Nirvana’s Unplugged: 20 Years On
More than two decades after Nirvana and friends sat down in a studio in New York for MTV, the accidental album has become their legacy.
I don’t remember the first time I heard Nirvana’s Unplugged album, but I remember when I first saw it. Late at night, in my granny’s house in Galway, it came on MTV. She had MTV, my house in Dublin didn’t. So I would spend weeks during the summer sitting in her living room at night after she had gone to bed, watching Beavis and Butthead, and the types of music videos that MTV played at night; Prince’s ‘Gett Off’ and Madonna’s ‘Erotica’. Sex, theatre, pop culture and music collided in these videos I felt I shouldn’t be allowed to watch. Kurt Cobain was already dead by the time the re-run of Unplugged came on one evening, late in the summer of 1994. The album wasn’t out yet.
The next time I saw it was a few years later, in my friend Niamh’s house. She had it on VHS, and my family only had a VCR in our living room when my Dad would borrow an ancient top-loading machine from the school he worked in for birthdays. I had one video, Disney’s Aladdin, and watched it every time the VCR appeared to the point that I knew the entire script off by heart. Myself and Niamh watched Unplugged so much that eventually the tape in the VHS cassette wore out, glitching annoyingly at crucial points.
I owned the album recording of the studio session (which switches the tracklisting around) on cassette first too. The first cassette was the album recorded on to a blank one by a friend. The second was bought in Borderline records. As many of you will remember, Borderline in Temple Bar had shelves that catalogued countless concert tapes of Nirvana with badly photocopied two-tone printed sleeves and titles like ‘A Season In Hell’ and ‘Outcesticide: Rape Of The Vaults’. I would choose wisely each week, pulling at the sleeves of my Nirvana hoodie bought in Asha with thumbholes burned in the cuffs. At this point, I also had a heavy tape-sharing habit amongst myself and my friends. We would swap and gift constantly, especially during the summer when we were less accessible and would post them to each other. Nirvana featured heavily. I bought all the Nirvana bootlegs I could find. And on holidays to Florida each summer (my mum worked for TWA), I would hit the record store in the local mall, eventually amassing every release Nirvana ever put out, including every version of every single, Japanese imports and interview CDs, including one CD recording of Courtney Love reading Cobain’s suicide note. One summer, I ordered one from a Floridian store, and returned a year later to collect it, without thinking that it was slightly strange that a record store would mind something for a year until this weird Irish 15-year-old would come back to claim it, dollars earned from converting pounds from a paper round in hand. I think that was a different version of the ‘Come As You Are’ single. Then I moved on to cover versions of Nirvana tracks. Ash put out ‘Blew’ on the Numbskull EP. Stereophonics (yes, seriously) covered ‘Something In The Way’ on the second UK CD single release of ‘Pick A Part That’s New’.
Taking off the fan hat, and putting on a less partisan one, Nevermind has aged quite badly. The slick Butch Vig production takes away from from the songs as the years pass. It’s sound has dated, although it also still sounds loud and clean. Bleach still sounds great, even though it’s a bit of a mess. It has ‘Kurt’ written as ‘Kurdt Kobain’ in the sleeve. That, along with Kurt’s K Records tattoo led to a teenage obsession with the letter ‘K’ for me (again, seriously), and I would be lost for words years later when Calvin Johnson performed a gig in my living room. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him anything about Cobain. That would have been a lame thing to do anyway. I still love Incesticide, although I remember my mother balking at the cover of that and the amazing In Utero. But the spirit of Nirvana is in Unplugged.
It’s a perfect album, and shows how important constraints are in challenging a band to display a new dimension to their songs. Devoid of the buzzing amps and Telecasters, Nirvana were forced to think differently, and let their songs reveal themselves in a more gentle way, which ultimately unveiled a beauty behind the noise. Bringing appropriate covers into the mix introduced a generation of grunge heads to Bowie and Lead Belly.
Every Nirvana fan knows the stories, anecdotes and myths that surround that recording. How Cobain kept asking for more flowers to be brought out on set, about how he wanted the studio to be dressed as a funeral, in either a purposeful morbid sign off, or an accidentally prophetic coincidence. There’s a piece on it over on MTV.com on the 20th anniversary here. But it’s strange, really, that Unplugged, with Dave Grohl struggling not to play loudly on drums, and Pat Smear grinning from the sidelines on guitar, would become Nirvana’s most popular legacy. Perhaps their most acclaimed. It’s the most un-Nirvana of records. For me, the joy of Nirvana was in their sheer grunginess, the mess of noise and indecipherable lyrics.
After school, I would go to Niamh’s house and listen to Nirvana and Hole. Or I would go to my mate Hannah-Eve’s house and listen to Pretty On The Inside and talk about how cool Courtney Love was before stealing booze from her parents’ drink cabinet and running around Dalkey and Killiney in the dark ringing the buzzers on the mansions. “Is Bono home?” “Bono doesn’t live here.” “Oh, ok. Is Eddie Irvine around?” “Seriously, go away, would you?” “Sorry Enya.” This was around the time when there were still sporadic beach parties happening on the south side, which we were too dumb to realise were raves at the tail end of acid house and techno before dance music and ecstasy moved permanently into the clubs. We would fall asleep listening to Unplugged or Jeff Buckley’s Grace. My mate Burco was more into The Pixies, The Frames and Velvet Underground, and there was still a common line with Buckley. But Nirvana was always a constant.
When I’d eventually leave those houses, I’d go home, and sit on the stairs and ring Niamh and discuss Nirvana lyrics. Some were on the sleeves (in the case of In Utero) and others were written in notebooks I transcribed sitting close to the speaker. Transcribing lyrics was something I was big into. This had evolved from making my own radio logs from the age of 9 or 10. I completely forgot about this until a few years ago, I found a box of scrapbooks (those slightly bigger than A4 ones with green, blue and off-red pages that had some kind of Aztec/Christmas jumper motif on the cover) in the attic documenting songs played on the radio: the station, the song title, the time, the artist and the DJ. Myself and Niamh would discuss why Cobain chose to say “our little group” in one version of Smells Like Teen Spirit and “our little tribe” in another. These staircase lessons probably formed the basis of an interest in the critical analysis of texts. When we were 15, as part of transition year, a songwriter came into school to teach us the basics of songwriting. She must have been kind of alarmed at the doom and gloom that filled the Nirvana fans’ songs. My one was written with my friend Orla and called ‘Black Hole’. Terrible! “The black hole is scrawled on the page / I feel drawn in by its simple rage.”
All of our bedrooms were covered in Nirvana posters. I eventually ran out of space and started taping them to the ceiling, nearly dying of fright one night when a two metre by one metre Kurt Cobain poster fell on me as I slept. We wrote Nirvana lyrics on the toilet doors of The International. We carved them into desks and tagged them on busses and Darts, and drew the smiley face logo in wet cement in the paths of Dun Laoghaire and Booterstown with sticks and rulers. We locked ourselves away listening to ‘Polly’ and learning ‘About A Girl’ on guitar. I bought plaid shirts and drew Daniel Johnston’s ‘Hi How Are You?’ cartoon badly on a white t-shirt stolen from my Dad’s vest drawer. It seems kind of ridiculous now, but Nirvana were probably the third most important thing in my life as a teenager: 1. Family. 2. Friends. 3. Nirvana. I actually think I made that list at some point. Probably in the same copybook as some horrific grunge-inspired depressing poetry which was stored in a folder covered with pictures of Nirvana cut out from music magazines.
It feels kind of crazed now to be into a band so much. I can completely identify with One Direction fans who are constantly slagged off and belittled. I’m sure the same people scoffing at their fandom were incredibly into something at one point to a degree that it felt like a large part of their life. Grown men have tattoos of football team crests and queue for hours for Apple products and dress up as Darth Vader at comic conventions and swoon over Morrissey, so One Direction fans screaming outside a hotel aren’t exactly that extreme.
Unplugged captured the sweetness I knew Nirvana had but that had they rarely articulated before, aside from on ‘Polly’, ‘Something In The Way’ and ‘About A Girl’. It’s also a real fan’s record, where you savour the between-song banter, jokes and tunings as much as a the songs themselves. But while Nirvana albums were full of Cobain’s both physical and emotional pain, all of the tragedy of the band can be summed up in one moment on that record: Cobain’s sigh towards the end of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ It’s the most painful of exhalations. A full stop. Even though he appears jovial throughout the recording, that sigh makes you think that he was done and it was over, frustrated and sad, as if it had taken all of his energy to get through that said as the audience awkwardly whooped and no one knew who The Meat Puppets were. Notably frail, dressed in layers, when his vocal volume is eventually raised on that Lead Belly cover it almost sounds like a death rattle. The sigh. The end.