Disquiet: MTV Unplugged in New York


Earlier today we focused on the subject of Nirvana cover songs and pointed out that in 1993 there were two performances strongly dependent on cover songs; Sao Paolo and then MTV Unplugged in New York. The latter show is, of course, a triumph — it’s funny, beautifully performed, featuring some of the vocal performances for which Cobain will always be known. It also led to the CD release which is the Nirvana album that anyone who doesn’t really like rock music has in their collection. The quality of what took place on stage is undeniable and I have no wish to deny it, I love the performance same as anyone else.

…But. I don’t wish to be a killjoy but all the talk of how the band ‘wanted to do something different’, or how ‘most Nirvana songs don’t really sound good acoustically’ feels a little like press statements to put a positive gloss on what occurred. Six of fourteen songs performed were covers, there’s no reason at all why the band couldn’t have worked over their extensive catalogue and brought a few more originals to the blend. The With the Lights Out box-set indicated that a surprising number of the late era Nirvana songs started off as acoustic tracks, so did Sappy, while other songs had been attempted in acoustic format at one point or another (see LiveNirvana’s guide to Rehearsals to see the band trying to work out songs acoustically in July 1993.) With that in mind it wasn’t that the Nirvana catalogue couldn’t be adapted…It was that they weren’t willing to take the time required to do so.

Instead, Nirvana played every single acoustic, or at least QUIET, song they ever placed on an album; there was nothing left unless they wanted to do some more work — a handwritten set-list mentioned at NirvanaGuide.com states Marigold and Old Age were also under consideration just one day before the band were due on stage, apparently Been a Son was considered. The band went on stage nervous about a lack of practice and comments, for example by the Kirkwood brothers, indicate Kurt was hardly a meticulous attendee at the rehearsals, nor a sober one. The last-minute nature of their practicing doesn’t indicate an enthusiastic desire to engage with the performance.

The band clearly didn’t put deep thought into the shows. The Meat Puppets toured with Nirvana for seven shows in late October-early November so their inclusion seems to have been dreamt up on the spot during the negotiations with MTV, barely a few weeks before it took place. Their three songs in the Unplugged set are beautiful, and gorgeously performed, but there’s genuinely no reason to speak of them as anything more than rock star level karaoke on a batch of tracks Cobain had known for years and with guests handling the instruments. Likewise the claim that the acoustic format meant they couldn’t play most Nirvana songs is belied by the fact that Nirvana’s performance was quite clearly amplified (particularly on The Man Who Sold the World) so it’s not like they couldn’t airbrush some volume over their songs.

The band added precisely one new song — The Man Who Sold the World — during their preparation for the show. Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam and Where Did You Sleep Last Night had been honed and perfected years before. While a revelation for audiences who hadn’t witnessed those songs, for the band there was little fresh or new about what they did on stage. Though I’m happy to give credit to the band’s explanation that they wanted to ‘break the mould’ of the MTV Unplugged series, I’m still unsure that it truly explains why the band could barely pull eight originals, all predictable choices long practiced as acoustic or semi-acoustic renditions, together. Plus, the series had only commenced in November 1993 so why did it require ‘its mould’ breaking? Surely Springsteen’s all electric performance the next year was far more daring? If they’d been willing to practice they could have adapted a few more originals. Kurt’s refusal to play an encore, explained by how well he’d done on Where Did You Sleep Last Night, could just as readily be about the fact that there was nothing else that they had bothered trying.

Rather than seeing Unplugged as ‘the Phoenix rising from the ashes’ one last time, perhaps look at the show as very much apiece with the overall trajectory of Nirvana in 1993-1994. The concert featured no new originals — neither did any of the sixty shows from October onward. There was an unwillingness to practice or dedicate time to the band — precisely as Kurt exhibited at their studio visits from 1992 onward, he was going through the motions and doing the minimum required. The band only played one cover that wasn’t long perfected — just like their voracious appetite for on-stage covers collapsed after 1991. The band resisted playing their best songs — just as they tried to avoid Nevermind’s core songs in their final radio performances in 1991 or tried to insert Rape Me into the 1992 VMAs.

I think what we’re seeing is a far more curmudgeonly set of decisions taking place; firstly, to stubbornly refuse to give MTV even a sniff of a hit; secondly, a refusal to spend time working hard on music prior to the show; thirdly, a lack of desire to spend time on Nirvana or creating music as a band. The deliberately funereal stage decoration has been commented on before but I think it was a very stark and deliberate comment by Cobain, who had a tendency to incorporate art and other creative elements as self-expression. Nirvana really was dying by November 1993 and he knew it. MTV Unplugged in New York came wrapped in songs mentioning death, dressed as death, wreathed in bad vibes amongst the band itself…The show was a quiet death.


8 thoughts on “Disquiet: MTV Unplugged in New York”

  1. Disagree a bit . The MTV Unplugged series had been going from 1990
    The ‘funeral’ like setting was often mentioned by likes of Charles Cross but IMO is vast overanalysis and hinsight – nearly all MTV Unplugged sets had same similar set design. Kurt asked for a few lillies – big deal.
    Kurt Cobain killed himself 6 months after the Unplugged not a few weeks later.

    They did play some Nirvana ‘hits’ – Come As You Are.
    Nevermind wasn’t deliberately ignored – Come As You Are , Something In The Way , On A Plain , Polly were played- that is a third of the album.
    All Apologies was a ‘new’ song then (to most) with In Utero only just out a month and All Aplogies still had yet to been released as a single when Unplugged first aired.

    They would have been silly to play the likes of Smells Like Teen Spirit acoustically.

    Having Meat Puppets on was surely just Kurt trying to big up other bands again that he liked and they did 3 great covers of theirs. He listed their number II album as one his favourite albums of alltime so i think its bit disgenuous to refer to cover as karoke.

    1. Heh! That’s the thing, I agree with you too. Think of this more as a thought experiment, an alternative to the triumphant narrative writen around this performance.

      And, as was pointed out to me by a gentleman on LiveNirvana the other week, Kurt’s first suicide attempt (with note) apparently came in December 1993 and is described (and given some corroboration) in Mark Yarm’s book on the Seattle scene…Intriguing…

      May I wish you a Merry Christmas at this point? 🙂 Time for me to go!

    2. Not to mention that Curt Kirkwood isn’t much of a vocalist, but not in that Bob Dylan kind of challenging way. Meat Puppets vocals are astonishingly weak compared to the music. KC finally did those songs justice.

  2. in retrospect i agree with the blog, you raised some good points and i’m always the first one to bash the In Utero tour for being dull and half hearted, the only show i really enjoy is 2/21/94 which has some inspired playing and a brilliant feedback solo during in bloom, but like all late shows the setlist is as dull as ditchwater. i just wish Kurt had cared enough to tear up the setlist like in 91/92 or the Brazil shows, would it have killed him to open a show with Mollys lips or Spank thru (to pick a random example)? too many of the IU shows feel like a contractual obligation

    the rot seemed to set in after IU was recorded for reasons that don’t need repeating here. Kurt can hardly hold the strings to the fretboard at some points on unplugged- On a plain is the obvious one.
    i really hope that 8/6/93 surfaces and proves me wrong with a stunning performance

    anyway i know i’m moaning but its Nirvanas fault for setting such high standards in 91/92!
    for me Rio is the last truly great nirvana show thats available for examination

  3. Any thoughts about the “meaning” of the attempt to perform Pennyroyal Tea a full step lower (Key of G minor), with Pat harmony vocals? They rehearsed it this way, and ended up having Pat give the guitar to Dave. (This is what Kurt meant by “trying it in a normal key” and “am I going to do it by myself?” as it was on the Unplugged performance itself.)

    I guess the simple meaning is just that they tried something different, and he decided it didn’t work. But I actually think that it was an interesting performance.

    I also found it interesting that they didn’t attempt to use guitars tuned down, that the plan was to actually play the song using chording positions that KC wasn’t used to. Seems highly risky to me which, maybe, is why in the end they didn’t do it. But it would have been so simple, really, for them to use another guitar tuned down and then he could have played it exactly as he was used to.

  4. His vocals. On the In Utero they weren’t very good, he sang in a different style, much deeper. They played all the earlier material tuned down a half step, the In Utero tuning, and the songs didn’t sound “correct” that way, and very often the songs were played at the wrong speed, but not in a clever “we’re so punk we’re breaking rules way,” but in a “we really aren’t tight any more” way. And the stage presence, if we’re talking visually. It was gone. Sure, there were flashes of beauty and brilliance, but those of us who share this opinion about the In Utero shows, we see the band past its prime and notably in decline.

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