The Great (Live) Albums: Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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MTV Unplugged in New York, Nirvana (1994, DGC)

What’s so great about punk rock? I’m being a little facetious, of course. Punk was (and is) an enormously important movement; a vital late edition to rock genre’s overall biodiversity, reenergizing the genre at a critical moment when it seemed in danger of slipping into permanent irrelevancy under Rick Wakeman’s 36-tiered keyboard stack. In fact, rock owes its entire second act to punk, arriving two decades into the music’s existence to re-center its fundamentals. Punk then evolved into the college rock of the 1980s, which then morphed into the alternative rock of the ‘90s—arguably rock’s final play as the gravitational center of youth culture.

But! How many natural-born pop savants have needlessly dashed themselves against the shoals in the name of punk? How many careers have been derailed—and lives ruined—by otherwise perfectly good mainstream rock artists in the pursuit of some sort of ill-defined idea of punk credibility? Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was, of course, the poster child for this sort thing. Cobain sucked at being a punk. His songs were too catchy, his artistic impulses were too unique, and (most of all) his band was simply way too fucking big. His suicide note said as much: that this ironic sense of failure played a critical part in his decision to blow his head off his head above a Seattle garage in April 1994, thus signaling the end of the rock era.

Speaking of raw talent, the great utility of MTV’s unkillable “Unplugged” format lay in its ability to showcase, unadorned, the strength of its participants’ songwriting and musicianship. On both counts, Nirvana’s set—recorded at NYC’s Sony Music Studios on November 18, 1993 and released after Cobain’s suicide nearly one year later, on November 1, 1994—confirms Cobain’s utter failure at being the unpalatable, unpopular, melodically-challenged underground curio he so desired to be. Nirvana was too classically great to be obscure.

Unlike my review of Alice in Chains, this time I went back and watched the actual broadcast of Nirvana’s Unplugged episode, which aired in December 1993—sorry to keep throwing dates at you, but I it’s important here to understand just what showed up when—which omits the album tracks “Something in the Way” and “Oh Me.” So in a very literal sense, the TV version of MTV Unplugged in New York and the CD version are altogether different projects: one has two extra songs, and the other exists as something you can actually watch onscreen.

But beyond that, there’s one other critical difference: one of these cultural products existed in the world before Cobain’s suicide, and the other didn’t. The frontman’s death recontextualizes the entire project—especially seeing as the Cobain’s stated desire for the overall vibe the telecast’s was to be a sort of funeral chic, complete with flower arrangements of stargazer lilies, black candles, and cool ethereal lighting.

 When editing this photo, my brain glitched for a second and I thought Kurt was wearing a 'Rick & Morty' shirt

When editing this photo, my brain glitched for a second and I thought Kurt was wearing a 'Rick & Morty' shirt

By the time of Unplugged, Nirvana’s lineup had expanded to include onetime Germs guitarist (and future Foo Fighter) Pat Smear. Cellist Lori Goldston also joins the band for about half the album—really, a good case could be made that Goldston is Unplugged in New York’s low-key MVP. Famously, the band was also joined by Kris and Curt Kirkwood for a three-song mini-set of Meat Puppets II covers: “Plateau,” “Oh Me,” and “Lake of Fire.” I actually don’t like Meat Puppets II all that much. But there’s something about Cobain’s narcotized drawl that lends the material just the right amount of laconic drama. “Plateau” especially really speaks to me. I’m not a musician myself, but if I were, Nirvana’s version of “Plateau” is the sort of art I’d aspire to make.

But the stealth Meat Puppets tribute EP hiding inside Unplugged’s Side Two isn’t an anomaly. The album’s other covers—David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” The Vaselines’ “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” and Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”—are what make this set truly special, roping in Cobain’s wide-ranging influences and perhaps even suggesting an unrealized second act for the rocker as a sort of murder-ballad grunge folkie. Cobain cheats a bit on “Man Who Sold the World,” adding a little plugged-in distortion to his guitar. But the overall effect is unimpeachable. For many, Nirvana now owns the song in much the same way that Johnny Cash annexed “Hurt” from Nice Inch Nails, and Limp Bizkit “Faith” from George Michael (okay, not really that last one—just checking to see if you’re still paying attention.)

MTV Unplugged in New York is as seminal a work as any of Nirvana’s three studio albums. It’s at once an end and a beginning. In a more generous alternate timeline, a sobered-up 50-year-old Kurt Cobain is getting ready to embark on yet another solo acoustic theater tour, looking back over his 25-year catalogue of transcendent lo-fi freak folk, trying to decide which three or four Nirvana numbers to throw into the setlist for old time’s sake—you know, for old school fans who never got over their punk rock bullshit.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)