Tuesday, November 11, 2014

mtv unplugged in new york

Nirvana found a fitting epitaph in the eternal sigh of this haunted and harrowing acoustic augury.    The band had grown from the indie obscurity of their debut 'Bleach' to begrudgingly find superstardom with their major label debut 'Nevermind'.  Unsatisfied with the slick sound of their breakthrough, for their third album, they defied expectations (and the hopes of music executives) and produced the decidedly radio unfriendly 'In Utero'.  

At this point, the band accepted an offer to do a  performance for the trendy MTV 'Unplugged' series; but they were determined to do it on their own terms.  Producer Alex Coletti remembers:   "We got a setlist out of the band, and other than 'Come As You Are,' there are no real Nirvana hits.  I wish Kurt or someone in the band or management clued us into 'We put thought into this, this works this way, trust us.' Instead it was just [defiantly] 'This is what we’re doing.'...Not being familiar with some of the covers, some of the people here became very tense about 'We’ve got to get them to do more hits.'...I said to MTV, They're going to bring some guests on.' And at first everybody's eyes lit up, like, ‘Who's it gonna be?’ They wanted to hear the 'right names' — Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos…But when I said 'the Meat Puppets,' it was kind of like, 'Oh, great. They're not doing any hits, and they're inviting guests who don't have any hits to come play. Perfect.'"

Also at this time, Kurt Cobain was struggling with stomach problems and addition:    "I've been recuperating...I had done heroin for about a year, off and on. I've had this stomach condition for like five years. There were times, especially during touring, when I just felt like a drug addict - even though I wasn't - because I was starving [an outgrowth of this condition--Editor] and couldn't find out what was wrong with me. I tried everything I could think of. Change diet, pills, everything... exercised, stopped drinking, stopped smoking, and nothing worked. I just decided that if I'm going to feel like a junkie every day fucking morning and be vomiting every day then I may as well take a substance that kills that pain. I can't say that's the main reason why I did it, but that has a lot to do with it. It has a lot more to do with it than most people think...Most of the time I sing right from my stomach. Right from where the pain is...It's definitely there. Every time I've had an endoscope, they find a red irritation in my stomach. But it's psychosomatic, it's all from anger. And screaming. My body is damaged from music in two ways: not only has my stomach inflamed from irritation, but I have scoliosis. I had minor scoliosis in junior high, and since I've been playing guitar ever since, the weight of the guitar has made my back grow in this curvature. So when I stand, everything is sideways, it's weird...It gives me a back pain all the time. That really add the pain to our music. It really does. I'm kind of grateful for it."

Despite his health issues (he had been throwing up bile and blood the night before), the show was taped on November 18, 1993 at Sony Music Studios in New York City.  The set was put together with dark curtains, stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier, as per the request of Cobain ("Like a funeral.").   The performance was produced by Alex Coletti, Scott Litt, and Nirvana and featured Kurt Cobain on lead vocals and acoustic guitar;   Krist Novoselic on acoustic bass, accordion, and acoustic rhythm guitar;  and Dave Grohl on drums, backing vocals, and acoustic bass;   with Pat Smear on acoustic guitar, Lori Goldston on cello,  and special guests The Meat Puppets (Cris Kirkwood on acoustic bass and backing vocals and Curt Kirkwood on acoustic lead guitar) sitting in for renditions of three songs from their 'Meat Puppets II' album.   Challenges that had plagued rehersals evaporated during the live set when Cobain suggested he do 'Pennyroyal Tea' alone.  

Grohl looks back:  "I had this small cocktail drum set and these really light sticks.  In rehearsal, we would do a song, and Kurt would turn to me and say, 'Hey, do you think you could play it a little bit lighter?' 'Oh yeah, I'll try.' So we'd do another take, and he'd turn around and go, 'Could you bring it down just a little bit more?' And we'd do another take, and he'd say, 'You know what, just still, could you bring it down?' And I was like, 'Should I even f---ing be here?' ... We'd seen a lot of other bands do Unplugged tapings, and what they'd done was basically rock out the songs as if they were playing electric instruments. They didn't do anything to change the songs; they just basically plugged in acoustic guitars instead of electric ones. There was no way we were going to try to pull off 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' with f---ing acoustic guitars. It wouldn't work...I think Kurt wanted to bring it down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level, which was really fun. I think that's what made it so special; it wasn't just acoustic versions of Nevermind."

Novoselic joked that the point was "to show off our softer side — like scented toilet paper...Doing MTV Unplugged was a lot of fun…It was a Nirvana triumph, but it's also Nirvana Lite. But it was cool that we managed to pull it off. At least I got to play my accordion."

Rather than re-record songs as was typical for other acts, Nirvana plowed through their set in one take that lasted less than an hour.  After a particularly cathartic version of Leadbelly's 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night', Cobain refused to go back out and do an encore.  His final plea with the producers:   "I can’t top that last song."  

Afterward, Cobain was still uncertain with the tentative audience response, confiding in MTV's Amy Finnerty:  “No one liked it...They just sat there silently.”
She reassured him:  “Kurt, they think you are Jesus Christ.  Most of these people have never had the opportunity to see you that close. They were totally taken with you.” 
Cobain reconsidered:  “I was really fucking good tonight, wasn’t I?”

After Cobain's death in April of 1994, MTV played the concert around the clock.  DGC announced that the 'Unplugged' show would be released as part of a retrospective double live album called 'Verse Chorus Verse'; however, Novoselic and Grohl were still too grieved to compile the release and decided to just release 'MTV Unplugged in New York'.  During its first week of release in November of 1994, the album debuted at number one with three hundred and ten thousand, five hundred copies sold.  It also charted at number twenty in Japan; six in Germany and Norway; three in Belgium and Switzerland; two in the Netherlands and Sweden; and number one in Australia, Austria, Canada, France, New Zealand, Spain, and the UK.  'MTV Unplugged in New York' also won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album.  


'MTV Unplugged in New York'
full show:

Nirvana - MTV Unplugged 1993 by fecalmaster

All songs written by Kurt Cobain, except where noted.

About a Girl — 01:09
Come As You Are — 04:17
Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam (The Vaselines) — 08:47
The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie) — 13:23
Pennyroyal Tea — 17:47
Dumb — 22:35
Polly — 25:52
On a Plain — 29:32
Something in the Way — 33:07
Plateau (Meat Puppets) — 40:50
Oh, Me (Meat Puppets) — 44:20
Lake Of Fire (Meat Puppets) — 47:40
All Apologies — 51:31
Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Leadbelly) — 58:00

bare witness: 


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