Nirvana's iconic "MTV Unplugged" turned 20 this week, giving us all another chance to look back on a performance that's become the stuff of legend ... both for its impact on popular culture at the time, and everything it's come to symbolize since.
Simply put, the shadow of Kurt Cobain's death — which came less than six months after Nirvana taped "Unplugged" — looms large over the entire performance, from the funereal flower arrangements he himself picked out to adorn the stage to that haunting final gasp he takes at the conclusion of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." That hindsight doesn't take away from the power of their set; in a weird way, it only adds to it ... casting an eerie pall over the proceedings
Of course, those who worked behind the scenes on "Unplugged" tend to have a different view of things.
"That absolutely wasn't the case. 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," Alex Coletti, who produced "Unplugged," remembers. "It became his funeral for his fans, but in that moment, [Kurt] 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."
"Well, when we first walked out onto the stage, I said 'This looks less like 'Unplugged' and a little more like a funeral for a friend.' Your first impression of it was a little bit like a downer," Beth McCarthy-Miller, who directed Nirvana's "Unplugged" performance, adds. "But I think the music enhanced the set and I think the set enhanced the music. It was a perfect combination and it shows you just how smart Kurt was, and what he wanted to portray very specific. He really really wanted the flowers and the candles and I really think that it made that show really stand out."
In fact, Cobain was so focused on the performance that he was giving notes to show producers — "I showed him some drawings, like 'What do you think?' and he goes 'Yeah, I need more flowers and some candles,'" Coletti says — and adamant about the fact that Nirvana would do "Unplugged" on their terms. Which meant no hit singles, an assortment of left-field covers, and, of course, some special guests ... though not the kind MTV execs were hoping for.
"Oh, they thought a bus from Seattle was gonna come down and Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were all gonna come out and and jam with Nirvana," McCarthy-Miller laughs. "And then, it was the Meat Puppets, and everyone was like 'Huh ... does anyone in our audience even know who the Meat Puppets are?' But the beauty of 'Unplugged,' and this show in particular."
Originally, producers didn't know if those Meat Puppets' songs would even make the final broadcast (when "Nirvana Unplugged" aired in December 1993, "Plateau" and "Lake of Fire," were included.) But 20 years later, they stand out as two of the show's most chill-inducing moments, and serve as further testament to Nirvana's determination to do things their way.
And on the anniversary of their most iconic MTV moment, perhaps it's best to remember "Unplugged" for that steadfast refusal to compromise ... hindsight isn't always 20/20, after all.