Wednesday, October 3, 2007

[056] Unplugged In New York

Album: Unplugged In New York
Artist: Nirvana
Release Date: November 1994
Label: DGC/Geffen
Producers: Scott Litt & Nirvana, with Alex Coletti (show producer)

“This is off our first record. Most people don't own it.“
- Kurt Cobain's intro for “About A Girl“

A live album is supposed to be a special thing, a chance to hear your favorite band like you’ve never heard them before, especially if they record the show in an exotic locale. But what happens when the live album is a recording of a show everyone has seen? Is it still special if you take away the entire point of the live album as a medium – to ‘wish you were there’? I would tend to think it would, but then that would make Nirvana the exception to the rule, a position they have been in pretty much from the first time “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played on 120 Minutes in September 1991. Recorded just over two years later, in November 1993, Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York could be likened to the various releases of Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comback Special, but more specifically within that, to Elvis’ loose jam session in the round. For both Presley and Kurt Cobain, these moments became portraits of them as they truly were; even though they were on stage, they were effortlessly natural and relaxed – they were themselves, and as a fan, it was a rare peek behind the curtain.

Most people my age know this show as well as the time Courtney threw her compact at Madonna, or the time Julie asked the beeper-owning Heather B if she was a drug dealer. In the days and months following Kurt’s tragic suicide, MTV beat this thing to…well, join its star, and I think it tarnished its luster a bit. If you try and find someone, between the ages of 25 and 35, who can talk about the live album without talking about its TV program counterpart, I think you might fail. For me personally though, I enjoyed revisiting this performance because at the time I wasn’t a huge Nirvana fan, so I didn’t videotape the show off MTV, and I didn’t watch it over and over; it’s been a while since I listened to it, so I got to listen with fresh ears. Listening to it now, it's a portrait of a young band, one that is steeped in underground culture but is moving in the uncertainty of the spotlight, allowed to pretty much play whatever they want, and so they break out their favorite songs and invite some personal idols over to party. For the band, it was just another show, maybe with the added bonus of subverting the corporation, MTV, that had built them up. Kurt & co. couldn't have had any idea that it would become an inconic moment in Pop history.

The audience had no idea either. I emailed my old record store friend, the legendary Rob G., and asked him what he remembered about attending the show, and what he thought in retrospect. I figured if my whole generation would subconsciously consider the live album and the show to be one entity, the only person I could talk to was someone who had experienced it in person. Rob told me, "It's really weird and surreal because I honestly never expected it to be this famous moment in Pop history." He went on to mention that there were two other "real" shows (read: "loud & electric") in NYC that week, and that those were equally memorable. Rob continued...

The acoustic gig was amazing, but totally unexpected. I knew they'd play songs like "Polly", but I was surprised by the restraint. I assumed they'd do "Teen Spirit" or "Lithium" or "In Bloom" - the singles - but they didn't. I remember being confused for half of it because I didn't recognize the Bowie song, and then the Meat Puppets came out and they did three of their songs. So, it didn't stand out compared to the shows earlier in the week because it's like that feeling you have when a band comes out and does all new material. It's your first time hearing it, and you're not sure what to think.

Rob also gave me a clear cut impression of the scrappy little down-to-Earth punk band that could - that the band were comfortable enough to hang out with, and give group hugs to his fan club section before the show, but by the same token could take multiple shots at the mostly MTV-employed audience, not to mention the ridiculous notion of being Rock stars in the first place. Beyond Kurt's zingers about being rich enough to have enough extra guitars for the Meat Puppets, and buying one of Leadbelly's axes for half a mil, one little bit Rob told me about that didn't make it to air, and I didn't even find on YouTube bootlegs, was when Kurt asked for requests, and VJ Kennedy yelled out for In Utero highlight "Rape Me"; Kurt responded with the barbed retort, "Is that you Kennedy? Well, you wouldn't let us play that song at the MTV Awards, so you're not getting it now." In that way, it is indeed refreshing that the viewer that tuned in to MTV Unplugged did get a little bit of the real Kurt, the unaffected Kurt. Krist & Dave were easy; you always knew what you were gonna get with them. But Kurt, the fact that he opened up so much, is what makes this show special; if he was still around today, he might regret some of his Unplugged choices like Rivers Cuomo regrets some of Pinkerton. Was "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" meant to be a tirade against Courtney? What are we meant to take from his choice of "The Man Who Sold The World"? And is Kurt now flying with the angels, or frying in the "Lake Of Fire"? In the end, it doesn't matter. It really was just another concert for the band - or maybe not. Show producer Alex Coletti noted once that he tried to convince the band to perform an encore, but Kurt said, "I can't top that last song". He knew there was something special, and I definitely wish I was there.

Visit Rob G. here:
- Pretty Polly [his band]
- Icons of Fright [horror cinema]
- Rob's movie scores [on Myspace]

01. “About A Girl”
02. “Come As You Are”
03. “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”
04. “The Man Who Sold The World”
05. “Pennyroyal Tea”
06. “Dumb”
07. “Polly”
08. “On A Plain”
09. “Something In The Way”
10. “Plateau” [feat. Cris & Curt Kirkwood]
11. “Oh Me” [feat. Cris & Curt Kirkwood]
12. “Lake Of Fire” [feat. Cris & Curt Kirkwood]
13. “All Apologies”
14. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

"About A Girl" [from MTV Unplugged]

"Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" [from MTV Unplugged]

- BONUS: "Come As You Are" [from MTV Unplugged]
- BONUS: "The Man Who Sold The World" [from MTV Unplugged]
- BONUS: "Pennyroyal Tea" [from MTV Unplugged]
- BONUS: "Dumb" [from MTV Unplugged]
- BONUS: "Polly" [from MTV Unplugged]
- BONUS: 30 seconds of "Sweet Home Alabama"/"Plateau" [from MTV Unplugged]
- BONUS: "Lake Of Fire" [from MTV Unplugged]
- BONUS: "All Apologies" [from MTV Unplugged]

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