Debuting in 1989, MTV’s Unplugged promised to cure the culture’s slick 80s hangover with acoustic guitars and earnest, coffee-shop intimacy from the 90s biggest stars (Mariah Carey) and a select few classic giants (McCartney, Clapton, Dylan, a reformed Kiss). In a series documenting some iconic last or near-last performances—from 10,000 Maniacs, Alice in Chains—perhaps the most iconic was the November, 1993 appearance of Nirvana (below), whose troubled singer/guitarist overdosed just weeks into the band’s 1994 European tour, then took his life in April of that year. For children of the decade, Nirvana’s Unplugged appearance, though hard to watch in hindsight, perhaps defines the 90s more than any other TV moment. And yet, writes Andrew Wallace Chamings in The Atlantic, “it’s worth considering the performance as a work of music, not mythology. Because as music, it’s incredible.”
You want intimacy? “Parts of the Nirvana set,” writes Chamings, “feel so personal it’s awkward.” Cobain is cranky in between-song banter, hunched over his guitar in his puke green thrift-store cardigan, snapping at his bandmates and the audience. His performances are intense and eerie, particularly his cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the last song of the evening, which Neil Young described as “unearthly, like a werewolf.” The band never hid behind a pre-fabricated mystique, but their acoustic set highlights just how emotionally invested Cobain was in music—his own and others. Joined by Germs (and later Foo Fighers) guitarist Pat Smear, they mostly eschewed the hits, and played covers by Cobain’s favorite bands: Meat Puppets, Bowie, The Vaselines. You want even more intimacy? Watch the Unplugged rehearsal sessions at the top of the post.
Where the televised Unplugged episode has the loose, informal vibe of band practice with an audience, this rehearsal footage is more of a soundcheck, but with some truly beautiful performances. Cobain tweaks technical details and gets snippy with the engineer. According to several people involved, the rehearsal sessions were especially difficult, with Cobain suffering from withdrawal and generally nervous and unhappy, almost bailing on the show at the last minute. Cobain biographer Charles Cross quotes one observer as saying “There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him.” Cobain’s request that the studio be decorated with black candles and stargazer lilies prompted the producer to ask, “You mean like a funeral?” “Exactly,” he said, “like a funeral.” But it’s the band’s insistence that the show be tailored to their anti-rock star personality that makes the performances so memorable. “We’d seen the other Unpluggeds and didn’t like many of them,” recalled Dave Grohl, “because most bands would treat them like rock shows… except with acoustic guitars.” Nirvana’s Unplugged was something entirely different. A televised swan song that was also, in Chaming’s words, “the prettiest noise the band has ever made.”