The best television episode of the 1990s starred a short, blond man and his band. On November 18, 1993, at Sony Music Studios in New York City, Nirvana took on MTV Unplugged. That night, the biggest group of the decade staged one of the most hypnotically intimate rock concerts ever captured on film.
Wearing a fuzzy cardigan, ratty button-down, Frightwig T-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers, Kurt Cobain—with help from drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic, guitarist Pat Smear, and cellist Lori Goldston—orchestrated a performance that was heartfelt, funny, uncomfortable, and mesmerizing. Nirvana’s appearance on the acoustic series proved something that close observers already knew: The loudest band on earth had a stunning amount of depth.
Cobain subtly subverted the format, which usually featured acts playing stripped-down versions of their hits, by filling the set list with cover songs. He also invited two of his musical heroes, Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the little-known Meat Puppets. The lead singer even helped design the set, asking for it to be decorated with stargazer lilies and black candles.
The room’s haunting vibe later led the event to be described as sorrowful, but despite Cobain’s well-documented struggles at the time, the evening was far from dour. As the show progressed, those in attendance began to realize that what they were watching would become legendary.
“You knew for sure that history was being made,” said former MTV executive Amy Finnerty, who worked closely with Nirvana. “No doubt about it. You’re lucky if you get to be at something like that once in your lifetime.”
Part I: “Trust the Artist. They Know What They’re Doing.”
The story of Nirvana Unplugged began 25 years ago, when MTV’s influence on popular culture was at its peak.
Amy Finnerty (vice president of music and talent, MTV): Everybody wanted to see Nirvana do an Unplugged. Everybody was just really excited when they agreed to do it.
Mark Kates (A&R, Geffen Records): Kurt wanted to prove to himself that he could do this in an artistically successful way. His creative mind at that time was going more in a quieter direction.
Scott Litt (producer, MTV Unplugged in New York): The only thing I thought might be tricky was trying to play Nevermind songs in that acoustic vein. During that time, all the rage was MTV’s Unplugged show. It was super popular. And I had experience with it, having done one with R.E.M.
Dave Grohl (drums): 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.
Earnie Bailey (guitar tech): It became a running joke. So when they were invited to do the show, we had some big questions to figure out. We didn’t quite know how many songs they had that would work and how well they would translate to the acoustic setting.
Just days before the taping, Unplugged producer Alex Coletti visited the band during a stop on the In Utero tour.
Alex Coletti (producer, MTV Unplugged): We flew into somewhere in Massachusetts, went to a hotel, and dropped our stuff off, and drove for a bit. And I think they were playing secondary markets, on purpose. Places they hadn’t gotten to on the last tour. We were in a hockey arena. I think it was Springfield.
I brought my acoustic bass with me, which is no small feat. It’s frickin’ huge. I’d made a friend at Takamine, David Vincent, who was very helpful throughout the course of Unplugged, whenever I needed gear. Acoustic basses were hard to come by. And then I finally got a Guild one. I think it was the Guild I brought Krist [Novoselic], knowing he didn’t have one. It’s not like an acoustic guitar. It feels different.
I remember bringing it backstage, and I’d given it to the tour manager. We were in a room after the show, probably with 20 people, the band and crew, and there was franks and beans on the table. And everybody was sitting down. And [the bass] was handed to Krist, and he said, “Cool, look at this. Can I put stickers all over it?” And I was like, “No you can’t.” I said, “Sorry, I lend this to other people on the show. It’s mine.” He was really excited. I felt bad to pop his bubble. He had a vision for it, clearly.
I was sat next to Kurt and I’m slightly shy, so he was talking to the person to his left. I was to his right. And I let them decompress and chat, chat, chat, chat, and he finally looked at me, and I said, “Hey it’s Alex from Unplugged.” He said, “Great, what’s going on?” And I said, “I have some sketches.”
Tom McPhillips (production designer): I had a formula for doing the show. It usually involved hanging soft goods around the room. There was a center stage that I usually did some sort of painted floor cloth for. The floor cloth was the one place you could make a statement. I had figured out the floor cloths, which I was basing on the back cover of In Utero. I left out the features, but I put in the flowers and the bones.
Coletti: I showed [the sketches] to Kurt, and he said, “I want a lot of flowers.” I said, “OK, great.” He said, “I want candles and stargazer lilies.” I said, “Like a funeral?” He said, “Yes, exactly.” This wasn’t on his mind at all. I put that out there. It was me that brought that kind of gloom into the shorthand of how we would describe it. When he said it, there was no organ sound effect.
McPhillips: Well, where do you get stargazer lilies that time of year? We managed to find a couple of places that had them, but we couldn’t really get them in quantity. And they were really, really expensive. So I managed to find locally, [where I was based] in Pennsylvania, [a company that made] a kind of fabric flower, and they did stargazer lilies. So I had bunches of those. It was a mix of real and artificial flowers—real lilies for the foreground, artificial to fill in further back.
Coletti: I got to watch from stage that night and I was so blown away by Dave’s power that I left thinking, “He could potentially be the issue.” Because what I found is, if the drummer plays loud, than everyone turns up their acoustic guitars, and they just sound like shitty electric guitars.
Bailey: My gut feeling was that doing the show could be a challenge for a group like Nirvana and was better suited for artists like R.E.M. and Mazzy Star. Nirvana shows were typically viewed as successful when they went off script in some way, and it was difficult to imagine how this would play into the MTV Unplugged format. But they did it by bringing in the Meat Puppets.
Cris Kirkwood (bass-vocals, Meat Puppets): Once Nirvana started to get popular, we heard that they were name-checking us and some of our contemporaries.
Curt Kirkwood (guitar-vocals, Meat Puppets): They asked us to go on tour with them in ’93. We were out on tour for a few days and started to get to know the guys, started to get to know Kurt, and then one evening he said they were gonna do the Unplugged thing. And would my brother and I like to do it because they’d like to do some of our songs. So of course I said, “Yes, that sounds great.” That’s how it started.
Cris Kirkwood: They insisted that they wanted to have us go on. Even though the MTV people weren’t that into it.
Beth McCarthy-Miller (director, MTV Unplugged): MTV was a big, giant monster at that time, you know? They were making hits more than even the radio stations were. And I think those bands that were like, “Who cares if our record sells 50 million copies?” were a little wary.
Finnerty: Like a lot of bands, [Nirvana] struggled with what MTV was. And then they didn’t hate it as much once they realized that they had the reins.
Coletti: I think people at MTV just said, “Oh, they’re gonna bring on Pearl Jam.” And it was like, “No they’re not.” And when they said “Meat Puppets,” it was kind of like, “Oh.” I’ve always learned to trust the artist. They know what they’re doing.
Cris Kirkwood: Suddenly, here’s a band that’s very into our scene. And they’re fucking, like, the biggest band in the world. It was certainly different. It was kind of cool.
Part II: “It Could Be a Mistake.”
Following shows at New York Coliseum on November 14 and Roseland Ballroom on November 15, Nirvana, their touring musicians, and the Kirkwoods spent two days preparing for Unplugged across the Hudson River at SST Studios in Weehawken, New Jersey. It was a memorable and typically chaotic stretch for the people orbiting the mercurial Cobain.
Lori Goldston (cello): When I first worked with [Nirvana] it was for the In Utero tour. The music was prepared on its own terms but with an eye on Unplugged.
Kates: They were playing an acoustic section every night on that tour.
Goldston: Now it’s become much more common, but at the time it was extremely unusual to have a cello in a band like that. It was also unusual for a string player to work without written parts, improvising around chord changes and having parts hummed. I’d grown up playing guitar, so in a sense I was fluent in a few different musical languages. There were a handful of us around who could do it, but it was a fairly arcane skill set. It’s always a nice feeling to get a job for which you’re very specifically well-suited. I think Kurt had been hearing/imagining the cello’s function very clearly, so it was maybe more an issue of communication than invention.
Grohl: When Pat Smear joined the band, it changed everything. We went from being fucking sulking dirtbags to kids again. It changed our world. He’s the sweetest person in the world. He became really close with Kurt. There was laughter.
Coletti: I think having Pat made them feel really good.
Curt Kirkwood: I’d known Pat since we were babies. He’s a great guy. Never seen a frown on that guy’s face.
Goldston: The rehearsal space was above a huge pinball machine store, and the owners had parked a Scopitone machine in Nirvana’s space, so breaks were very entertaining.
Cris Kirkwood: Bobcat Goldthwait came to some of the practices.
Bobcat Goldthwait (comedian-filmmaker): Kurt was a fan of my stand-up. It’s like finding out that Jimi Hendrix really liked Buddy Hackett. He wanted to meet me. It was before the band had broken. I was in Ann Arbor doing a gig and I think Nirvana was playing the Blind Pig. Kurt wanted to meet me, so he interviewed me on the college radio station, even though we were both guests. It was weird. He’d written a bunch of questions on a paper bag, and it really just digressed to us making fun of the Grateful Dead.
He gave me a copy of Bleach, and I was listening to it on the way to the airport with my friend Tony V. I was like, “You know, rock really sucks. It’s really a hard business. Because these guys are pretty good, and we’ll never hear from ’em again.” And then about [three or four] years later, maybe, I was opening for them while they played arenas.
Curt Kirkwood: They’re a very similar band to us. If they could learn the song, play it, and not forget the song, then that’s enough. That’s kind of how we always were. We didn’t want to hammer it until we get sick of it. We would just kind of go through and do the songs a couple times a day.
Goldthwait: I went with them to rehearse. And I just assumed we were gonna stay in Manhattan. I wasn’t paying attention and the van took us to New Jersey. And I was like, “Hey man, I’m supposed to be on [Late Night With] Conan O’Brien in about 45 minutes.” So I grabbed a cab and I was late for the show. And then Conan had given me flowers, and I thanked him, and I knocked over the flowers on the air. Then I smashed up the show a little bit.
Bailey: After we got the band set up to rehearse, I recall setting up a small workshop nearby to dismantle and modify Kurt’s Fender Mustang guitars for the In Utero tour. As I worked, the band discussed what songs would and wouldn’t work for the show. The original set list was pretty long, but in the end, they ruled out “Serve the Servants,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Been a Son,” “Rape Me,” “Sliver,” and “Verse Chorus Verse.”
Litt: Sometimes people say that a good song will sound good no matter the instrumentation. I’m not sure I totally buy that.
Charles R. Cross (journalist–Cobain biographer): They played six covers, four songs from Nevermind, three from In Utero, and one from Bleach. I’d go so far as to say there’s not a single Unplugged that anybody else did in the history of that show that was so focused on material that they couldn’t necessarily profit from. It was not done to make a radio hit. It was not done to push a song.
Curt Kirkwood: Their pop songs were the tip of the iceberg for me, in terms of what their artistic scope was.
Goldthwait: There was something about it that just felt like I wasn’t watching a touring band. I wasn’t watching the Eagles. If there was a particularly aggressive pit with the kind of folks Kurt didn’t like, I saw him just drag a folding chair to the lip of the stage and play acoustic songs. Just to piss ’em off.
Coletti: They had a game plan, clearly. So we just kind of went with it.
McCarthy-Miller: Me and my [assistant director], Joe DeMaio, we walk in the room and they’re up on stage working out the set. Kurt was a man of very few words. Finally, Dave Grohl, because he’s the most gregarious out of that bunch, was like, “Hey, who are you guys?” We were like, “Oh, we’re the directors, we’re just here to kind of take a look at the set list.”
Curt Kirkwood: It was real loose.
Bailey: By the end of the second day I was left thinking at this point it could be a mistake to proceed with the show. The rehearsals were so loose, I don’t remember them making it through a full set. After the rehearsals, some of us went to see Bob Dylan play at the Supper Club.
Krist Novoselic (bass): The rehearsals didn’t go well at all, so to help prepare myself I invited Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets to my hotel room just to jam out the songs with me to get the details down.
Cris Kirkwood: I remember going up to his room, maybe a couple of times, helping him practice even more, getting the stuff all the way down.
Jim Merlis (publicist): The day before, Stone Temple Pilots had done [Unplugged]. And it had taken something like four hours. They redid every song. The press, that’s who I was dealing with, were sort of lamenting that they had to go through this again. I remember someone from management saying, “The band just signed up for this. They have no idea what they’re gonna do.”
Finnerty: There’s always the chance that somebody could walk if they’re not comfortable. I do remember the night before there was some conversation about them being uncomfortable. I think people were so reactive to everything that Kurt said. So the guy’s saying, “Oh man, I feel nervous, uncomfortable, I still feel like it doesn’t feel like Unplugged. It was too heavy.” I’m not putting words in his mouth, but this was kind of the conversation. It’s tough when you’re in that position and people hang on every word you say. If you even have an opinion, people are like, “Oh my God, he’s gonna cancel, he’s gonna quit.” No, he was just having a feeling.
Part III: “Oh My God, We’re Screwed.”
On the day of the Unplugged taping, Nirvana managed to make it from their hotel to the studio for the filmed dress rehearsal, which included a rendition of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” But there was no guarantee that the show would be a success, let alone transcendent.
Cris Kirkwood: They were all registered under fake names and all that. It was kept on the down low, just because of that element of celebrity where you can hardly leave your fucking hotel. Like the Beatles experience or something. They were kind of at that point. Kurt in particular was just, like, the guy at that point in such an intense way. There were some kids that figured out that they were there. And they were waiting for us when we came out in the lobby. And probably a half-dozen kids and they were like, “Give us your autograph!”
They wanted some interaction. And we all just kind of kept going. And when they didn’t get what they wanted, they turned on those guys. “Well fuck you guys!” … I remember being like, “God, that was quick.” It went from “We love you, we love you,” to “Fuck you.” Someone suggested, “Spit on ’em!” So Kurt rolled down the window and loogied on them. That’s the pressure they were under.
Finnerty: Because of the immediacy of their fame and success, it put them in a self-inflicted but uncomfortable position, in that they were suddenly a much bigger band than their predecessors. They were a much bigger band than the bands they had put up on a pedestal.
Cris Kirkwood: The scene wasn’t necessarily anti-celebrity, but to have it thrust upon you to that degree ...
Finnerty: There were no secrets about [Cobain’s] struggles with addiction back then.
Cross: You kind of had Kurt Cobain at his wit’s end with everything going on with him in his life. He was truly falling apart. Physically, mentally. He hadn’t been sleeping. And yet, on stage, once the tape starts running, it’s absolutely mesmerizing.
Finnerty: I was in my 20s. I was a kid walking these other kids through this experience. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve learned so much more about addiction, I’m even more in awe of [his] ability to get through it. Because it was very difficult.
Goldthwait: I was taping The Jon Stewart Show that day before I came over, and [Kurt] was saying, “I’m gonna go watch Bobcat tape,” and they wouldn’t let him out of the building.
Finnerty: In the rehearsals, he was like, “Can you sit up front? Can you make sure [manager] Janet [Billig Rich] and all of our friends are up front so I can just look at you guys so I won’t be nervous?” So I was like, “Sure,” and then I went and set some seats aside.
McCarthy-Miller: We had a camera operator, this guy named Juan Barrera. We had told the camera guys and everyone, “Don’t approach the band. If you have any questions come to us and we’ll talk to them. One person can talk to Kurt. No one else can talk to Kurt.” And Juan got off the camera and I’m in the control room, and all of the sudden I see Juan walking up to Kurt and I was like, “What is he doing? What is he doing?” And he just asked him a question about something camera-related, and Kurt politely answered him, and he went back to his camera. The earth didn’t explode. And no one walked off the set. But there was a 30-second panic of “Oh my God, we’re screwed.”
Coletti: I remember, I guess it was [the guitar tech] Earnie, saying, “Look, he really wants his Fender amp on stage.” And I was like, “Dude, it’s Unplugged.” And he was like, “Oh, but his reverb …” And I said, “We have all those effects. I can give him what he wants.” But I saw it was an issue.
Bailey: [Cobain’s Martin] D-18E was more of an electric guitar than it was acoustic. We were walking on thin ice with Unplugged when they saw that we were using an acoustic guitar with electric guitar pickups, through several electric guitar pedals, and into an electric guitar amp.
Coletti: I said, “You know what, let’s just dress it like a monitor.” Tom from the art department actually built a case to go around it, so it looked like a monitor wedge.
Bailey: It took a bit of negotiation.
Coletti: The week of the show, [Grohl’s powerful style] was still in my mind. And I ran to Sam Ash and got him some Hot Rods, Sizzle Sticks, and brushes. You know, little things that would lighten his touch. And it was close enough to Christmas that I put Christmas paper on it and I walked in. I didn’t know Dave well at all. I just handed them to him sheepishly because, you know, I’m gonna be an asshole. I said, “Merry Christmas,” and he opens it up and he’s like, “Cool, I’ve never had these before.” That was it. He walked away.
Novoselic: For David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” I sat on the edge of my bed the night before the show and tried to figure out what the hell the bass was doing. I knew I couldn’t touch Tony Visconti’s bass line, so I figured out the basic elements of the song that stand out, which is that bass run and those flourishes that he does. I knew if I could get the bass run down, it would bring it all together. I sat for a half hour and played it over and over again, and I got it locked in.
Bailey: When they pulled “The Man Who Sold the World” together during the first taping, I was in disbelief from what I’d heard in New Jersey. At that moment, I felt like I was off the clock and that it was time take a deep breath.
Part IV: “I’d Give You All a Hug, but I’ve Got My Hands Full.”
For the normally ear-splitting band and its hardcore fans, the pre-performance atmosphere was surreally understated.
Rob Galluzzo (fan): Where you would find like-minded individuals, or even just cool stuff that related to what you loved, was the back of magazines. There was no internet yet. I recall it being the back of a Spin magazine. There was a tiny, tiny ad that just said Nirvana Fan Club, and it was a P.O. box for Hoboken, New Jersey. I didn’t think anything other than, “Oh, it’s other fans I can trade bootlegs with.” So I wrote to it.
David Sullivan-Kaplan (fan): This was before social media, when it wasn’t as easy to connect with artists, so the fan club was the most direct link to your heroes.
Galluzzo: I didn’t hear anything for a really long period of time. I just completely forgot about it. Then, like 10 months later, I just got a random letter in the mail that said, “Nirvana’s playing an Unplugged in New York, and they wanted their fans to be there. And guess what, you’re one of the ones we’ve selected.”
Sullivan-Kaplan: One day I got a letter in the mail from the Nirvana Fan Club, saying that I’d been invited. … I was beside myself.
Galluzzo: I had to have my brother take me. It was hilarious because I was maybe one of about 10 kids that did this, and we all had parents [as chaperones]. And it felt like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. But the parents couldn’t come in. They all had to go to a waiting room while we went to the show itself. It was really funny.
Finnerty: I remember that Kurt wanted to make sure to have some time to kind of connect with the fans before he played. And so he asked me to take him outside and walk him around the block.
Joel Stillerman (executive producer, MTV Unplugged): Sony Music Studios was at 54th and 10th. It was a giant building.
Kates: The room’s a decent size, but there weren’t that many people there. I’m sure there were a lot of people that say they were there.
Finnerty: Of course there were people lined up around the block.
Timm Chiusano (fan): It wasn’t the Madison Square Garden line. It wasn’t even the Irving Plaza line. It seemed like a dozen people waiting to get into this somewhat secretive show.
Sullivan-Kaplan: When I was waiting in line to get in, Dave Grohl happened to be talking to the girl behind me, and he could see how excited I was about the gig. He was really friendly.
Chiusano: Kate Moss was there.
Wendy Brandes (journalist–photo assistant): I was working as an editor at The Wall Street Journal at the time, and I met [photographer] Frank [Micelotta]. He was a nice guy. We had a little group of friends that hung out. I don’t know how he ended up inviting me. But I was like, “OK.” … He was bustling around and people were trying to get situated. I was assigned to fend people off from this spot that he might want to use. And at first Kennedy, the VJ, came by and I was like, “No, no.” I took my job very seriously. I was like, “This is for the photographer.” But Kate Moss, I didn’t want to chase away. So I pretty much sat right next to her.
Sullivan-Kaplan: The singer of the band Half Japanese took pity on me. I couldn’t find anywhere to sit, and he gave me his seat in the front row.
David Galea (fan): You can see me on the cover of the record, because I wore a white T-shirt. When I walked in, they were like—for TV reasons—“You can’t wear white.” I actually wore a Sub Pop “LOSER” shirt. I do remember someone in a black one. They asked you not to wear white because it’s distracting in the background. I’m 16. I think I’m punk rock. And I’m like, “I’m not changing my shirt.”
Sullivan-Kaplan: You can see me in my [black] Sub Pop Records “LOSER” T-shirt. Not a bad night out for a teenager, right?
Chiusano: All of a sudden, Kurt’s walking by and he’s got two cups of tea and kind of like stops and looks at us and is like, “I’d give you all a hug, but I’ve got my hands full.”
Gillian Gaar (journalist): It was great being in that room. There was kind of this hush.
McCarthy-Miller: The design, all the flowers and candles and stuff, were all things that Kurt really, really wanted on the set. And we walked out and both Alex and I were like, “This is kind of eerie looking.”
Gaar: It was like people were holding their breath or something. But it was still kind of strangely relaxed. I remember getting in, and I saw Dave Grohl wandering around with a beer in his hand.
Peter Baron (head of video production, Geffen Records): I have a vision of a moment of walking into the sort of green room or whatever it was, and Kurt was sitting there with Bobcat Goldthwait, like literally together. And I kind of did the wave and they looked at me. Kurt had a game face.
Goldthwait: I definitely did feel often that it would just be him and I, kind of a little bit of padding between him and the world.
Stillerman: My most vivid and embarrassing memory, which I’ll happily share with you, is up until the recording of the show, we were really believed that we were missing kind of a big opportunity in them not playing some of the more well-known tracks at that time.
McCarthy-Miller: I was like, “If you want them to do ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ you can go ask ’em, because I’m not. I’m not gonna be the sacrificial lamb. No way.”
Stillerman: We didn’t really care about “Teen Spirit,” but there were a few songs that we would’ve loved for them to play. And so in between the camera rehearsal and the show, I stood with Kurt and Krist and Dave, and [manager] John Silva might’ve been there as well, in the dressing room at Sony, and I basically begged them to play some more music, which was silly, because they had so clearly prepared so meticulously for this performance.
Litt: I know they were feeling pressure from MTV to play songs from Nevermind.
Stillerman: They just respectfully but not ambiguously declined to do that. They obviously had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do. And they were secure in that, and it turned out to be incredibly right.
Curt Kirkwood: We were walking toward the playing area from backstage, and I was talking to Kurt and I was recalling when I was little. I don’t know what led us to be talking about this stuff. My mom would take me to a restaurant. I’d go underneath the table. It was like fuckin’ the Dwarfs’ jewel mine in Snow White. There were all these different colors of gum stuck underneath the table. I used to disappear under there, find my favorite color, pry it off, and chew it. And I was allowed to get away with it. I don’t know if my mom knew what was up. It was one of my favorite things when I was little. Oh, it was blue, and red, and orange. And Kurt said, “You’re weird.” And I said, “That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”
Part V: “Fuckin’ Nirvana!”
Perhaps feeling the pressure of the moment, Cobain began the show with a gentle dig at the audience. “This is from our first record. Most people don’t own it,” he said, before starting “About a Girl.” That set the tone for a warm, banter-filled performance.
Bailey: I recall feeling the tension of a high-wire act.
Finnerty: They were really nervous.
Novoselic: We went into it so nervous and shaky.
Mac Foster (fan): Krist Novoselic looked over at us and was like, “Let me know if I’m slouching.”
McPhillips: I was constantly replacing candles, moving the real flowers around, replacing the real flowers ’cause they were wilting, and, you know, making sure they were watered. I was so concerned about fire, and the fire marshal was getting kind of antsy about the candles. I was putting sand on the stage. If something fell over, at least it would fall onto sand.
Coletti: I remember Kurt, he wasn’t happy with the stool, so he came into the control room and grabbed an office chair and wheeled it out, and said, “I’m gonna use this.” And we said, “OK. It’s not the best-looking chair, but if it makes you happy.”
Finnerty: Literally right before they were about to start playing, he’s up on stage and he’s like, “Amy!” and I’m like, “Oh, hey, yeah!” And I’m thinking he’s saying like, “Come take your seat.” And I was like, “I saved all the seats up front. Everyone’s sitting up there, don’t worry.” So I go running up, and he goes, “Can you get me a Kleenex?” I’m like, “Oh my God, are you kidding me?” So we used to joke around. I’m like, “At the end of the day, I’m still just getting you a Kleenex.” And someone took my seat!
Coletti: Even if it went well, that first song there’s this tentativeness between an audience and an artist being that close for the first time.
Litt: I really believe that after the first song, and the reception they got, that they settled in.
Cross: Essentially you have a heavyweight fight, and you have this guy get on stage and just demolish everyone in a way that no one expected.
Coletti: I always first think of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.” Krist playing the accordion.
Novoselic: That was the first instrument I learned, was the accordion. Kurt bought one and I put it on and I started playing it. We started to screw around for rehearsals for Unplugged. And we did “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” This Vaselines song. [Nirvana’s version is officially listed as “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.”]
McCarthy-Miller: It was clearly [Kurt’s] band, but Krist and Dave were so integral to it.
Litt: As Dave was walking out onstage, he turned to me and said, “Which ones?” and held [two] sets of sticks out. I had heard him play the Hot Rods in rehearsal and chose those. I’m glad we did. I had been in the sound booth, and I think he wanted my assurance that they were sounding OK.
Coletti: Someone the other day commented about how precise his playing was. His volume never increased. That’s amazing to hear, because it’s the first time he was using those sticks. So he really allowed the show to be what it was by being so adaptable and really getting it.
Cris Kirkwood: He pared down his thing, for sure. He wasn’t doing that big, big Dave thing that he could do so well. And he just proved the versatility of the band and, I think, the quality of the band.
McCarthy-Miller: When somebody can sit and front of you and retool and rework something right in front of your eyes, that’s when you know it’s a true artist.
Before the Bowie cover, Cobain told the crowd, “I guarantee you I will screw this song up.”
Cross: Kurt was just such an incredible singer. He could’ve sang the phone book, and claimed it, and owned it, when he was into it. But he had to be into it. The richness and resonance of his voice, particularly on “The Man Who Sold the World,” there’s no other word for it other than haunting.
Coletti: [The amp] bit us in the ass because it clearly feeds back during “The Man Who Sold the World.” On an otherwise flawless, perfect show. You know, feedback goes into every mic, into everything. There’s no way to fix it. It was everywhere. But they didn’t want to do it over. I asked Kurt, and he said, “No, we’re good.”
After that song, Cobain quipped, “I didn’t screw it up, did I?” and Grohl rewarded him with a rim shot. Then the singer asked the band if he would be doing the next track, “Pennyroyal Tea,” solo. Grohl responded, “Do it by yourself.”
Cross: That’s the song that Kurt stops halfway in between. That moment when he breaks, you think, “This is over. Everything is over. Not just the Unplugged show. Kurt Cobain himself is over. The entire career of Nirvana is over.” And then he kind of pulls it together and moves forward. To me it is his most vulnerable moment and one of the reasons that I think it’s his greatest single moment on stage.
Kates: The biggest misconception about him is that he was dark and brooding all the time.
Foster: Cobain came out to a woman in the first row and offered her a sip of his drink. He stopped and was like, “Wait, are you pregnant?” She goes, “No.” He goes, “OK.” And he handed it to her.
Goldthwait: I remember during that show, he was funny, cracking jokes. Someone yelled out “Free Bird,” and they did [a few notes of] “Sweet Home Alabama,” which is kind of meta.
Cross: In concert, Kurt would talk occasionally. Not like this, not joke, not laugh. You didn’t get that kind of crazy, death-rattle laugh that you can hear in the show. And that’s what Kurt was like in person.
Cris Kirkwood: [He introduced us as] the “Brothers Meat.”
Curt Kirkwood: Kurt wanted me to play Pat’s Buck Owens American guitar. So I was like, “All right.” Novoselic was playing my guitar.
Coletti: I love [the Meat Puppets’] “Lake of Fire.” Kurt had said that he purposely wanted it out of his range. They didn’t transpose keys. They didn’t make it easier for him to sing. … He liked kind of having to reach.
Curt Kirkwood: [Guest] musicians up there, they’re the aliens that have stopped by for the evening. And then they invoke the alien in the crowd. It was wonderful. I wasn’t really thinking, “Oh, this is a big thing,” or something like that. I was really thrilled to be able to play with the guys because I really liked ’em. And I thought the songs of mine that they picked were really cool.
Cris Kirkwood: I ended up sitting where Krist had been, and there was a microphone. I decided, “Well fuck that, there’s a microphone here, so I’m gonna use it.” So I wound up singing up some backgrounds on our songs, which we hadn’t practiced. I flat out was not going to not use the microphone. And then purposely at the very end of our songs, since I had the microphone, I wanted to say something as a recognition of the fact that I appreciated those guys sharing their thing with us. What are you gonna say, “I’d like to thank everybody”? So I go, “Fuckin’ Nirvana!”
Part VI: “He Made Time Stop.”
During the hour-long performance, Cobain let his guard down on stage in a way that he never had before. This emotional openness helped him build to the show’s stirring finale.
Cross: Kurt is leading every moment and every gesture in a way that you don’t observe when you watch a Nirvana show that’s electric. During an electric show, there are many other things going on. The drums are overpowering. It’s not like every single moment is focused on Kurt at a live Nirvana concert. During this concert, unlike any other one that they did, every single focus was on Kurt Cobain. And that is one of the reasons that this is such an unbelievably memorable show.
Craig Marks (editor, Spin): That’s the night where a lot of—and I’m not trying to genderize this—women saw him and were like, “Oh my God, he’s fucking sexy.” It’s just the scruff, and the scraggle, and the hair being a little longer.
Goldthwait: I do remember our hugs. I wouldn’t imagine anyone seeing either of us as the hugging kind of guys. I just remember getting like a beard burn. He’d rub his face onto mine.
Marks: He looked like a movie star playing a rock star.
McCarthy-Miller: You could see his face. And he’s beautiful. He’s a beautiful man. His eyes were a piercing blue that was crazy. And he looked stunning on that set. It was lit beautifully. He was in a sweater that he got at like, a thrift store.
Deanna Mitchell (vocals-bass, Frightwig): My ex-husband, Steffan Chirazi, who’s pretty much a heavy metal writer, he interviewed Kurt in December, right after they had taped that show. He was in [Atlanta] interviewing Kurt. And Kurt told him, “Tell Deanna I dug out my Frightwig shirt and I wore it on Unplugged.” My kid was about a year old, and we weren’t playing anymore. Touring sucked. I was so tired of it. It was just the sweetest thing and the most respect. One thing about Kurt Cobain is that he respected other musicians. And he lifted us up.
One of the musicians he respected most, the man he called his favorite performer, was Lead Belly. Cobain’s take on the early 20th-century folk singer’s version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”—itself an adaptation of “In the Pines”—was the night’s last song. Cobain had played guitar and added background vocals on friend Mark Lanegan’s cover of the track, which appeared on the Screaming Trees frontman’s 1990 solo album The Winding Sheet.
Grohl: That was the soundtrack to my first six months in Olympia [Washington]. I listened to it every day—when the sun wouldn’t come up, when it went down too early and when it was cold and raining. I was lonely. I’d listen to that record for reasons. It was a huge influence on our Unplugged thing.
Marks: When he did “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” it wasn’t one of those things where a month later, or a week later, or a year later, you’re like, “That was great,” even though you didn’t really know it at the time. You knew the dead second that it was happening that you were witnessing something phenomenal. You didn’t really even know he had it in him. It was that good.
Goldthwait: When they did that song, I remember the hair standing up on my arm.
McCarthy-Miller: That song told a thousand tales. It felt like he was singing all the pain that he had through that song. It was crazy.
Cross: You get the sense that he’s just gonna fall apart, it’s like a car without its wheels, and yet, in the end, he plows through it.
Gaar: The thing he did, and he did it in a number of Nirvana songs, you’ll notice, [is] where he’ll be singing full bore, going all out, but then in the final verse he’ll go up an octave. And then really ratchet the energy up.
Litt: It fucking killed me—particularly where he paused before the end and gasped.
Finnerty: The breath in between the breath. He made time stop. Time just stopped.
McCarthy-Miller: I will never forget those last vocals. I can hear them in my head right now. And his face …
Litt: The drag for me was that I was in the sound booth for the recording of the show, so I wasn’t in the room as he did that. But seeing him on the monitor right in front of me kind of freaked me out.
Goldthwait: I remember being backstage and, I’m not sure if it was MTV or the management, they were trying to get them to come back out to do more songs, and I remember saying to Kurt, “Well, I don’t really think you’re gonna top that. I think you’re done.” I remember saying that. What was the point?
Coletti: I was standing just off to the side of the stage. I said, “Is there anything else you guys wanna do? Now’s the time. You’re not gonna get to do this again.” And they listened and they weren’t just dismissing it. And I threw out “Verse Chorus Verse,” and there was one song that was a B-side that Dave sang, “Marigold.”
So honestly, I wasn’t doing what MTV wanted, which was getting hits. I was throwing out obscure stuff. Just stuff I thought would work acoustic and be cool. But I wasn’t gonna come out and say, “Try ‘Teen Spirit.’” But Kurt thought about it and he said, “I don’t think we can top the last song.” And the minute he said that, I pressed the button on my headset and said, “We’re wrapped.”
Part VII: “Their Version of God Playing 3 Feet in Front of Them”
On December 16, 1993, MTV aired a slightly trimmed broadcast version of Nirvana Unplugged. The platinum-selling album, MTV Unplugged in New York, wasn’t released until the next November, seven months after the 27-year-old Cobain took his own life. No one in attendance on the night of the taping knew it at the time, but the performance would later be viewed as a living funeral.
Coletti: Nothing about the show, minus the fact that Kurt died shortly thereafter, has a funeral vibe. It’s not a morose show. It’s not a depressing show. It’s anything but. But it only took on that [feeling] after the fact.
Gaar: In the TV edit, it just seems more somber and serious, but in between [songs] you could see them laughing and making jokes.
Goldthwait: Krist is in World’s Greatest Dad. He has a cameo. I was in Seattle and I was thinking about this. I go, “Well Robin [Williams’s] character gets over the death of his son too soon.” So I came up with this scene that wasn’t in the script, where Robin’s in front of a rack of porno and he starts crying. And Krist is playing the [newsstand owner], and he gives Robin a hug. It was funny because I called him up and I was like, “Hey, you want to be in the movie?” And he’s like, “Why?” I go, “Because you’re funny.” He goes, “I am?” I go, “Yeah.” And I was like, “You know, it’s about when someone dies and people that don’t really know them reinvent it and make it all about themselves and forget about the people who were really close to the person.” And Krist said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Coletti: In the moment, I think the band was having a pretty good time and the audience was too. No one was going, “That was a bummer.”
Novoselic: I still can’t believe we pulled that show off.
Coletti: It went by so quick because it was a pretty flawless taping.
Galea: Kurt Cobain ended up talking to a bunch of fans.
Galluzzo: I got Kurt to sign my [In Utero] record.
Galea: I kind of, like, made eyes with him from across the room, and I kind of shrugged or whatever, and he ended up walking over to me after he was done with that group of fans, and we ended up talking for what felt like 20 minutes. I’m sure it was, like, five to 10 minutes. We talked about—because I read a lot about him—Courtney Love releasing an EP—this was before Hole really broke—and William S. Burroughs. It was like, “Hey, because of your cultural influence, I got into all these things. Let’s talk about them.”
Galluzzo: This kid Dave, who started a conversation [with Cobain], asked him, “Oh, what kind of cigarettes do you smoke?” Because he had a cigarette in his hand. And he said, “Benson & Hedges.”
Galea: I wasn’t a smoker but I asked him for a cigarette.
Galluzzo: [Galea’s] like, “Can I have one?”
Galea: He gave me one, and I just put it in my pocket.
Galluzzo: Dave said, “I’m never smoking this cigarette, ever. I’m just gonna hold onto it.”
McCarthy-Miller: After the show they had Kurt come into the control room and look at some songs.
Coletti: I think we had a cooler of beer in there.
McCarthy-Miller: He looks at me and he says, “My management told me I need to smile more. So I’m smiling at the end of one of the songs. Can you please put that shot in?” I said, “Sure, let’s show the lighter side of Kurt Cobain”—joking around. I thought he was kidding. And he’s like, “Yeah, could you do it?” And I’m like, “OK, sure, yeah, we’ll do it.” At the end of [“About a Girl”], he finishes the song and he does this crazy smile.
Coletti: We found that great grimace.
McCarthy-Miller: It looks like a kid that’s being forced to smile in a family photo.
Merlis: I saw him on the phone. It was before cellphones. So it was on a landline phone. I didn’t know what he was talking about or who he was talking to until he said, “Mom, we did it. We did a great job.” It was really like a kid had gotten an A on a test. “Look what I did! I’m so happy!” Not bragging, but really, “I aced this really hard thing.” It was very, very sweet.
Finnerty: After the show, Courtney [Love] was out of town, and so we went back to the hotel, and we were just hanging at the bar, and Kurt was like, “I want to go upstairs and call Courtney.” And he’s like, “I’m really bummed. I feel like nobody liked it. It was really bad.” I was like, “Oh my God, you’re out of your mind.” I walked him up to the room. I’m like, “People just saw their version of God playing 3 feet in front of them.”
Cross: He was used to being on stage and getting applause and having people go crazy and slam dance. So the audience acting very, very quietly was confusing to him.
Finnerty: He eventually came around.
McCarthy-Miller: I couldn’t stop listening to it. I would have the VHS screeners at home and I’d just put them on my TV and listen to them at night.
Curt Kirkwood: I remember being interviewed after the show with Novoselic. They were asking us about if they were gonna release this. And Krist, I think he said, “No, Pearl Jam already did it.” And I thought that was funny.
Litt: There might have been a thought of making an album out of it because they were so happy with it. But when Kurt and the band found out that MTV would receive a significant amount percentage-wise from the album sales, he said we should just go across the street to another studio and record it again!
Coletti: It only took on this huge resonance when Kurt died, and when we played it around the clock because it was such an appropriate elegy. I think the demand for it grew exponentially. At that point, no one wanted to seem opportunistic. And I imagine we waited an appropriate [amount of] time to get [the album] done.
Merlis: The album Unplugged was supposed to be a two-record set. It was supposed to be Unplugged with a live album.
Litt: I actually started to mix some live recordings of the band. But it was too hard for me. There would be moments where [Cobain] might be off pitch just a bit. And if he were alive and there, we could fix it or use another take. Him not being around … I just wasn’t comfortable making those decisions. So I passed.
Merlis: I remember ultimately they didn’t do the live record because it was just too intense.
Litt: It was super hard to remix the [Unplugged] album after Kurt died. Particularly “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” I did it with Dave and Krist in my studio in Los Angeles. And it was like there was a ghost in the room. I swear to God. But I knew it was OK to do it, because I knew how much Kurt had liked it. The thing about Kurt that most people didn’t know was that he was a real perfectionist in his own way. So him having liked the Unplugged performance really made a difference.
Robert Fisher (art direction–design, MTV Unplugged in New York): Kurt was really into those lilies. He had them all over the stage. So I went out and went to the florist and bought some of those and shot them for the package. I kind of did like a scribble container for the image, kind in the shape of a TV, to kind of mimic that broadcast.
Cross: If there are people that I want to turn on to Nirvana, I always send them Unplugged first. If there’s an entry point to who Kurt Cobain was as a songwriter and a singer, Unplugged is that. You’re getting unfiltered Kurt there. There’s no lens you’re seeing him through. You are seeing him.
Finnerty: I can’t explain it. Just the silence in the room in between songs. It was a show of respect towards the band to be so quiet. And that’s what Kurt misinterpreted, that that silence was disapproval. It was just respect.
Cris Kirkwood: Sometimes it all just really clicks, you know? It really fuckin’ hit on a point.
Curt Kirkwood: It’s a belongs-to-the-ages moment.
Coletti: When we shot it, this wasn’t meant to be the last thing they did. It was meant to be another thing in a long and wonderful career. So in the moment, you weren’t aware you were taping what was Nirvana’s last album. You didn’t store the memories the way you would have. It was only in hindsight that it became what it became.