Everybody knows and loves Nirvana’s iconic performance for MTV Unplugged. Recorded in November 1993, it wasn’t released 12 months later, shortly after the tragic suicide of frontman Kurt Cobain. A stellar set featuring fan favourites, band favourites, and covers, it is perhaps the most candid performance Nirvana and Cobain ever gave.
It was one of the few moments in which fans were handed the opportunity to see Kurt Cobain as an ordinary human being, an incredible musician and a joker, all wrapped up in one cardigan-doning figure.
Whether it be the iconic cover of David Bowie song ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, ‘All Apologies’, the appearance of the Kirkwood brothers from The Meat Puppets or Cobain’s interactions with the band, one would argue that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged is the definitive entry in the long-running series.
In terms of the performance painting a truly natural picture of Kurt Cobain, one of the most revealing parts came right before the band’s closing song, the cover of Lead Belly’s arrangement of the traditional standard ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’.
Cobain made a revelation before the band jumped into the song. He introduced the track by saying: “This was written by my favourite performer”. Detailing further, the frontman then says: “Our favourite performer isn’t it?”, before turning to bassist Krist Novoselic for approval. The frontman then relays a story that Novoselic trys to tell the audience, but because the bass player doesn’t have a microphone, it was up to Cobain to recount it.
Nirvana said that earlier in the year that he had been offered Leadbelly’s guitar by a representative from the late folk singer’s estate. Classically Cobain, he exaggerated the cost to $500,000 and then jokingly recalls how he asked label boss David Geffen to purchase the guitar for him, but unsurprisingly, Geffen turned him down.
Interestingly as well, Neil Young, who is forever tied to Cobain after the singer cited the lyrics to ‘Hey Hey, My My’ in his suicide note, said Cobain’s tortured vocals on ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” sounded “unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable”.
Another facet of the performance was that Cobain refused to do an encore after ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, even though MTV wanted one. He thought the band sounded horrific and that he “sucked”. The silence of the audience is what made him come to this conclusion, when actually, they were just stunned by his sheer genius.
One of Nirvana’s finest moments, on ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, Cobain channelled his inner Lead Belly and delivered one of the most hauntingly beautiful vocal performances we’ve ever heard.