Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York

on January 23, 2010, 8:00am

When Kurt Cobain ended his life he took it not only from himself and his loved ones, but also from a highly sensitive community of followers, sympathizers, and more importantly, fervent fans. I have crystal clear memories of early 1994, when, as a little girl of five, I mourned in gloom with my older cousin the loss of an icon whom I didn’t fully understand at that age. I remember understanding who he was and what he did, and how much he would be missed, but I’m sure I couldn’t have quite grasped just how influential Cobain and Nirvana would be.

Melodies off Nevermind and In Utero were the soundtrack to my child’s play many a time. They remained backgrounded for years until I dusted off old records and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came pounding out of my unconscious to send me on the strangest stroll down memory lane I can recall. It was like I’d heard the songs before, because I had—but I didn’t remember them. Finally, as a teenager, I was able to comprehend the despair, apathy, and angst I had shared with my elders as a toddler, and Nirvana went on to become my religion, or the closest thing to it.

Through the early ’90s, singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl churned out a sound unparalleled by contemporaries, influenced by legends, and symbolic of an entire era and generation. They bore “grunge” into the mainstream of America and the world, and I like to believe they accomplished this through honesty.

If there is an album where the honesty in which I have faith shines through Nirvana’s music, it is their 1994 MTV Unplugged in New York. Perhaps one of the greatest ideas to ever come across the minds of MTV’s creative/executive team, the Unplugged concert series allowed artists to temporarily strip off the harsh barriers of distortion and combine that with the freedom of a small stage as opposed to the confines of a studio.

When it was Nirvana’s turn to unplug, the magic they produced was enrapturing. The attendees couldn’t have known it then, but the Unplugged show would be one of Cobain’s last, and some four months later he would be gone from this world by his own hand. Now, in retrospect, we can note the fragility and vulnerability of this concert, given that it was held as an intimate acoustic performance and it would become the first album to be released after Cobain’s suicide. For a loss as tragic, a personality survived by so many—you remember the vigils, Courtney Love’s tapes, the nationwide funeral—as Kurt Cobain, the fact that the band’s recorded acoustic performance was released months after his death was a sort of tribute, a thing of closure.

Knowing what we know now about Nirvana’s trajectory as a band, listening to this album is a new experience. Nostalgia is certainly the most obvious overflowing feeling. Cobain’s raspy yet delicate moan on “Pennyroyal Tea” transfers so much of his strange, unidentifiable pain into what ends up as a wail accompanied solely by his firm strumming. On the closer, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, Cobain’s range strides along from a calm lament to a hurting rage that will push your heart to your chest, and Grohl’s strong pounding is the exact boulder Cobain’s vocals need to push them through the climax of the song. Beautiful as the song is on its own, the power with which they end it in this show is massive. It’s easy to hear it and think about the band members’ thoughts, whether they suspected their end would be so soon, and whether it even matters at this point, because this work turned out so satisfying. For me, it’s easy to get lost in a wave of, “I wish I’d been there to see it.”

At the end of each track, the band’s slack commentary flows over an eagerly silent crowd, making for a more personal, conversational experience. At the end of their cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”, Cobain is heard asking his band mates whether he should play the next song on his own or not, they egg him on, and he’s seen in a very human, normal light: choosing a different key, trying it out, etc. But the acoustics of the Sony Studios (where the concert was recorded) not only bring forth Nirvana’s chitchat. Throughout the show, Novoselic’s bass is balanced so pristinely against the treble of the band that it resonates without overpowering, and the overall sound quality is delightful.

The number of covers on this album are a nice indicator of Nirvana’s reverence and appreciation, not to mention influences from bands like the Vaselines (“Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”); which is another of Nirvana’s renditions of “old Christian song[s],” as Cobain put it; Bowie; the Meat Puppets (“Plateau”, “Oh, Me”, and “Lake of Fire”), a band they were especially apt to cover; and Leadbelly (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”).

Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York is, to say the least, a solemn classic. A troubled, yet charismatic egg of a musician cracks within his shell, and a nation of fans mourn him. A revolutionary force in 90’s rock music is demolished by the loss of a member, but we have not forgotten them. This album is the heart-to-heart of a band that gave an army of dissatisfied twentysomethings an identity, a sound that shaped Generation X.

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