Unplugged In New York (DVD)
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/03/2008
One of the biggest indicators between hardcore Nirvana fans and casual fans who were swept up in the Nevermind hype was the reaction to the band’s scheduled performance on MTV’s Unplugged series. Casual fans, unfamiliar with the Kurt Cobain’s love of R.E.M. and The Beatles, wondered aloud just how a band known for their propulsive, guitar squall-heavy sound could translate in an acoustic environment. For hardcore Nirvana fans, the choice couldn’t have been more appropriate: Kurt Cobain had repeatedly expressed his dismay about being pigeonholed into a genre with limited room for growth. In interviews, he stated his desire to do a drastic departure for the band’s next album, or scrap the band altogether.
Unplugged provided the setting for Nirvana to show it could transcend the grunge genre it helped to define. But Unplugged was also MTV at its most corporate. Veiled as a way to allow bands to express their “authentic” side (e.g. Aerosmith showcased their blues-heavy roots for their performance, LL Cool J helped put another nail in the coffin of those who still regarded rap as a passing phase with little merit once the turntables were unplugged), the show was a cash cow that gave artists such as the 10,000 Maniacs and Eric Clapton mega multi-platinum sellers. So while MTV respected Nirvana’s artistic wishes, they made clear their desire for Nirvana to follow the Unplugged template: play acoustic for the authenticity, but don’t forget to include the big hits.
Cobain, nervous about performing acoustically and suffering from the effects of drug withdrawal, was not in the mood to compromise with producers. The rehearsals and the tension between the band and MTV producers are featured in the extras in the excellent DVD version of Nirvana: Unplugged in New York.
That tension, combined with Cobain’s mental state is barely visible at the actual concert. Wearing a cardigan sweater and taking a few puffs from a cigarette between songs, Cobain has a look of relaxed resignation throughout the concert. Stripped of their volume, “Come As You Are” and “Pennyroyal Tea” sound like they could have been on R.E.M.’s early albums.
Instead of “Heart Shaped Box” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the audience was treated to a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and a guitar accompaniment courtesy of Pat Smear of The Germs. As a final validation that this was Nirvana’s night, the band brought Chris and Curt Kirkwood of The Meat Puppets onstage to perform three of their songs.
Perhaps emboldened by this confidence, Cobain was in peak form for Unplugged in New York. He didn’t resort to any modest posturing throughout the set. Instead, he gave snarky comments such as “This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it,” before the band played “About a Girl.” Before leading into the final song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Cobain casually said “Fuck you all, this is our last song of the evening.” A bit prima donna, sure, but viewers at least could know they saw an authentic Cobain and not a manufactured for the stage persona. Perhaps the most famous display of this came toward the end of the band’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” when Cobain takes a pause between “shiver” and “the whole night through” and reveals for a brief two seconds, a look of wild-eyed intensity and an expression like he just awoke from a nightmare, before returning to the sereneness that dominated much of the concert.
With a stage full of lit candles and soft lighting, it’s hard not to see Unplugged In New York as a sort of suicide note from Cobain. The album serves both as a sad testament of what could have been if Nirvana would have made that detour that Cobain promised in interviews and as a final, major artistic achievement for the band before Cobain’s life spiraled out of control in early 1994. As a DVD, the concert serves as one of the defining moments of the band’s history. Fifteen years later, the DVD, like the album, hasn’t lost a speck of its impact.