We all love a hero. That’s what the late, great Kurt Cobain was – and forever will be – especially after November 18, 1993. That day, Cobain and his Seattle-based grunge band, Nirvana, performed live for MTV Unplugged at the Sony Studios in New York City, although I, unfortunately, hadn’t even been born.
The album was one of the first of its kind – the Unplugged series featuring acoustic, live sets with popular bands that typically played with amplification. In this noteworthy album, Nirvana succeeded in mesmerizing the audience.
“MTV Unplugged in New York” is an honest, unexaggerated record that turns its flaws into assets. There are a few hesitant, uneasy moments in some songs that make you feel like you are sitting right there in front of the rock legend.
The first album to be released after Cobain’s death in April 1994, it features three covers by The Meat Puppets (“Plateau,” “Lake of Fire,” and “Oh, Me”) with Cris and Curt Kirkwood playing in accompaniment.
They also covered David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which became so popular in this version that David Bowie dedicated it to Cobain. “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” is, as Cobain put it, The Vaselines’ rendition of an old Christian song, “but we do it The Vaselines’ way.” And then there’s the finale, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” arranged by Lead Belly. This is one of the most memorable tracks, with skin-prickling vocals; you can almost see Cobain barking out the last chorus, gasping for breath, and spilling his soul onto the floor and over the audience.
This album is often regarded as the best Unplugged performance. Personally, I agree because, in contrast to most of the other shows, Nirvana’s set list consisted of some of their lesser-known originals in addition to covers. When questioned by the media, Nirvana drummer David Grohl, now the front man of the acclaimed Foo Fighters, commented, “We knew we didn’t want to do an acoustic version of our more famous songs; that would’ve been horrendously stupid.”
Those who aren’t big on Nirvana might recognize “About a Girl” and “Come as You Are.” Between songs, Cobain’s dry sense of humor and sarcastic comments are revealed, entertaining the listeners beyond the music.
“MTV Unplugged in New York” is one of the most successful recordings of the 1990s. It opened at number one in the Billboard Top 200. It was also number one on the official album charts in six foreign countries. The album went platinum five times in the U.S. and twice in Spain. It won a Grammy in 1996 for Best Alternative Album, in addition to many other awards.
My personal favorite off the record would have to be “Pennyroyal Tea.” Kurt Cobain was a terribly ill person who suffered from a painful stomach condition. This song is Cobain’s ode to life and is nothing but raw emotion. It is deeply haunting, lyrically fantastic, and features passionate guitar playing.
Whether or not you like rock, you can’t deny that these men were gifted musicians. This live album showcases Kurt Cobain’s talents and pain so intriguingly that it’s almost impossible not to listen to each track over and over again. And each time you do, you seem to pick up a little more about this great man and his sad fate.
If their almost-last album, “In Utero,” is truly a suicide note, as some say, then “MTV Unplugged in New York” is a message from beyond the grave.