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In the Room at Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’

Whatever demons were circling him, Kurt Cobain was in total control on a night that showed what his future could have been

Kurt Cobain at the 'MTV Unplugged in New York' taping, November 18th, 1993.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Everyone remembers the sweater, but I mostly remember the hush.

Twenty-five years ago today, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York arrived on CD, cassette, and VHS tape. By then, Kurt Cobain had been dead nearly seven months, and the appearance of this largely acoustic performance, taped nearly a year before, took on the feel of a memorial service. That mood wasn’t reflected simply in the look of the stage — which, with its flowers and candles, eerily evoked the “funeral” scenario Cobain was aiming for — but also in the toned-down performances of “All Apologies,” “Come As You Are,” and versions of songs by the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines, and Lead Belly.

In those pre-social media days, those of us lucky enough to score tickets to the taping thought we knew what to expect as we were escorted into the Sony Studio just north of Times Square. We knew Cobain didn’t seem all that happy being a rock star and that Nirvana was essentially acquiescing to industry dictates by taping one of these shows. By the fall of 1993, Unplugged wasn’t simply one of MTV’s biggest franchises but practically part of every act’s marketing plan. Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, LL Cool J, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, and Aerosmith, among many, had already taped Unplugged episodes to promote new records. So most of us also assumed an unamplified Nirvana set would include songs from In Utero, which had dropped a little more than a month before.

Thanks to accounts that have emerged since, we now know what was taking place in the days leading up to that taping. Since Nirvana had never performed without full-on electricity, the rehearsals were tense. MTV brass weren’t thrilled when the promised guests turned out to be the Meat Puppets and not, say, anyone from Pearl Jam. Cobain was going through withdrawal that morning. There were even disputes between the band and network over the stage set. None of us knew that Cobain hadn’t washed his hair in more than a week.

Yet as we all settled into our seats — fans, celebrities (Kate Moss), rock stars (members of Sonic Youth), media and industry types — the prevalent feeling in the air was mystery. In most of those previous cases, you pretty much knew how the songs would sound before the show aired. (It was easy to imagine “Dream On” with just a piano, acoustic guitars, and lighter drumming.) But how would Cobain’s songs come across in this format? Few of us had ever heard the band without tinnitus-inducing volume — in fact, just a few days before, they had played a loud, raucous show at a dreary, sound-deadening concrete slab of a venue, the now thankfully demolished New York Coliseum. But what would Nirvana “unplugged” be? No one had taped rehearsal footage on a cell phone and leaked it. Hardly anyone had a mobile phone in 1993.

At the time, I was working for Entertainment Weekly, and several colleagues joined me as we were seated in the far corner of the last row of bleachers. (As one of my co-workers, Bruce Fretts, recalls, “It struck me that maybe they wanted cooler-looking people down front on camera.” They were probably right.) We took note of the beautiful if gloomy staging, watched as camera people made last-minute adjustments, and saw Cobain emerge on the other side of the room and talk to a few stunned fans in the front row. Everyone cheered as he, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic, joined by new guitarist Pat Smear (and cellist Lori Goldstone on a few songs), settled in behind their instruments. And then we quieted down in order to get a handle on what exactly we were going to hear — the 1993 equivalent of a new album dropping at midnight without any music drifting out in advance.

Of course, Cobain was sporting that Fred Rogers sweater and playing an acoustic guitar (with hidden amplification), and the set opened with “About a Girl,” which he dryly introduced as from an album (Bleach) most people didn’t know. (Not sure if that was true, since Nevermind sent many fans back to its predecessor, but, well, never mind.) The song was quieter than the studio version, and Grohl’s drum sticks were seen but barely heard, yet the song was as gripping as it was on Bleach, and you immediately sensed: Yes, this could work.

The next song, “Come As You Are,” re-created the burbling-underwater groove of the original, and other songs — “On a Plain” “Something in the Way” — felt beautifully bedraggled. But what followed was not your typical Unplugged. As everyone saw for themselves months later on the video (now DVD), we heard only a few of their best-known songs, along with self-deprecating Cobain comments (for instance, whether he was going to “screw this song up,” before playing David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”). After each song, there was enthusiastic applause, and then the room would again become a grunge-folk mass. The mood in the warehouse-large studio wasn’t what anyone would call relaxed — with his stringy hair and feral gaze, Cobain couldn’t quite pull off the Frisbee-flinging troubadour vibe -— yet the feel was undeniably intimate.

Most of what we witnessed up close is on the released footage, like the moment before “Pennyroyal Tea” when Cobain shrugs, “OK, but here’s another one I could screw up.” Yet for all its ramshackle charm, what was also striking was how together the performance was. The set moved efficiently from one song to the next. I’d been to a few similar TV music tapings before, where mistakes and retakes were an inevitable part of the process. But according to former MTV executive Alex Coletti, Nirvana’s Unplugged was only one of three episodes played straight through with no retakes — the other two being Live and Crosby, Stills and Nash. (Two of the rehearsal tapes, for “Polly” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” were released two weeks back and document how the musicians wrestled with the makeovers before the taping.)

Especially after the Meat Puppets joined Nirvana to perform not one but three of their songs, the show became a guided tour through the cult recesses of Cobain’s mind. When Nirvana began “All Apologies,” we had the feeling the show was winding down; the return to familiar material felt like a bookend to the way “Come as You Are” had been sung near the beginning of the taping. We all thought they were done. Then, of course, came Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The death-march trudge of the arrangement was unlike anything we’d heard up to that point, and the moment we all remember – Cobain pushing his voice up a register, shredding the word “shiver” in the last chorus with a phlegmy rasp remains one of the most jolting things I’ve experienced at a concert.

Yet the way the arrangement built from skeletal to wearily majestic wasn’t sloppy or ill-conceived, but carefully arranged and structured, growing in intensity instrument by instrument. Whatever demons were circling him, Cobain appeared to be in control of what he was doing right then and there, and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” proved he knew more than a thing or two about arranging and dynamics. He knew how to both calm and work the crowd in a way without seeming smarmy or calculated about it.

In that moment, Cobain’s mastery was in full view, along with a possible future for his career, with or without Nirvana: Any doubts that he had a limited musical future vanished instantly. There was, of course, no encore, and I remember most of us walking out of the studio feeling thrilled yet drained. The entire performance made you feel as if Cobain would perhaps survive, that maybe this troubled but charismatic musician was stronger than the rumors had led us to believe and he would make it after all. But we remember what happened about five months later. The quiet seemed to be his salvation, until it wasn’t.