Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York [1994]

Released November 1, 1994
Recorded November 18, 1993, Sony StudiosNew York CityNew York, United States
Genre Acoustic rockalternative rock
Length 53:50
Label DGC
Producer Alex ColettiScott Litt, Nirvana

MTV Unplugged in New York is a live album by the American grunge band Nirvana. It features an acoustic performance taped at Sony Music Studios in New York City on November 18, 1993 for the television series MTV Unplugged. The show was directed by Beth McCarthy and first aired on the cable television network MTV on December 14, 1993. As opposed to traditional practice on the television series, Nirvana played a setlist composed of mainly lesser-known material and cover versions of songs by The VaselinesDavid BowieMeat Puppets (during which they were joined by two members of the group onstage) and Lead Belly.

MTV Unplugged in New York was the first Nirvana album released in the wake of the April 1994 suicide of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and has become the group’s most successful posthumous release, selling five million copies in America by 1997. It also won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. MTV Unplugged was hailed by critics as proof the band was able to transcend the grunge sound they were commonly associated with.[1] The performance was released on DVD in 2007.

The performance

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.[2] The band wanted to do something different from a typical MTV Unplugged episode for its performance. According to Dave Grohl, “We’d seen the otherUnpluggeds and didn’t like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it wasMadison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.” The group looked at Mark Lanegan‘s 1990 album The Winding Sheetas a source of 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.[3] Still, the prospect of performing an entirely acoustic show made Cobain nervous.[2]

The band dedicated two days to rehearsals. The rehearsal sessions 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 recollected that the network was unhappy with the band’s choice of the Meat Puppets as guests (“They wanted to hear the ‘right’ names-Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who”, Coletti recalled) and the dearth of hit Nirvana songs on the setlist.[4] Upset, the day before filming was set to take place 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.”[2]

Nirvana taped its performance for MTV Unplugged on November 18, 1993, at Sony Studios in New York City. 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.” Nirvana was augmented by guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, who had been touring with the band.[4] 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.”[5]

Unlike many artists who appeared on the show, Nirvana filmed its entire performance in a single take.[6] The band’s fourteen-song setlist included six cover versions.[5]The group shied away from playing its better-known songs; the only hit the band performed was its 1992 single “Come as You Are“.[6] Ten songs in, 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 a traditional song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” arranged by blues musician Lead Belly. 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.[7]

Album release

After frontman Kurt Cobain was found dead in April 1994, MTV aired the Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged repeatedly.[8] In order to fulfill demand for new Nirvana material and to counter bootlegging, DGC announced in August 1994 that it would be releasing a double album titled 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.[9] Instead, Novoselic and Grohl opted to commercially release just theUnplugged performance.[10] Scott Litt, who had produced the performance, returned to produce the record.[4]

MTV Unplugged in New York was released on November 1, 1994. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, selling 310,500 copies in its first week, giving the band its strongest first week sales.[9] Also, it sold more than 3 million copies worldwide within its first month of release. Ben Thompson of Mojo wrote, “The problem with Unplugged albums tends to be that, given that their original identity is as a video, you feel that you are not having the whole experience without something to watch. In Nirvana’s case, that is actually an advantage, because this particular whole experience is too intense to have over and over again. Even the colourless, generic aspect of the Unplugged format is vaguely reassuring here.”[11] Entertainment Weekly gave the album an A rating. Reviewer David Browne noted that listening to the music in light of Cobain’s death was “unsettling”; Browne added, “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.”[12]Robert Christgau also gave the album an A rating, describing Cobain’s performance as evoking John Lennon‘s on his album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.[13] By early 1995, MTV Unplugged in New York had surpassed Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero (1993) in sales with 6.8 million copies sold.[14] Rolling Stone ranked MTV Unplugged in New York at #311 in its list, The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.[15]

About a Girl” was released as the album’s only commercial single in October 1994, backed with the Unplugged version of “Something in the Way” as the B-side. It was released on CD only in Australia and Europe. Promo singles were released for “The Man Who Sold the World“, “Polly“, “Lake of Fire”, and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. Of the songs on the album, “About a Girl” became the biggest hit, becoming Nirvana’s fourth number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and was also a top ten hit in Australia, Denmark and Finland. Currently the album sold more than 4.81 million copies in the US alone by soundscan.

DVD release

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”. It sold over 160,000 copies US alone.

Track listing

All songs written by Kurt Cobain, except where noted.

  1. About a Girl”  – 3:37
  2. Come as You Are”  – 4:13
  3. Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” (Eugene KellyFrances McKee) – 4:37
  4. The Man Who Sold the World” (David Bowie) – 4:20
  5. Pennyroyal Tea”  – 3:40
  6. “Dumb”  – 2:52
  7. Polly”  – 3:16
  8. On a Plain”  – 3:44
  9. “Something in the Way”  – 4:01
  10. Plateau” (Curt Kirkwood) – 3:37
  11. “Oh, Me” (Curt Kirkwood) – 3:26
  12. Lake of Fire” (Curt Kirkwood) – 2:56
  13. All Apologies”  – 4:23
  14. Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (Traditional; arranged by Lead Belly) – 5:08
  • Track 1 originally from the album Bleach
  • Tracks 2, 7, 8 and 9 originally from the album Nevermind
  • Tracks 5, 6 and 13 originally from the album In Utero

Lyrics

About a Girl

I need an easy friend
I do, with a hand to lend
I do, think you fit this shoe
I do, but you have a clue

I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night
Free

I’m standing in your light
I do, hope you have a good time
I do, pick a number 2
I do, keep a date with you

Come As You Are

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy

Take your time, hurry up
The choice is your, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend as an old memoria

Come dowsed in mud, soaked in bleach
As I want you to be
As a trend, as a friend, as an old memoria

And I swear that I don’t have a gun
No I don’t have a gun

Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam

Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam
Sunbeams are not made like me

Don’t expect me to cry
For all the reasons you had to die
Don’t ever ask your love of me

Don’t expect me to cry
Don’t expect me to lie
Don’t expect me to for me

The Man Who Sold The World

We passed upon the stairs
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there 

He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise 

I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone 

A long long time ago

Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

I laughed and shook his hand
I made my way back home
I searched for form and land, 

For years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazley stare

We walked a million years
We must have died alone, a long long time ago

Who knows, not me
We never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

Pennyroyal Tea

I’m on my time with everyone
I have very bad posture

Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
Distill the life that’s inside of me
Sit and drink Pennyroyal tea
I’m anemic royalty

Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld
So I can sigh enternally
I’m so tired I can’t sleep
I’m anemic royalty
I’m a liar and a thief

I’m anemic royalty

I’m on warm milk and laxatives
Cherry-flavored antacids

Dumb

I’m not like them
But I can pretend
The sun is gone
But I have a light
The day is done
But I’m having fun

I think I’m dumb
Or maybe just happy
Think I’m just happy

My heart is broke
But I have some glue
Help me inhale
And mend it with you
We’ll float around
And hang out on clouds
Then we’ll come down
And have a hangover, have a hangover

Skin the sun
Fall asleep
Wish away
The soul is cheap
Lesson learned
Wish me luck
Soothe the burn
Wake me up

Polly

Polly wants a cracker
Think I should get off of her first
I think she wants some water
To put out the blow torch

It isn’t me
We have some seed
Let me clip
Your dirty wings
Let me take a ride
Don’t hurt yourself
I want some help
To please myself
I’ve got some rope
You have been told
I promise you
I have been true
Let me take a ride
Don’t hurt yourself
I want some help
To help myself

Polly wants a cracker
Maybe she would like more food
She asks me to untie her
A chase would be nice for a few

Polly says her back hurts
And she’s just as bored as me
She caught me off my guard
It amazes me, the will of instinct

On A Plain

I’ll start this off without any words
I got so high that I scratched ’til I bled

I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?

The finest day that I’ve ever had
Was when I learned to cry on command

I’m on a plain
I can’t complain

My brother died every night
It’s safe to say, don’t quote me on that

The black sheep got blackmailed again
Forgot to put on the zip code

Somewhere I have heard this before
In a dream my memory has stored
As a defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say

It is now time to make it unclear
To write off lines that don’t make sense

One more special message to go
And when I’m done then I can go home

Something In The Way

Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
But it’s okay to eat fish
Cause they haven’t any feelings

Something in the way mmmmm
Something in the way yeah mmmmm

Plateau

Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belong to strangers and some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills and shake the many hands

The nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrative book about birds
You see a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

When you’ve finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work it took was fun

Well the many hands began to scan around for the next plateau
Some say it was in Greenland and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses, wouldn’t help you if they could

Oh, Me

If I had to lose a mile
If I had to touch feelings
I would lose my soul
The way I do

I don’t have to think
I only have to do it
The results are always perfect
And that’s old news

Would you like to hear my voice
sprinkled with emotion
Invented at your birth

I can’t see the end of me
My whole expanse I cannot see
I formulate infinity
Stored deep inside me

Lake Of Fire

Where do bad folks go when they die
They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly
They go down to the lake of fire and fry
Won’t see them again till the fourth of July

I knew a lady who came from Duluth
Bitten by a dog with a rabit tooth
She went to her grave just a little too soon
And she flew away howling on the yellow moon

Now the people cry and the people moan
And they look for a dry place to call their home
And try to find some place to rest their bones
While the angels and the devils
Try to make ’em their own

All Apologies

What else should I be
All apologies
What else should I say
Everyone is gay
What else could I write
I don’t have the right
What else should I be
All apologies

In the sun
In the sun I feel as one
In the sun
In the sun
I’m married
buried

I wish I was like you
Easily amused
Find my nest of salt
Everything is my fault
I’ll take all the blame
Aqua seafoam shame
Sunburn with freezerburn
Choking on the ashes of her enemy
All in all is all we are

Where Did You Sleep Last Night

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night

In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

My girl, my girl, where will you go
I’m going where the cold wind blows

Her husband, was a hard working man
Just about a mile from here
His head was found in a driving wheel
But his body never was found

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