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Nirvana, Lauryn Hill, and Faxes From Don Henley: Behind the Scenes at the Original ‘MTV Unplugged’

As MTV reboots the ’90s concert series, some of its original producers share the stories behind now-classic ‘Unplugged’ performances

Collage of artists performing on ‘MTV Unplugged’ MTV/Ringer illustration

It’s the big things: Mariah Carey hammering god-tier high notes while insisting that “I’m not used to doing this.” LL Cool J steamrolling through “Mama Said Knock You Out” for a frenzied audience of fist-pumpers and shadow-boxers. Eric Clapton converting “Layla” from a desperate rager to a graceful shuffle and walking off with an armload of Grammys. A teary-eyed Lauryn Hill reclaiming her time and radically transforming her career.

It’s the little things: Kurt Cobain’s last ragged breath before he finishes howling through “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” The two teenage girls standing behind Dashboard Confessional who high-five immediately after screaming, “SO WE CAN GET SOME!” Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez scrawling “Friends don’t let friends get Friends haircuts” on his acoustic bass in a gleeful jab at Metallica. The guy in the animal mask who delicately plays piano as Korn and Evanescence singer Amy Lee turn “Freak on a Leash” into something freakishly beautiful.

MTV Unplugged, one of the channel’s most prestigious franchises, helped launch a few careers and revitalized quite a few more. Hatched in 1989 with a deceptively simple premise—big stars play their big hits, stripped down and acoustic—the show was a massive ’90s phenomenon that, unlike many other ’90s phenomenons, has modestly endured since. It generated unlikely radio hits (see 10,000 Maniacs covering “Because the Night”). It inspired breakthrough moments for everyone from Pearl Jam (see Eddie Vedder scrawling “PRO CHOICE” on his arm during a manic “Porch”) to Maxwell (whose harp-driven version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” is an all-universe highlight). And it scored mid-period Album of the Year Grammys for both Clapton and, why not, Tony Bennett.

The show never quite disappeared, popping up sporadically in the past decade or so to showcase the likes of Florence + the Machine or Miley Cyrus. But Friday night marks the debut of a more official Unplugged reboot, turning over its first installment to Vine phenomenon turned semi-legit pop star Shawn Mendes. It’s MTV’s latest attempt to turn its storied past into its vibrant future. But the producers and directors of the original series will tell you that Unplugged is not quite as simple as handing rock stars acoustic guitars and pointing a camera at them. They’ll also tell you lots of stories about how much fun it was to do that.

Here’s where it all began, sort of.

The industry lore is that Unplugged was inspired by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s appearance at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, howling through “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” while strumming not-at-all-gaudy acoustic guitars. But as recounted in Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’s excellent 2011 oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, the show, originally created by Jim Burns and Bob Small, was already in production by then, as a more modest acoustic hootenanny with more modest stars.

Nothing about this project, of course, would stay modest for long. As Burns puts it in I Want My MTV, “It’s a simple idea, which is why a lot of people take credit for it.”

As for Bon Jovi, “Someone very smartly at MTV used that as a way to promote Unplugged, which was only a month from taping,” says Alex Coletti, one of the show’s longest-tenured producers and showrunners. “Saying, ‘Oh, that acoustic performance was so great, we’re creating a show about it.’ So for many years, Jon Bon Jovi walked around thinking, ‘Hey, I created MTV Unplugged.’ He certainly helped us, made it shorthand: ‘Hey, that thing Bon Jovi just did? We’re doing a whole show of that.’ And people went, ‘Oh.’ Because remember: The word unplugged was not in the lexicon. You played acoustic.”

“The show wasn’t meant to be a thing that went on to win Grammys and sell albums,” Coletti adds. “That all happened. But it was meant to be a Sunday morning, cup of coffee, just something different than the Milli Vanilli world that we were living in. You remember, 1989, people didn’t have amazing-sounding speakers built into their TVs. But something acoustic actually cut through, and it sounded good. And again, with that Milli Vanilli kind of backdrop, getting people who can actually sing and play—there’s no hiding it, you’re doing it in front of me—was very special.”

It is certainly true that Bon Jovi inspired the show to think bigger. “A sort of light bulb went off: ‘Well, that's what Unplugged should be,’” says Joel Gallen, the show’s executive producer for the first three years. “And that was not intentional. It was a sort of coincidence. As opposed to getting young, up-and-coming artists to do their songs acoustically, the real big win for Unplugged is we got the big, stadium, electric-arena-type acts to strip down and go acoustic. That’s the big win.”

The show’s first episode, taped on Halloween 1989, was a grab bag headlined by the wry English rockers Squeeze. But Unplugged’s first breakthrough came with its fifth show, featuring Joe Walsh, who threw in a cover of the Eagles’ “Desperado”—only to have Eagles frontman Don Henley refuse permission to air it. “We got a fax that said, ‘If you want Don Henley to perform ‘Desperado,’ then book Don Henley,’” Coletti recalls. “So we were like, ‘Yes, please!’ Don booked himself on the show.”

Early on, Unplugged often stacked up tapings in groups of three. “We did Crowded House, we did the Damn Yankees, and we did Don Henley all in one day,” Gallen says. “Don Henley went last. And Don Henley was the first legitimate superstar that we had on the show, and I felt like that really got the momentum going for others to follow.”

Early Unplugged worked like this: A relatively minor performance would inadvertently trigger a major one. Gallen has 20 solid minutes of material on Paul McCartney’s 1991 appearance, starting with the fact that Sir Paul was inspired by randomly catching a rerun of the Hall & Oates Unplugged and really digging it. Soon Gallen was sitting on a couch on McCartney’s London farm, watching his idol run through the whole 22-song set list, forgetting lyrics, and forgetting which album “Her Majesty” was on. (“He goes, ‘What was that, the White Album?’” Gallen recalls. “It was very endearing.”) To produce a London installment was a pricey gambit back then, especially amid the myriad corporate travel bans inspired by the Gulf War, so Gallen squeezed in a performance by the Cure, too.

For longtime Unplugged stage manager and director Joe Perota, the 1990 Elton John episode was another big thrill, especially when Elton called him over near the end of the taping to say that he was having a great time and wanted to play a little more. “Elton John was asking my permission to play,” Perota says now, still incredulous. The show’s primary benefit in the early years was to repackage veteran megastars for MTV’s young audience, a nifty cross-generational trick that peaked in 1992 with Eric Clapton’s show and resulting album, a massive hit both commercially and critically. It was laid back without going slack, classically elegant without sounding old, and deftly bluesy without sounding “bluesy.”

“Once we sold a few records on one, the record companies saw that and said, ‘MTV is paying for this, and they’re gonna air it round the clock, and it’s a free commercial for an album that cost us zero dollars—let’s get all our artists to do it,’” Coletti says. “It’s a gold mine, and a great way to reinvigorate an artist’s catalog. And it changed tours. Bands all of a sudden realized, ‘Hey, we don’t need to bring a ton of shit on the road. We can go do an unplugged theater gig and make a lot of money.’ And people really—it just caught a certain wave at a certain time. For a moment there, it was really something.”

“It’s impossible for me to look into the future and say I'm going to be able to play Nirvana songs in 10 years,” Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone in a lengthy interview published in January 1994. “There's no way. I don't want to have to resort to doing the Eric Clapton thing. Not to put him down whatsoever; I have immense respect for him. But I don't want to have to change the songs to fit my age.”

As it happens, Nirvana taped their own Unplugged in November ’93. It aired later that year, and by the time the album version was released in November ’94, Cobain was dead, and copious reruns had given the show perhaps its single biggest and most poignant zeitgeist moment. With covers of David Bowie, the Vaselines, and Lead Belly—plus an eerie and gorgeous three-song interlude with the Meat Puppets, long cited as one of Cobain’s biggest influences—Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York may be the purest distillation of the 1990s’ purest rock star, a eulogy and a canonization. It has few of the band’s MTV-saturating megahits—no “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” no “Heart-Shaped Box”—and you never miss them for a second. It winds up constituting a greatest-hits package of its own.

“There are things I remember,” Coletti says. “Like Kurt saying, ‘I don’t smile enough. Courtney says I don’t smile enough. So make sure you get a closeup of me smiling.’ And I remember Beth [McCarthy-Miller, who directed that show] taking a close-up, and he just grins, and we were like high-fiving in the control room, because we were so excited that we got that shot. I remember Frances Bean was [a year old], walking around with one of those shooting-range headsets at soundcheck.”

The Lead Belly cover, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” was the show’s big closer: “That was the moment I knew where we caught magic,” Coletti says. “With his eyes, there’s that thing that happens just before that last line, where he just breathes in, and the size of his pupils change. That was something. Just amazing.”

At its height, Unplugged turned classic rockers into current hitmakers, and turned current hitmakers into classic rockers. It made crabby ’90s teenagers give old-people superstars another shot, and convinced MTV-averse parents that the channel really could be All About the Music. It was the perfect marriage of slacker vibes and consummate professionalism. Gallen remembers another hectic day: “We did Boyz II Men at like 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and then we did Mariah Carey around 8 o'clock at night, and then at midnight, literally at midnight, we did a little-known band named Pearl Jam.” That was Gallen’s first show as the director, and he cast the band in, quite literally, the best possible light: somber, reverent, almost womblike. Pearl Jam, in turn, brought far more intensity and ferocity than Unplugged viewers were used to, and another superstar band of the alt-rock era was well on its way.

Released in 1996, the Alice in Chains Unplugged had a far more funereal effect—it was one of the grunge band’s last major public appearances with frontman Layne Staley, who struggled publicly with heroin addiction and died in 2002. “The great thing about Layne, and kind of the tragic thing, was that once the show got going, the voice that came out of this scrawny little sick kid was unbelievable to me,” remembers Perota, who directed that episode.

At its best, the show vacillated between heaviness and lightness. Unplugged was less prominent in the early 2000s, but still caught plenty of magic. Lauryn Hill’s 2002 installment is a raw, painfully intimate, and polarizing reinvention: It’s spiritually intense, and almost hypnotic, given the mostly unfamiliar songs’ plainspoken repetition. It might also feature the best banter in the Unplugged universe, or at least the most unguarded: “All right, you guys cool?” Hill asks early on, pausing for effect before adding that she’s talking to the “people in my head, too.”

Conversely, emo god Dashboard Confessional’s appearance that same year is delightfully joyous and goofy and hormonal, with frontman Chris Carrabba literally surrounded by adoring teenage fans. “We had names for all of them, just by what they were wearing,” Coletti recalls. “They were having the time of their lives.” Collectively, they sing every last word of songs literally titled “The Sharp Hint of New Tears” and “Again I Go Unnoticed.” Even this late in the game, Unplugged rarely took a chance on an artist this niche, but the payoff, with everyone in the room insanely happy to be there, was deliriously great. It managed to recapture much of the zeitgeist-defining power of a show that had first peaked a full decade before, which is hard for anybody to do, even MTV. The question now is whether this sort of resurrection is still possible 15 years later.

In 2009, an outside producer named Matthew C. Mills helmed six Unplugged episodes that managed to catch an impressive cross section of that year’s specific zeitgeist: Vampire Weekend, Paramore, Silversun Pickups, All Time Low, Adele, and Katy Perry, those last two just one year removed from their respective breakout albums, pop stars but not quite A-listers yet. “Adele was very nervous, I remember that,” Mills says now. “The last cigarette I ever smoked was with Adele on a fire escape of this building in Gramercy Park.”

Mills had been working with MTV on a new performance series, but he remembers MTV telling him, “‘You know, the number-one thing that artists ask us is if they can do an Unplugged.’” With a far more modest budget—he says he did all six for less than the price of one Golden Age episode, in part thanks to far better and cheaper technology—he updated the aesthetic slightly, gently. “They wanted to treat it a little bit less precious,” Mills says. “Not as many candelabras and silk rugs.” His most striking and personal touch was a full-size guitar that had belonged to his late father, locked in a birdcage and suspended behind the stage.

That run triggered its own magic moments. “I was in the control room, and when Katy Perry started up with ‘I Kissed a Girl’—the acoustic, unplugged version of that, with the upright bass, the jazz feel—we were all like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is gonna be special.’ And we were right. That is still one of my favorite things I’ve ever shot. She was phenomenal.”

This sort of ingenuity, Mills says, is the key to turning Unplugged from good to transcendently great. “It is arrangements and orchestration. If you’ve taken the time, like Vampire Weekend did, to really work out their string parts, or if you take the time like Katy Perry’s band did to decide—they wanted a toy piano in a certain section, and a standup bass in others, playing on brushes here and there. You don’t just come in with an acoustic guitar and play your songs. There has to be something unique and special about it. You add background singers. You add strings. You bring in a piano. You do something unique and different; you have to take the idea that it’s acoustic, but then also twist that a little bit.”

That’s the challenge facing this new, formal Unplugged reboot, reborn in a 2017 where more light-footed web franchises like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts now define the intimate-performance space. Shawn Mendes is a fine choice to kick off this reboot: a Vine discovery who’s plenty tech savvy while also being a classicist Soulful Dude With a Guitar in the mode of Ed Sheeran or John Mayer. The trick will be finding younger pop and rock stars who fit this mold, but not too snugly. The other trick will be teaching young MTV viewers to respect the franchise itself. “Think about it,” Coletti says. “The average MTV viewer wasn’t born when Kurt Cobain died at this point. So if they know him, they know him from his parents’ record collection. So the only people that have nostalgia for Unplugged are too old to matter for MTV.”

But Unplugged is the rare idea durable and genius enough that pure nostalgia doesn’t have to be the driver. The trick is to frame a currently beloved artist in an entirely new way, or help turn a young, hungry upstart into a currently beloved artist in real time. The only variable that remains is is the music good enough. No bullshit, no artifice. Unplugged is as close as MTV specifically—and the ’90s generally—ever got to that platonic ideal. This latest reboot doesn’t have to re-create or replace that genuinely rich and storied history. Living up to the legacy will be quite enough. It’s a lot to ask, but the way you do it is simple.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the release date for Nirvana’s Unplugged performance. The show debuted in late 1993, and the album version was released in November 1994.

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