Revisiting:Nirvana Unplugged

28 Jul

On Spotify I have been hearing a smattering of tunes all of which pop up from random instincts within my brain, such is the pain and pleasure of having an immense database of music at your disposal. At 4am I found myself listening to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album for the first time in years.(which yes of course I own, but Spotify makes it easy to just pull stuff up!) I’m not sure why it’s been so long, it’s not that I haven’t heard Nirvana, maybe I just felt that it had been superseded by the recent release of their legendary set at the Reading festival. I mean that album IS Nirvana personified. Three chords at their loudest, all of the hits up to that point, charismatic perilous vocals by Kurt Cobain, and the energy of a nuclear crowd and a band hungry to prove themselves. This one Reading album makes up for the array of posthumously assembled compilations and box sets and is a necessary addition to any collection of Nirvana and rock and roll in general.
However what about the first posthumous release, Unplugged? I mean obviously everyone saw the special on loop after Cobain’s unfortunate suicide and they released 4 or 5 singles/videos of the performance. Everyone’s certainly heard the album, but listening to it again I never realized how jarring this album actually is. By jarring I don’t mean the typical spiraling cacophony of the band’s sound, it’s more about the choices made by the band itself for this special.
For example, looking at the actual album and program, there are indeed Cobain originals such as Something In The Way, About A Girl, Come As You Are, but there is a deliberate lack of hits on the album. No Heart Shaped Box? No Smells Like Teen Spirit? No Lithium? For the Nirvana newbie this album gives no impression of what the band really embodied…
And yet it is the immense(in stature and number) array of covers that have caused this album to cast a long shadow over the whole band’s discography. Where Did You Sleep Last Night(In The Pines), Man Who Sold The World, a troika of songs by the Meat Puppets all stand as monuments to the brilliance of Kurt Cobain the artist, singer and rock star. It takes balls to say, we’re doing a Lead Belly song, fuck doing another performance of Serve The Servants. Or In Bloom, it could sound good on acoustic, but not as awesome as Lake Of Fire! It’s a total rock star move that had to have the producers freaking out and only adds to the band’s legend.
Of course if you remember this performance well, you’ll notice how I haven’t mention the band’s cover of The Vaselines’ Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam. Now I love the Vaselines original, but hearing the Nirvana cover of this song again shook me. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since 1994, but yet it shook me up. Maybe it had just been so long since I had heard it, but it drove me to find the original performance on youtube to remember how it all really went down, how they looked. I hadn’t done it with any of the other songs, but this one I needed to see.
There was Kurt Cobain aged 26, bleached and comfortable in a swiveling office chair guitar slung over his lap. His face both pained and comfortable with his reading of the dour song. He never had a chance to look any different, he was gone in less than a year.
Krist Novoselic is on accordion, standing like a giant in galoshes over the rest of the seated band, using an instrument that wouldn’t be caught dead in the hands of the other bands of the era. A lady cellist adds to the gloom off to the side. Pat Smear is there too, a punk legend turned hired hand, sits with his brightly colored guitar keeping the rhythm intact.
Then hiding in the back, impending rock megastar, Dave Grohl looking younger than I ever remembered him being, actually plays guitar on Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam. I didn’t remember it being that way at all, especially with the muted rhythm that appears throughout the song, I never realized he just kind of pulled off a kind of simplified one man band for this song.
The performance of the song itself is still perfect and moving of course, Nirvana always added an earnestness that was often missing from The Vaselines tongue in cheek anthems.
Sitting there watching them do the song, after a few spins on Spotify to reunderstand why it’s so good, I realized I haven’t really WATCHED the band in years. I mean in my head I think of Nirvana and I remember how they made me feel and why I liked them and what they meant to me as I really started my love affair with music. (I was in 8th grade when Cobain killed himself) But, I’m now older than Kurt was in that performance and by attempting to remove the lens of the band’s legacy and cultural influence, and everything that was soon to happen, I saw the whole band differently. I mean the Reading album may showcase Nirvana at the height of their power, but this Unplugged performance shows them with an innocence and sincerity. Everyone looks so young, despite the stardom and the burdens and the expectations, the covers almost seem freeing almost fun away from some of the hyperpersonal lyrics of the typical band material. In that 4 minutes, Novoselic cracks a smile, Grohl almost rushes to make sure he doesn’t fuck up, and Cobain almost seems determined to show you that yeah he really does know what he’s doing and he’s gonna prove to you all over again.


One Response to “Revisiting:Nirvana Unplugged”

  1. Parker Sobieski July 29, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Way cool, some good arguments! I appreciate you making this article online, the rest of the site is also high quality. Have a good.

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