Nirvana tune in and drop out to reveal a softer side to their craft
MTV Unplugged might have seemed an unlikely medium for Nirvana, a band who weren’t exactly known for their laid back performances. Though despite Kurt Cobain’s electric rage, the man had a soft spot for a good melody, someone whose ear for pop was a little wider than many gave him credit for at the time. Recorded in November 1993, just four months before his death, Unplugged In New York reveals not only Cobain’s battle with depression and drug addiction, but also his love-hate relationship with corporate America, of which he deemed the likes of MTV to be a part of.
So it is interesting that he would eventually agree to perform for an institution he regarded as being tied in to an organization which he appeared to despise. But then such is the dichotomy of creative genius verses the establishment. How is one to sustain their indifference and disdain for an industry that relies on the commercial dollar to keep it afloat? Roger Waters, a staunch socialist, asked himself that same question back in the early ‘70s upon the success of The Dark Side of the Moon, an album which turned Pink Floyd into overnight millionaires, thus offering them the sort of creative freedom they could never have dreamed of in their younger days.
In other words, what is one to do with all that money? In Cobain’s case the answer obviously wasn’t quite so simple or straight forward. Money is one thing, but mental illness is another. And clearly Cobain had lots of it.
Now, first things first, this really isn’t an unplugged performance per se, since everyone here is obviously ‘plugged in’ in some shape or form, making the title something of a misnomer (as it often was), however these are minor quibbles when it comes to the performance itself, which is at times entrancing as it can be harrowing.
First up is “About A Girl,” from Nirvana’s debut, where from the moment they start playing Kurt already seems like a man standing on the edge of a precipice, as he also does on the confessional “Come As You Are,” a song that would soon take on a resonance all its own. Their cover of The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” could be interpreted as a statement of self-hatred, on Kurt’s part, or merely as a homage to a band whose music he loved.
The band’s version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” is a definite highlight, along with the discriminatingly delicate “Pennyroyal Tea,” during which Cobain sounds as though he might be about to have a nervous breakdown at any moment. “Dumb” and “Polly,” here in stripped down form, reveal Cobain’s propensity for traditional melody, proving that there was far more to Kurt than just being an angry singer screaming his problems at the world.
“I’m On A Plain” is perhaps Cobain’s equivalent to “nobody I think is in my tree” by John Lennon, in which he seems to have found some kind of respite from the world. The semi-autobiographical “Something In The Way” gets an ominous airing, followed by a version of The Meat Puppets’ “Plateau,” a performance that would normally lull the listener were it not for Kurt’s occasionally strained vocals.
The group nearly get into Harvest mode on The Meat Puppets’ “Oh, Me” and “Lake of Fire” (although Neil Young had remained a major influence on Kurt), before launching into the self-reaching “All Apologies,” a hypnotic number that will remain in the listener’s memory for quite some time. As will final track “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a traditional blues, but here Kurt turns the tune on its head and makes it his own. Whether it was based on his relationship with Courtney Love who can say, yet one thing’s for sure, the pain in Cobain’s voice when he sings “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/Tell me where did you sleep last night” cannot be dismissed.
While the likes of Bowie (who had been through drug problems of his own) sung about “rock and roll suicide” he was too much in love with life to have ever actually done the deed. Not so Cobain, who tragically ended his life at the fateful age of 27, thus ensuring that this album, when it was eventually released several months after his death, would serve as a melancholy reminder of the man’s talent, not to mention contribution to revitalising rock in general.
Whether Nirvana were the last great rock group who truly mattered is a question best left to historians. Does it even matter if they were or weren’t? I don’t think Kurt Cobain would care either way.