Nirvana had been in negotiations with MTV to appear on its acoustic-based show MTV Unplugged for some time. It was while touring with the Meat Puppets that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain finally accepted. The band wanted to do something different from a typical MTV Unplugged episode for its performance. According to drummer Dave Grohl, "We'd seen the other Unpluggeds and didn't like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars." The group looked at Mark Lanegan's 1990 album The Winding Sheet for inspiration. Among the ideas the band members came up with included covering David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and inviting members of the Meat Puppets to join them on stage. Still, the prospect of an entirely acoustic show made Cobain nervous.
Nirvana rehearsed for two days. The rehearsals were tense and difficult, with the band running into problems performing various songs. During the sessions, Cobain disagreed with MTV as to how the performance should be presented. Producer Alex Coletti recalled that the network was unhappy with the lack of hit Nirvana songs in the setlist, and with the band's choice of the Meat Puppets as guests, saying: "They wanted to hear the 'right' names - Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who." Upset, the day before filming, Cobain refused to play; however, he appeared at the studio the following afternoon. Cobain was suffering from drug withdrawal and nervousness at the time; one observer said, "There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him ... Therefore, everyone was more than a little worried about his performance."
Nirvana taped its performance for MTV Unplugged on November 18, 1993, at Sony Studios in New York City. Cobain suggested that the stage be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. Cobain's request prompted the show's producer to ask him, "You mean like a funeral?", to which the singer replied, "Exactly. Like a funeral." Nirvana was augmented by guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, who had been touring with the band. Despite the show's premise, Cobain insisted on running his acoustic guitar through his amplifier and effects pedals. Coletti built a fake box in front of the amplifier to disguise it as a monitor wedge. Coletti said, "It was Kurt's security blanket. He was used to hearing this guitar through his Fender. He wanted those effects. You can hear it on 'The Man Who Sold the World'. It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp."
Unlike many artists who appeared on the show, Nirvana filmed the entire performance in a single take. The 14-song setlist included one song from their debut album, Bleach, four songs from the 1991 album Nevermind, three tracks from the then-recently released In Utero, and six cover songs. The group shied away from playing its better-known songs; In Utero's "All Apologies" had not yet been released as a single, which means the only contemporary hit the band performed was the Nevermind song "Come as You Are", released as a single in 1992.
Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets joined the band onstage to perform three of their group's songs with Nirvana. The set ended with a performance of the traditional song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", following the arrangement of blues musician Lead Belly, whom Cobain described right before the song as "his favorite performer ever". This rendition has been regarded as one of the greatest live single song performances of all time. As Atlantic critic Andrew Wallace Chamings described:
For the final line, "I would shiver the whole night through," Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word "shiver" so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word "whole" and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that's hard to describe: he opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity.
After the band finished, Cobain argued with the show's producers, who wanted an encore. Cobain refused because he felt he could not top the performance of that song.
After Cobain was found dead in April 1994, MTV aired the Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged repeatedly. To meet demand for new Nirvana material and to counter bootlegging, DGC announced in August 1994 that it would release a double album, Verse Chorus Verse, which was to include live performances from 1989 to 1994, as well as the entire MTV Unplugged performance. However, the task of compiling the album was too emotionally difficult for the surviving band members, so the project was cancelled a week after the official announcement. Instead, Novoselic and Grohl opted to commercially release just the Unplugged performance.Scott Litt, who had produced the performance, returned to produce the record.
MTV Unplugged in New York was released on November 1, 1994. The following week, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold 310,500 copies, which was the highest first-week sales of Nirvana's career. The album received positive reviews from critics.Q magazine said that as an acoustic ensemble, the band sounded "most moving, possessed of a ragged glory", while Rolling Stone found the record "stirring and occasionally brilliant" with "spare and gorgeous spots everywhere", highlighting the band's chemistry on "All Apologies" and Cobain's unaccompanied performance of "Pennyroyal Tea". Ben Thompson from Mojo felt that unlike most "unplugged" releases, the format's "colourless, generic aspect" and not seeing the actual performance benefits Nirvana's record because of how intense it seems in light of Cobain's death. In Entertainment Weekly, David Browne also felt unsettled listening to it: "Beyond inducing a sense of loss for Cobain himself, Unplugged elicits a feeling of musical loss, too: the delicacy and intimacy of these acoustic rearrangements hint at where Nirvana (or at least Cobain, who was said to be frustrated with the limitations of the band) could have gone."
At the end of 1994, MTV Unplugged in New York was voted the fourth best album of the year in Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of prominent American critics published by The Village Voice.Robert Christgau, the poll's supervisor, also ranked the album fourth in his own year-end list, deeming it a testament to Cobain's depth of feeling, "sincerity" as a vocalist, and distinction from other sensitive alternative rock types such as Eddie Vedder and Lou Barlow: "The vocal performance he evokes is John Lennon's on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. And he did it in one take." By March 1995, the album had outsold In Utero with 6.8 million copies sold. In a retrospective review for AllMusic, senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine said MTV Unplugged in New York was fearlessly confessional unlike most other records as it found Nirvana and Cobain "on the verge of discovering a new sound and style". Jason Mendelsohn from PopMatters believed its intimate folk rock quality was radical from a band that had revolutionized rock music the way they had and from a musician as introverted as Cobain, "as crass of a business move as it was" by their record label. In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), journalist Charles M. Young called it the band's "second masterpiece", alongside Nevermind, and claimed that Cobain could have "revolutionized folk music the same way he had rock" because of his striking voice, exceptional taste in covering songs, and the quality of his own songs, which proved to be great with "a loud band bashing away behind you" or "with just an acoustic guitar".
*sales figures based on certification alone ^shipments figures based on certification alone
The MTV Unplugged In New York performance was released on DVD on November 20, 2007. The DVD release featured the entire taping, including the two songs ("Something in the Way" and "Oh Me") excluded from the broadcast version. Bonus features consisted of the original broadcast version of the performance, a 1999 MTV special titled Bare Witness: Nirvana Unplugged featuring the recollections of MTV producers and audience members, and five songs taped during the pre-show rehearsal: "Come as You Are", "Polly", "Plateau", "Pennyroyal Tea", and "The Man Who Sold the World".
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