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A few years ago while in Seattle visiting an old college friend of mine I spent a decent portion of my time there visiting various locales of musical interest, from the Crocodile Cafe and Central Saloon to the Experience Music Project. One of my days in the Pacific Northwest was spent trekking from my friend's apartment, in Capitol Hill, to the former home of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, near Lake Washington. Next to the house, as all who have made the visit know, is a modest knoll, Viretta Park, a small, quiet stretch of grass beneath a steep rise of brush and trees. In the park sits a solitary bench that has become a de facto memorial to Cobain, with graffiti tributes and, from time-to-time, flowers and Cobain or Nirvana memorabilia covering it. Visiting the park and seeing tributes from around the world drove home the point that Cobain's legacy, which has been posthumous for well over a decade now, still lingers the collective memory of Seattle, as well as in the sound of popular music. Kurt Cobain is lauded by many as a visionary and standard-bearer for post-modern artists while reviled by others as a common junkie with minimal talent who lucked into the role of musical icon. The murky circumstances surrounding his death continue to fascinate many, and Cobain continues to be relevant in popular culture, as evidenced by Gus Van Sant's recent film, Last Days. As a genius, a junkie, or something in between, Cobain is alive and well in popular consciousness, and MTV Unplugged in New York, recorded nearly fourteen years to the day before its recent November 20th release, confirms both Cobain's and Nirvana's legacies as artists truly worthy of remembrance and further study.
Nirvana's Unplugged performance first aired in December of 1993, and an album of the performance was released a year later. The album received massive critical and popular acclaim in the wake of Cobain's death, which had occurred in the interim, and the audio version of MTV Unplugged in New York debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, was certified platinum five times, and won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. Universal has now released a DVD of the Unplugged in New York set, which was a hallmark performance of a monumental band. This is, simply put, an essential DVD. The MTV Unplugged in New York album was of course edited down to individual tracks, and the original MTV airing was itself only forty-four-minutes of the sixty-six-minute taping. Both the MTV airing and the hour-plus unedited footage are included in the DVD, and the latter version is fabulous; it shows Cobain and the band interacting with the audience, and features a few enticing musical snippets such as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" as well as conversation amongst the band. The unsculpted flow of the entire process brings out highlights - at one point Cobain seems unsure what to play next, and asks for requests from the crowd. Someone shouts out, "In Bloom!" and Cobain replies, laughing, "how are we supposed to play 'In Bloom' acoustically?" - that are dulled or not there in the shortened quarter-hour version.
From the opening chords of "About A Girl," it is clear that the collection on MTV's stage isn't simply a power-chord grunge band pounding away, but rather a group of true musicians who care about the craft - and the history - of rock and roll. MTV's Unplugged series was especially good at showcasing both the limits and strengths of traditional rock and roll bands, especially during the grunge era when artists such as Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Nirvana went acoustic, at least for a night. Stripping away layers of sound and fancy production values will test the mettle of any artist who relies on such tools for their work, and without any of the aforementioned items, Nirvana was never better than during their MTV Unplugged in New York performance. Dave Grohl, sporting a modest (ironic?) turtleneck sweater and his long hair tamed into a pony tail, delivers a touchstone performance. An entire generation of drummers who had cut their teeth on Grohl's wailed-on beats were stopped short by the former DC hardcore trapsman's restrained yet perfectly finessed cadence, especially on "Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam," when he played the drums and bass guitar simultaneously. The affable and traditionally discounted Krist Novoselic also shines on the bass, using the Unplugged stage as a forum for proving his musical abilities; like Grohl, Novoselic switches up on "Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam," playing the accordion. Pat Smear, who would become a short-lived permanent member of the band during its final run but was still unfamiliar in November of 1993, serves as an additional guitarist while Lori Goldston adds cello to several tracks, the most notable being "Dumb," which uses the cello an integral instrument.
Especially considering Nirvana's reputation for unpredictable, drug-floundered performances, every song on MTV Unplugged in New York is well-executed, and Cobain's voice - raspy, melancholic - is haunting. The cello-infused "Dumb" is a highlight, as are "Something In The Way," "All Apologies," and a cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World." Cobain became well-known during Nirvana's short career as a barker for his favorite acts (scoffing at repeated offers to join a Metallica/Guns'n Roses megatour while taking Japan's female noise punks Shonen Knife on the road and dragging the under-talented Hole to a multi-million dollar recording contract, just for a few examples), and he carried that posture as a shepherd for outsider music into MTV Unplugged in New York as well, with the several members of the then-obscure Meat Puppets joining Cobain on stage to play three Meat Puppets songs, including "Plateau" and the haunting "Lake of Fire," which were given treatment that bested the originals. The strictly underground stature of the Meat Puppets made the songs no less fulfilling, and after watching Cobain's performance one clearly sees his Johnny Cashian propensity for making any song by any artist his own. Cobain had the unique ability to overwhelm any song with his own persona and give it the maximum emotional appeal possible, and there is no more potent a demonstration of the fact than Nirvana's Unplugged performance
The breadth of the set list is impressive, but it's the emotion displayed in the performance that makes MTV Unplugged in New York a timeless piece of pop culture. Cobain, sporting a light beard and clad in torn jeans, a fuzzy green sweater, and t-shirt, is reserved - there's no screaming here - but his vocals are nonetheless raw and full of soul, passion, and pain. Yet as troubled as he was, Cobain seems happy and content during MTV Unplugged in New York to be doing what he loved, joking with the crowd and his band mates, enjoying a smoke here and there, and sipping from his large mug of tea. It's nice to see a smile on the face of someone fretted over by millions of fans. Compared with the composure (not to mention physical appearance) of another heroin addict and Seattle grunge fatality, Layne Staley, during Alice In Chains' MTV Unplugged performance, Cobain appears to be perfectly fit, both mentally and physically. That's what makes this show even more poignant, as it is one of the final glimpses Cobain's mind and of his musical potential.
MTV Unplugged in New York ends with another cover, of the traditional folk song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," which was popularized by folk and blues master Lead Belly in the 1940s. Cobain jokes to the crowd that he thought about purchasing Lead Belly's guitar, but the asking price of $500,000 was a bit too steep, even for one of the world's most famous rock stars. The performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is chilling, and as Cobain sings his last words, we're emotionally spent but grateful that we had the opportunity to experience such musical prowess. After the show ends, Cobain heads into the audience to mix about, talk, and sign autographs as the camera fades to black. Less than five months later he would be dead.
I've listened to the album version of MTV Unplugged in New York more times than I can count, but doing so is a completely different experience than watching the DVD. It's sad, really, to actually watch it now, the idea - that a few months after smiling, laughing, and interacting with fans, Cobain would die alone in the greenhouse of his Seattle home, full of heroin, of a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head - seeming more and more absurd with time. The Unplugged performance in New York was both the pinnacle of a career that dropped off rather than ever actually descending as well as a gut-wrenching glimpse at an entirely alternate future (present) of popular music that never existed but may have been possible had Cobain lived. But like Nirvana, the band that ceased to exist less than three years after it revived rock and roll by displacing Michael Jackson's Dangerous at the top of the Billboard album charts, is never coming back. Grohl, Novoselic, Smear and Nirvana's extended musical family have all moved on in their lives and careers, and the echoes of the band's urgent, generation-defining sound have been muted somewhat through several cycles of translation, sampling, and co-option. It's nice to be reminded though, even now, that for a time, and on one night in particular Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were the definition of art, the complete embodiment of all that's right about the power of music to inspire, move, and heal. SEE ALSO: www.nirvanaclub.com
SEE ALSO: www.nirvana-music.com
SEE ALSO: www.geffen.com/nirvana
SEE ALSO: www.nirvanaweb.com
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/nirvana
Eric J. Morgan
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric J. Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado. He has an orange cat named Nelson and longs for the day when men and women will again dress in three-piece suits and pretty dresses to indulge in three-martini lunches and afternoon affairs.
See other articles by Eric J. Morgan.
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