The Rehearsal Sessions For Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged Appearance (1993)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nir­vana Plays in a Radio Shack, the Day After Record­ing its First Demo Tape (1988)

Nirvana’s Home Videos: An Inti­mate Look at the Band’s Life Away From the Spot­light (1988)

The First Live Per­for­mance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” (1991)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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