Funny thing about suicide: It’s not a mystery to be solved. When someone you know, or someone you admire, takes her own life, there’s always a temptation to rifle through your memories of that person, looking for some clue of what might happen. It’s not there — or, if it is, there’s usually no reason to think of it as a clue at the time. I once had a next-door neighbor, a guy I didn’t really know, who killed himself one afternoon while I was home on the other side of his living room wall. The street filled up with emergency vehicles, cops milled around outside and refused to answer questions, and the dead man’s loved ones walked in and and walked out in some hell-trance. The next morning, everything was gone, and the trash truck picked up the dead man’s garbage just like they picked up mine. This was someone I saw every day or two, someone who grilled outside a lot and had a really pleasant what’s-up wave. The news that he’d killed himself didn’t compute. But then, I didn’t know him, and I never will. It was the same with Kurt Cobain. Millions of us felt like we knew this guy. None of us did. Cobain recorded the live album MTV Unplugged In New York a few months before he died, and it came out a few months after. If you were of a certain age and disposition, you might’ve spent hours combing through the album, looking for some indication of what he was going through. Was that voice-crack on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” a kind of involuntary musical suicide warning? Well, no. No, it wasn’t. And MTV Unplugged In New York wasn’t a road map to the end of Cobain’s life. It was, instead, an exceptional performance, beautifully recorded. And that was enough for all-time classic status.
If you want to hear MTV Unplugged In New York as the howl of a soul approaching the abyss, you can do that. There’s an intense vulnerability in hearing Cobain’s voice so unadorned, without the scrape-roar guitar sound that he used, at least to some extent, as armor. His version of the Vaselines’ version of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” feels instantly mythic, and it’s entirely possible to hear “don’t expect me to die” as “please expect me to die.” On “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” his voice gets so wracked and feral as the song builds that he finally sounds something like a wounded animal. But Cobain was a performer, too, and one very canny at manipulating his own image. At the time, Nirvana didn’t feel like tragic prophets. They felt like a fascinating new wrinkle to the idea of what a big rock band could be. These days, I prefer to hear MTV Unplugged In New York not as some pure expression of loneliness and depression but as the sound of an insurgent band doing whatever it could to take an established format and rebuild it in the band’s own image.
It’s hard to imagine the level of negotiation that had to go into Nirvana appearing on MTV Unplugged in the first place. The band had to decide that it wouldn’t be too lame to appear on a blockbuster TV show that was cranking out adult-contempo live-album hits at an alarming rate. (When I was in seventh grade, everyone’s mom owned copies of the Eric Clapton and Mariah Carey Unplugged album.) MTV, meanwhile, had to relent on its insistence that Nirvana play the hits, eventually signing off on a show with a ton of semi-obscure covers and without the Eddie Vedder guest spot they probably wanted really badly. MTV Unplugged was not the sort of show where you expected to see grand artistic statements; the two bands who taped episodes of the show immediately before Nirvana were Roxette and Duran Duran. And yet it’s remarkable how completely Nirvana threw themselves into the concept. They studiously reworked and fleshed-out their own arrangements, they trotted out every halfway-soft song on every one of their albums, and they actively worked to make their sound more pleasant than it had ever been before.
On one level, MTV Unplugged In New York was an act of tasteful curation not that far removed from what the Beastie Boys were doing. Nirvana weren’t shouting out obscure funk musicians on songs — that would’ve been weird — but they did invite the Meat Puppets onstage to play three straight songs from a decade-old album. And it worked: They made people want to hear the Meat Puppets. It was hard to find CD copies of Meat Puppets II, at least in my suburb, but a third- or fourth-generation dubbed cassette copy made its way through my class. Cobain had been repping for his favorites for years, but his Vaselines and Bowie and Leadbelly covers gave him the chance to show the world why, exactly, he loved these songs. And he actually succeeded too well; without exception, I prefer the versions of those songs on the Unplugged album to the originals. The one failure of Cobain’s curation: He couldn’t prevent Dave Grohl from rocking that whole ponytail/turtleneck situation. Seriously, Grohl looks like a hesher kid attempting to dress up for church, and his outfit is the only dated thing about the video below.
If Unplugged In New York makes a great showcase for Kurt Cobain the Curator, though, it’s an even better one for Kurt Cobain the Working Musician. When Cobain talks between songs, he’s not baring his soul, he’s wondering aloud if maybe they should try something in a different key or sighing with relief that he didn’t fuck up a difficult guitar part. Nirvana is always going to be best-remembered as an eyeball-stomping power trio, but the expanded version of the band, with Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston folded in, makes a richer and warmer musical experience. The songs’ arrangements make sense, with the musicians teasing out all the songs’ melodic nuances and making even something as urgent as “About A Girl” sound grand and majestic. That’s ultimately what I like best about the album: Mostly freed from the weight of carrying the mantle of underground rock into unexplored mainstream territory, Cobain was free to just make some pretty music. As it turned out, he was really good at that. Maybe he would’ve made more like it if he hadn’t died, but we’ll never know. Most days, MTV Unplugged In New York is my favorite Nirvana album because it’s the only one that really allows for zoning out, for breathing. Once upon a time, I listened to it like it was Laura Palmer’s diary. These days, I just listen to it. A lot.
In the comments section, go ahead and share your thoughts and feelings and memories of the album. And below, check out the full Unplugged special.