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" without a major flub aborting the tune.
It wasn't just laziness driving Cobain to distraction, but physical pain, from his gastrointestinal problems and withdrawal from heroin. "The morning of Unplugged, Kurt spent an hour filling out a physician's questionaire on his eating habits," Cross revealed, adding that Cobain had been "vomiting bile and blood."
MTV's panic grew when it was suggested that maybe someone could score some, uh, medicine for Cobain. Finnerty revealed to Cross: "They told me that 'he's not going to make it on the show if we don't help him out.' And I was like, 'I've never done heroin, and I don't know where to find it.'" He reportedly made it through the night with the mere help of some Valium.
There were other reasons for MTV to be nervous. Nirvana had done a fully electric taping for MTV in 1992, at the peak of their Nevermind-era hysteria, but Cobain had thought so little of it that he only authorized the network to air one song.
The band leader's cockiness wasn't winning much sympathy at MTV, until they began to realize that, for all his seeming arrogance, Cobain had a huge case of nerves about revealing himself in such a stripped-down setting. "He was terrified," production manager Jeff Mason told Cross. With Finnerty, Cobain even used the words "I'm scared."
During the dress rehearsal, Cobain says at one point, "Amy, can you sit in the front when we play? You and Janet and everyone I know? 'Cause I hate strangers." Without the raw power behind him, the preeminent rocker of the '90s was showing a timidity few had ever seen in him before.
"It was the first time in a long while I’d seen them all so nervous about doing something," the band's tour manager, Alex MacLeod, told Guitar World. "They were really nervous about doing Unplugged, because they were really leaving themselves wide open." It was out of that nervousness that Cobain made sure his wife, Courtney Love, and their infant daughter would not be at the studio. And nerves and a lack of prep aren't usually a good combination. "They were like 'Oh my God, we haven’t rehearsed enough. Oh s---, we're gonna blow this totally.'"
And then there was the tension between Cobain and Grohl over his playing. In general, Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2005, "There were times when Kurt was really unhappy with the way I played drums. I could hear him talking about how much he thought I sucked." This seemed to be coming to a head — or a drum head — as the band went through minimal rehearsals for Unplugged.
But out of the jaws of imminent defeat, victory was somehow snatched.
For one thing, Grohl — rock's greatest all-out basher since Keith Moon — had figured out how to play as quietly as Cobain wanted. MTV's Coletti had lent him a set of sizzle sticks as well as brushes, something that, amazingly, Grohl had never used in the place of normal drumsticks before. "We ran through a song, and Kurt's face lit up," the drummer told Rolling Stone. "Those sticks saved the entire show."
Another great save came when it came time to do "Pennyroyal Tea," the song the band had repeatedly messed up in the dress rehearsal. In the actual taping, Cobain asked aloud, "Am I doing this by myself or what?" To his eternal credit, Grohl answered, "Do it yourself." Though it hadn't been planned that way, that ended up being the one song that Cobain did solo, and it was magical.
Serendipity was on everyone's side that night. One thing was clear: If anything had gotten messed up, Cobain was not one to laugh with the audience and call for a retake.
"With most Unpluggeds," said Coletti, "we tend to run through the set, have a chat, and then do a few songs over again. But this was truly one take — every song, straight through, in one hour. We didn't have to change tapes, which is a rarity. Usually we have to stop and put up a second load of audio and video tapes to get the last few songs. But this was really tight — something like 56 minutes from start to finish."
Disputes between the band and the network did run right up through — and immediately after — the taping.
For one thing, as hard as it is now to imagine MTV taking a purist attitude toward music, at the time, they worried that it would be considered cheating that Cobain was using an electric amp. His guitar was technically an acoustic, but it was also really a hybrid — an exceedingly rare Martin D-18E, of which there were only 302 ever produced in 1958-9, with electric pickups and knobs. Cobain also relied on effects boxes that were definitely plugged in.
The amplifier was "Kurt's security blanket," Coletti told Guitar World. "Maybe I shouldn’t give this secret away, but I built a fake box out in front of the amp to make it look like a monitor wedge." MTV was oddly also distressed over Nirvana's cover of the Bowie song, because it was the one tune where the effects boxes made Cobain's guitar sound like the electric it wasn't. "I actually fought pretty hard to leave that song out," the producer admitted, "because I felt it wasn't as genuine as the rest of the songs." But, he added in an MTV special, "I [didn't want] to be the unplugged police… 'All right, I’m shutting up, let’s just do it.'"
The final mini-dispute came after the band left the stage. Coletti had everyone else in the band ready to do an encore, "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' [a cover of Leadbelly's morbid folk song 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night']. And when he said that, I backed off. 'Cause I knew he was right.”
Finnerty felt the same way: "When you saw the sight of his face brefore the last note, it was almost as if it was the last breath of life in him."
A couple of electric-sounding moments or no, this would be one of the more genuine, and revelatory, moments in Nirvana's too-short history. As Grohl told Rolling Stone: "We'd seen a lot of other bands do Unplugged tapings, and what they'd done was basically rock out the songs as if they were playing electric instruments. They didn't do anything to change the songs; they just basically plugged in acoustic guitars instead of electric ones. There was no way we were going to try to pull off 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' with f---ing acoustic guitars. It wouldn't work...I think Kurt wanted to bring it down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level, which was really fun. I think that's what made it so special; it wasn't just acoustic versions of Nevermind."
Bassist Krist Novoselic took a more kidding attitude about what the band was up to, telling MTV's cameras that the idea was "to show off our softer side — like scented toilet paper." Later, Novoselic said, seeming to damn with faint praise, "Doing MTV Unplugged was a lot of fun…It was a Nirvana triumph, but it's also Nirvana Lite. But it was cool that we managed to pull it off. At least I got to play my accordion."
When the album was released posthumously, critics couldn't help but note the literally funereal tone of some of the material. After all, as some pointed out, five of the six cover songs mentioned death. Entertainment Weekly critic David Browne gave an A grade to the album "on which Kurt Cobain turned his own music into a funeral dirge and, in doing so, perhaps acknowledged to himself for the first time that the songs weren't enough anymore."
The production design added to that atmosphere. That was all Cobain. "He did specify that he wanted star lilies, which are these big, white flowers," Coletti said in 1995, as well as the candles and heavy drapes. When Coletti asked if he really wanted it to look like a funeral, Cobain answered, "Yeah." "I don’t want to read too much into it, but that memory sure spooked me out a [few] months later."
In Cross's biography, Cobain is recalled as being glum after the taping — initially. Finnerty, the MTV producer, recalled him saying afterward that he was "a s---ty guitar player" and "No one liked it" and "They just sat there silently." There was a lot of assurance to go around, which Cobain wasn't buying. But as he was getting into his hotel elevator at the end of the night, he seemed, for a moment, to accept that he'd pulled it off, asking: "I was really f---ing good tonight, wasn’t I?"