Fourteen years later, Nirvana’s seminal MTV Unplugged performance is as powerful as you remember in its first DVD release. Recorded just four months before Kurt Cobain’s death, the live performance has long been thought of as a tragic, moving swan song to one of the most famous and influential bands in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s release on CD the following year debuted at #1 and won a Grammy. Now finally available on DVD, in its entirety, the live concert still stands up strong.
Even before the recording began, the set was sure to be something unusual, as not only was the hard-rocking grunge band going acoustic, but they’d devised a set-list almost completely devoid of ‘big hits’ – and almost half of the songs were covers. However, that meant that the songs on Unplugged in New York have a life of their own, separate from deliveries on album or by their original bands. And picked more for how they would play unplugged (i.e., “Smells Like Teen Spirit” probably wouldn’t have worked acoustic…), they still fit together. All of that, combined with knowing it all from the album, makes the performance an entity, in and of itself.
Of course, the success of the MTV Unplugged: Nirvana record means, to the ear at least, much of the DVD is very familiar. There’s no longer a great surprise at Nirvana so successfully translating into acoustic, or a curiosity at their diverse choice of covers. And much of the power and tragedy of Cobain’s voice is already well known to the viewer. For instance, some of the irony has been lost from his opening line before “About A Girl”, “This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it” (while “Girl” was from their pre-Nevermind debut, Bleach, it later charted as an MTV Unplugged single).
However, “About A Girl” forward, virtually everything on Unplugged in New York still holds up. Krist Novoselic’s bass on “Come As You Are” (the only ‘hit’ played the entire night) is still pitch-perfect. Covers “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam”, “Lake of Fire”, and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” are still the measuring sticks with which to judge alt-country/folk. Cobain’s guitar on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” is still affected and not technically ‘unplugged’ – and still too good for anyone to care. The addition of cellist Lori Goldston still makes tracks like “Polly” and “On A Plain” into orchestral beauties, while Cobain’s stripped-down solo rendition of “Pennyroyal Tea” is still him at his barest.
But there is something new to seeing the group again, maybe most notably in how unusual they don’t look. While recorded before HD, the video has been refined enough to remove any grain. Perhaps because the group has long been preserved in the amber of Cobain dying young, they don’t look like some anachronistic fashion fad from an I Love the 90’s episode. The only bad hairstyles comes from when Meat Puppets Cris and Curt Kirkwood join Nirvana on stage for covers of three of their songs. And Novoselic does look odd and too tall when he stands to play accordion on “Sunbeam”.
The visuals also heighten the tragedy of Cobain’s early demise. Looking as healthy and handsome as any rock star, Cobain earns his iconic status on film, whether he wanted to or not. He bares even more when seen on “Pennyroyal Tea”, is even rawer on “All Apologies”, and is even more charming when joking about “Pennyroyal”, “I’ll try it in the normal key, and if it sounds bad, these people will just have to wait.” The candles and white stargazer lilies as decorations even conspire to enhance the effect.
Trailer for Unplugged in New York:
Like most concert DVD’s, Unplugged in New York isn’t exactly heavy with extras, but gold can be found, especially in the snippets between songs that were never aired. Cobain refers to additional guitarist Pat Smears (of The Germs) as, “A certified honorary punk rocker. But he likes Queen better.” The band argues about whether they can play “Dumb” and “Polly” one after the other, “because they’re exactly the same song,” with Cobain concluding, “Let’s play ‘em back-to-back, who cares? It’ll be edited different. This is a television show.” There’s also much smoking between (and even during) songs, and it’s clear that the band didn’t know the exact order of their ‘specially chosen’ set-list.
Cobain even asks for requests, before shooting them all down. “How are we supposed to play “In Bloom” acoustically?” “Everything they’ve been blurting out, I don’t know how to play.” In response to a woman’s request for “Rape Me”, which MTV didn’t let them perform on the MTV Music Video Awards that year, “I don’t think MTV would let us play that.” Novoselic also responds, “Was that Kennedy?” (MTV’s much-disliked ‘alternative VJ’ at the time). While no one in the crowd is lame enough to ask for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, drummer Dave Grohl makes his own joking demand for another massive grunge hit, Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”.
But best is the long break as The Meat Puppets tune up. On CD, all one can hear is Cobain joking about being given too many cups of tea and how they should have extra guitars because “we’re a big, rich rock band.” But on the DVD, one can see them discuss a creepy episode of the Christian kids show, Davey and Goliath, Cobain reading WFMU’s First Catalog of Curiosities!, and their reaction to crowd requests. Cobain thinks someone asks for Nine Inch Nails, and when someone shouts for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s always-asked for “Freebird”, Cobain says he’s been waiting for that request – and Cris Kirkwood jokes with his middle finger, “I got a ‘free’ ‘bird’ for you right here…” Best of all, they even all go into a few chords of Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, with Cobain ridiculously garbling the lyrics.
The extras are limited to the original MTV version of the show, rehearsals that don’t add much (though it’s interesting, in a technical way, to see them setting their levels while rehearsing “Polly”), and the MTV News: Bare Witness documentary on the special. Bare Witness contains mostly stuff one already knew, like that MTV wasn’t excited by the set-list, or how different a setting it was for the band. But you do hear that MTV had hoped the guest stars would be Pearl Jam or Neil Young, and were disappointed it was The Meat Puppets, plus you see a now-thirty-year-old fan talk about being at the show when he was sixteen. In addition, the subtitles aren’t exactly precise – when Cobain references that all three Meat Puppets songs played are from “their second record,” Meat Puppets II, the subtitles say “our second record.”
Being fourteen years in the past, and already out on CD, no one really needs Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York. There have certainly been enough posthumous releases by the band, including three compilations and even a new hit single (2002’s “You Know You’re Right”). And the add-ons aren’t numerous. But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a great performance that, if you’re gonna own a concert DVD, you should own. Or, to put it another way, if you think you don’t want it because you can remember the original show, then you really loved it enough to want to have it forever.