Watch Nirvana Go Through Rehearsals for Their Famous MTV Unplugged Sessions: “Polly,” “The Man Who Sold the World” & More (1993)

“Fame is a prison,” tweet­ed Lady Gaga, and many Twit­ter wars ensued. She was only echo­ing an old sen­ti­ment passed down through the enter­tain­ment ages, from Gre­ta Gar­bo (“I detest crowds”) to Don John­son. The emo­tion­al toll of celebri­ty is so well-known as to have become a stan­dard, almost cliché, theme in sto­ry­telling, and no recent artist has exem­pli­fied the tor­tured, reluc­tant celebri­ty more promi­nent­ly than Kurt Cobain.

Cobain may have want­ed to be famous when Nir­vana broke out of Wash­ing­ton State and signed with major label Gef­fen, but he did not want the kind of thing he got. At the end 1993, when the band record­ed their MTV Unplugged in New York spe­cial, he seemed pos­i­tive­ly suf­fo­cat­ed by star­dom. “We knew Cobain did­n’t seem all that hap­py being a rock star,” recalls music jour­nal­ist David Browne, who sat in the audi­ence for that leg­endary per­for­mance, “and that Nir­vana was essen­tial­ly acqui­esc­ing to indus­try dic­tates by tap­ing one of these shows.”

Cobain’s rare tal­ent was to take his bit­ter­ness, despair, and rage and turn them back into deft­ly arranged melod­ic songs, stripped down in “one of the great­est live albums ever,” writes Andrew Wal­lace Cham­ings at The Atlantic. “An unfor­get­table doc­u­ment of raw ten­sion and artis­tic genius. While inti­ma­cy was an intend­ed part of the [Unplugged] con­cept… parts of the Nir­vana set at Sony’s Hells Kitchen stu­dio feel so per­son­al it’s awk­ward.”

The per­for­mance reveals “a singer uncom­fort­able in his own skin, through addic­tion and depres­sion” and the con­tin­ued demands that he make nice for the crowds. The clipped inter­ac­tions between Cobain and his band­mates, espe­cial­ly Dave Grohl, have become as much a part of the Nir­vana Unplugged mythol­o­gy as that frumpy green thrift-store cardi­gan (which recent­ly sold at auc­tion for $137,500).

Kurt’s disheveled crank­i­ness may have been part of Nirvana’s act, but he also nev­er seemed more authen­ti­cal­ly him­self than in these per­for­mances, and it’s riv­et­ing, if painful, to see and hear. Five months lat­er, he was dead, and. Unplugged would become Nirvana’s first posthu­mous release in Novem­ber 1994. In the quar­ter cen­tu­ry since, “accounts have emerged,” writes Browne, that show exact­ly “what was tak­ing place in the days lead­ing up to that tap­ing.”

“The rehearsals were tense,” Browne con­tin­ues, “MTV brass weren’t thrilled when the promised guests turned out to be the Meat Pup­pets and not, say, any­one from Pearl Jam. Cobain was going through with­draw­al that morn­ing.” And yet every song came togeth­er in one take—only one of three Unplugged spe­cials in which that had ever hap­pened. “The entire per­for­mance made you feel as if Cobain would per­haps sur­vive…. The qui­et seemed to be his sal­va­tion, until it wasn’t.”

Mark­ing the album’s 25th anniver­sary this month, Gef­fen has rere­leased Unplugged in New York both dig­i­tal­ly and as a 2 LP set, announc­ing the event with more behind-the-scenes glimpses in the rehearsal footage here, pre­vi­ous­ly only avail­able on DVD. At the top, see the band prac­tice “Pol­ly,” and see a frus­trat­ed Grohl, whom Cobain con­sid­ered leav­ing out of the show entire­ly, smoke and joke behind the scowl­ing singer.

Fur­ther up, see Cobain strain at the vocals in “Come as You Are,” while Grohl shows off his new­found restraint and the band makes the song sound as watery and wob­bly as it does ful­ly elec­tri­fied. Above, Cobain and gui­tarist Pat Smear work out their dynam­ic on Bowie’s “The Man Whole Sold the World,” while cel­list Lori Gold­ston helps them cre­ate “the pret­ti­est noise the band has ever made,” writes Cham­ings. Even 25 years on, “there is no way of lis­ten­ing to Unplugged in New York with­out invok­ing death; it’s in every note.” Some­how, this grim inten­si­ty made these per­for­mances the most vital of Nirvana’s career.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed Video: Kurt Cobain on Teenage Angst, Sex­u­al­i­ty & Find­ing Sal­va­tion in Punk Music

How Kurt Cobain Con­front­ed Vio­lence Against Women in His “Dark­est Song”: Nevermind‘s “Pol­ly”

Watch Nir­vana Per­form “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” Just Days After the Release of Nev­er­mind (1991)

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

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