Watching ‘Nirvana: Unplugged’ 20 Years Later

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Kurt Cobain had surely lost any bit of the enthusiasm he once had for performing by the time he strapped on his acoustic guitar, let out a long, audible breath, and addressed the ’90s coffeehouse crowd MTV had assembled for Nirvana: Unplugged with a self-consciously stiff “good evening.” Less than five months after the special’s November 18, 1993 taping, he would be dead. And in his suicide note, Cobain would cite his alienation from fans at live shows as part of the reason he was taking his own life. “[W]hen we’re backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd, which is something I totally admire and envy,” he wrote. “Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage.”

This is the morbid mythology that still haunts Unplugged, the MTV special and the posthumously released album, 20 years later. The word most often used to describe the performance, which originally aired December 14, 1993, is “funereal” — and this isn’t just a narrative that has been imposed ex post facto. A generation of Nirvana fans has breathlessly retold the story in which the special’s producer, Alex Coletti, heard that Cobain wanted to decorate the stage with stargazer lilies and candles and asked him whether he meant he wanted it to look like a funeral. Cobain answered in the affirmative.

It’s how I experienced the version MTV edited for television, a rerun of which I recorded to VHS sometime in the year or two after Cobain’s suicide and watched over and over again during the second half of the ’90s, often alone but sometimes with friends. I imagine many sullen kids around my age did the same thing, replaying the performance to dissect it for hidden messages and clues, to spend some time with an artist who we would never get to see in person. For those of us who had been raised without or already rejected religion, Unplugged might have fulfilled some human instinct for worship: the ritual of revisiting it, of hearing those sames songs every time.

Though I wasn’t necessarily reading much music criticism at the time, Nirvana were the first band I ever loved (rather than just enjoyed), and I devoured whatever information about them as was available to me in those early days of the Internet. It’s clear in my memory that I absorbed, rather than independently arrived at, the idea of Unplugged as a sort of premature funeral Kurt Cobain threw for himself. And so that’s the way I interpreted it at 11 and 13 and probably even 15 — as a sad, somber, and above all emotional performance. Because of the narrative and because it was flattering to me, as a fan, I wanted to believe that it was a heartfelt parting gift.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOZKz_sPM6U]

Watching Unplugged for the first time in at least a decade, I was surprised at how different it felt to me as an adult — as someone who, while still a Nirvana fan, is no longer half-consciously displacing truckloads of adolescent loneliness and alienation onto a dead rock star. It’s not that it’s a “worse” performance than I remembered; the acoustic constraint alone imposes a mood of hushed intimacy that is entirely different from the loud, chaotic live shows Nirvana was known for. The wrenching string arrangements, the Meat Puppets guest appearance, the covers that transformed great David Bowie and Vaselines and Leadbelly songs — all are powerful. But still, what comes across to me in Cobain’s performance, and especially in his interactions with the audience, is not so much sorrow or wistfulness as flatness and detachment.

Until the last two songs, “All Apologies” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which truly do reverberate with emotion, Unplugged shows us that performer from Cobain’s suicide note — the one who is struggling to connect with his audience but can’t shake the feeling that he’s punching a clock as he takes the stage to greet them. It shows us a band gingerly coaxing its delicate frontman through a challenging set, Dave Grohl behind his drum kit encouraging Cobain to play “Pennyroyal Tea” solo and bassist Krist Novoselic using his gawky stature and goofy mannerisms to lighten the mood. (Moments of comedy are few and far between here, but the image of Novoselic playing the accordion made me laugh out loud.)

This, it seems, is a truer reflection of what was happening behind the scenes. Cobain, who had always harbored insecurities about his musicianship, came into the studio nervous and sick, from the mysterious stomach ailment that supposedly drove him to heroin. Deprived of that for the day, he took the stage with the help of Valium. And he nearly dropped Grohl from the performance because he couldn’t drum softly enough. The dress rehearsal, reportedly, was miserable.

It’s always uncomfortable to witness a performance by an artist who is ambivalent about, or even actively hostile to, performing. Whether it’s Jeff Mangum leading transcendent Neutral Milk Hotel sing-alongs over a decade after glimpsing fame and running the other way or Leonard Cohen putting on long, dazzling shows he never would have considered had legal troubles not forced him to raise money, my enjoyment of these concerts is always mixed with guilt. For demanding that these people do something difficult for and maybe even damaging to them so that I can watch, I feel implicated.

Revisiting Nirvana: Unplugged brought on that same guilt, but there’s more. What makes my — and our collective — misreading of the performance so tragic is that it perfectly encapsulates the gulf between Cobain and his audience. We never stopped worshiping him for giving us everything, when eventually he could barely give us anything at all.