One of the genuinely awe-inspiring moments of Nirvana’s illustrious career came in 1993 when they recorded what would become post-grunge history in the form of their MTV Unplugged in New York session. It was recorded less than six months before the band’s singer and guitarist, Kurt Cobain, took his own life in April 1994.
By the time November 1993 had rolled around, Cobain had already been suffering from a deep and dark depression, influenced, no doubt, by a heroin addiction that had been known to spiral out of control. Like several of the best emotionally-attuned songwriters, Cobain had dependency issues that would essentially play into the hands of his tragic, early death.
After MTV Unplugged began to air in late 1989, Nirvana were invited to record a session several times. Come 1993, they were, after all, one of the biggest rock bands in the world and the invitation was once again thrust into their hands. However, having accepted, the band felt that they wanted to approach the format from a different angle than those who had performed before them. Dave Grohl had said, “We’d seen the other Unpluggeds and didn’t like many of them because most bands would treat them like rock shows – play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.”
The eventual performance was one of Nirvana’s best. The typically all-in, all-loud grunge outfit toned things down to a minimum, with Grohl adopting a jazz-drummer persona, hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a black turtleneck sweater, brushes in hand rather than sticks. It’s arguably Grohl’s most impressive and nuanced appearance behind the kit.
MTV had been annoyed at the lack of Nirvana’s hit singles during the set; the ‘biggest’ of their tunes played in the performance was probably ‘Come as You Are’ from Nevermind, with much of the session being comprised of covers, including David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and three Meat Puppets songs.
Whilst the show became a piece of undoubted musical history, some have argued that, seeing as Cobain would die by his own hand less than half a year down the line, it serves as something of a suicide note and that there is evidence of Cobain’s mental struggle both within the session and prior to its recording.
For instance, Cobain had actually refused to play the day before filming was scheduled. However, he did eventually show up on the day, although he was in the midst of a severe drug withdrawal and in a heightened state of anxiety. One behind-the-scenes witness of the show noted, “There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him… everyone was more than a little worried about his performance.”
Then there is the fact of the stage set at Sony Studios in New York. Cobain himself had asked for the stage to be adorned with lilies, black candles and a swinging crystal chandelier. When the producer of the show, Alex Coletti, asked Cobain, “You mean like a funeral?” Cobain replied, “Exactly, like a funeral.” This indicates that death had undoubtedly been on Cobain’s mind in the lead-up to the show; the last thing it was to be was a celebration of Nirvana’s music.
As for the performance itself, the are several instances that reveal the darkened recess of Cobain’s fragile mind during the lead-up to his death. None are as startling as the session’s closer, the cover of Lead Belly’s arrangement of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. As Cobain delivers the song’s final line, “I would shiver the whole night through”, he jumps up an impossible octave higher on the word “shiver” until he has to scream the word rather than sing it. It’s almost like his soul left his body for just a moment before reluctantly reinhabiting his corpse to finish the line – and as he does, he opens his eyes, which appear just a shade bluer than before, perhaps having gathered some sort of ephemeral spiritual knowledge from wherever in heaven he went.
Although some have suggested that MTV Unplugged in New York was Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, Alex Coletti insisted “that absolutely wasn’t the case.” He added, “This wasn’t just Kurt. This was a band at their prime, doing great work and enjoying it. This was not a suicide note in any way, shape or form. It became his funeral for his fans, but in that moment, he was really happy with it. He came in the control room after to watch some of it back with us… he walked right in, grabbed some beers. It was actually kind of cute.”
So while Coletti’s comments certainly indicate that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session was not a suicide note as such, the fact remains that it serves as the most intimate performance that Nirvana had ever done, and certainly, with it being so close to Kurt Cobain’s death, it is a startling portrayal of a music icon clearly in the final throes of life.