It’s worth remembering and repeating: Unplugged was never meant to be Nirvana’s final statement. Recorded in New York on November 18, 1993, five months before Kurt Cobain’s death, it was the first of three tapings in three days that week for MTV. “I think the next day, we did Stone Temple Pilots,” series producer Alex Coletti tells Apple Music. “And Tony Bennett the day after that.” Almost immediately after the band had finished, a production crew was tearing the set down, including the black candles and white Stargazer lilies that would later give viewers the feeling that they were watching a living funeral. “It should all still be sitting there,” Coletti says of the set. “It should be preserved in glass. But we didn’t know at the time—we moved on.”
It’s impossible at this point to divorce the recording from images of Cobain, from the mythology of the night. (The cardigan he wore, still unwashed since the performance, just raised $334,000 at auction, making it the most expensive sweater ever sold.) The live album wouldn’t see release until nearly a year later. “We used it as a way to mourn Kurt on air,” Coletti says of the show. “We’d aired it so often that year it was a shock that the album sold so well. Everyone had seen it.” But on its own, Unplugged remains one of rock’s great live albums, as well as a glimpse of Nirvana at their most naked and idiosyncratic.
They’d upended the hopes and expectations of the network by electing to play anything but the hits, “Come As You Are” being one exception. (“I was never going to talk them into ‘Teen Spirit,’” Coletti says.) Instead, they came armed with covers and deep cuts and guests that definitely weren’t in rotation. This wasn’t just the world’s biggest band at the moment, but one of its loudest and most dissonant, too. And yet, there was Krist Novoselic, swapping his bass for an accordion (his first instrument) to reimagine The Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” itself a parody of an old children’s Christian hymn. Dave Grohl, whose outsized drumming had concerned Cobain and the producers ahead of the performance, played with brushes for the very first time, showing total control as the drums kicked in on Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” Cris and Curt Kirkwood—of the influential but often overlooked Arizona psych-punk outfit Meat Puppets—sat in for luminous readings of not one but three of their own songs. Cobain had promoted underground artists he loved before, by famously wearing their T-shirts onstage (see: Flipper, Daniel Johnston, and, under said cardigan that night, Frightwig), but “Oh, Me” had never been (and likely never will be again) played to a nationally televised audience of millions. “I feel like it’s this great mixtape they made for their fans,” Coletti says. “To say, ‘Hey, this is who we are.’”
For as otherworldly as the final moments and last gasp of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” are (“Like a werewolf,” Neil Young reportedly said after first seeing its performance. “Unbelievable”), Cobain’s originals here are every bit as chilling. From the Lennon-esque swing of “About a Girl” to the bloodletting of “Pennyroyal Tea” and the poetic thrum of “All Apologies,” not only did his work hold up fine without the noise and feedback—it shined. Few songwriters or bands could have made that transition feel so natural, and Cobain—always one to keep the world at arm’s length, guessing—feels as close here as he ever would. But if Unplugged has proven to be one of our lasting memories of him, it’s due, in large part, to the warmth and clarity of it all: every scream, every chorus, every shift in mood or grain of humor between songs. This was not meant to be goodbye, but something else. You don’t need to see it to believe it.