nirvana-unpluggedTwenty years ago this April, the corpse from the “spokesman of a generation” lay alone for three days at his Lake Washington home. Kurt Cobain had retreated from the spotlight as one of the world’s most famous musicians, had withdrawn from relationships with his friends, wife and baby daughter, and ultimately crumbled under the pressure of his unlikely fame, crippling depression and ravaging addiction. At 27, he had finally followed through on past suicide threats and attempts, injecting himself with a massive dose of heroin and ending his life with a shotgun sometime around April 5th, 1994. For all intents and purposes, the grunge movement died with him.

The impact of Cobain joining the 27 Club was as much a nightmare for alternative music as it was a wet dream for conspiracy theorists who have, in subsequent years, beaten to death the alternative explanations for his tragic and untimely passing. But one of the pearls to form out of the gritty aftermath of Cobain’s death—filled as it was by grief, handwringing, and paranoia—was the release of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, as intimate, raw and dazzling a performance as the short-lived yet massively influential band ever recorded.

The live performance on “MTV Unplugged” was recorded in a single take in November 1993, after MTV expended considerable effort to convince Nirvana to play the show. The band wanted to take a different approach from past guests, whose performances typically only differed from the atmosphere and theatrics of standard rock shows in that acoustic guitars were used. Cobain also butted heads with MTV over the setlist—which mostly skipped their biggest hits—and at his decision to incorporate his pals the Meat Puppets into the performance when there were so many bigger names to choose from. After initially refusing to appear, Kurt got his way, even shunning the “unplugged” requirement and getting technicians to build a secret amplifier into the stage to enhance his acoustic guitar.

The show remained contentious with producers, as Nirvana performed six covers in their set of 14 mostly second-tier songs. After the completion of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”—a cover of bluesman Lead Belly’s version of a folk song—MTV suits demanded an encore, but Cobain flat out refused, believing the performance of that song to be the night’s zenith. Despite the network’s discontent with the bucking of formula, MTV ended up playing the Nirvana episode of “Unplugged” on a loop following the breaking news of Cobain’s death.

Soon after his suicide, Cobain’s surviving bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl couldn’t emotionally bring themselves to compile the double-disc of live music that their label had just announced and those plans were scrapped in favor of simply releasing the recording of “Unplugged.” Twenty years after the performance and its subsequent release nearly a year later, this stripped down incarnation of Nirvana may ultimately be the band’s best. Due to the inherent nature of an acoustic set, there are large swaths of the record that simply feature Cobain with a microphone and (secretly amplified) acoustic guitar, and it would be difficult to orchestrate a more fitting swan song. Hindsight fills the live album with many chilling moments: the “No, I don’t have a gun” refrain on “Come as You Are” (one of the few hits to make the cut), “I must have died alone/ A long, long time ago” in David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” his lighthearted pondering of the afterlife on the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” and in the Meat Puppets’ “Lake of Fire.” Elsewhere, the intimacy is almost overwhelming, as the frontman to the biggest band in the world jokes with a refreshment-providing stagehand about already having three beverages, or how he guarantees he’s going to mess up “The Man Who Sold the World” and, when he pulls it off, says the same thing about what turns out to be an immaculate and tenderly sung “Pennyroyal Tea”. Elsewhere, he manages a dig at MTV’s expense when a woman from the audience shouts a request for “Rape Me,” and he even chides Johnnies-come-lately on opening song “About a Girl,” from the band’s first album, which he claimed that most people don’t own.

The setlist itself is impeccably arranged, with back-to-back emotive performances of “Dumb” and “Polly” serving as a fine centerpiece. “Something in the Way” marks the emotional high (or given the subject matter, perhaps low) point of the set as Cobain murmurs about his time spent in the solace of darkness and echoing river current under a bridge. Although he would claim to have lived there for a spell, Novoselic later debunked this as revisionism. The Meat Puppets covers, with the Kirkwood brothers in tow, are a nice touch: “Lake of Fire” feels like a definitive version while “Plateau” is perhaps too raspy and frail and is better left to the musician buddies whom Cobain described as “Thing 1 and Thing 2.” And unsurprisingly, Cobain was right to end the set with the raw-throated “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” an absolutely devastating climax of cathartic fury to end a show that was otherwise tender and almost sweet.

So, as you’re bombarded by Cobain retrospectives over the coming months, perhaps you’ll be inclined to dust off forsaken Nirvana records. There’s no better insight into the band as performers than this (mostly) unplugged session that Kurt never much wanted to do in the first place.

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