An Icon On The Edge

Twenty years after MTV first aired Nirvana: Unplugged, Andrew Wallace Chamings revisits the “unforgettable document of raw tension and artistic genius.” He remarks that “there is no way of listening to Unplugged in New York without invoking death; it’s in every note, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a masterpiece”:

[Their rendition of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”] ranks among the greatest single rock performances of all time. All night, Cobain, while never quite able to hide his anxiety—sniping at band mates, grimacing and grasping at half smoked cigarettes—has remained definitely present and in control. That is, until the very end, when he briefly loses it.

For the final line, “I would shiver the whole night through,” Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word “shiver” so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word “whole” and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that’s hard to describe:

He opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity. Then he finishes the song. When Neil Young first watched the performance, he described that final note of Cobain’s as “Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.” Four months later Cobain would quote Young in a scrawled letter to “Boddah,” his imaginary childhood friend, before shooting himself in the head with a shotgun at his Seattle home on Lake Washington Boulevard: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

Judy Berman also can’t shake the feeling of tragedy:

Watching Unplugged for the first time in at least a decade, I was surprised at how different it felt to me as an adult — as someone who, while still a Nirvana fan, is no longer half-consciously displacing truckloads of adolescent loneliness and alienation onto a dead rock star. It’s not that it’s a “worse” performance than I remembered; the acoustic constraint alone imposes a mood of hushed intimacy that is entirely different from the loud, chaotic live shows Nirvana was known for. The wrenching string arrangements, the Meat Puppets guest appearance, the covers that transformed great David Bowie and Vaselines and Leadbelly songs — all are powerful. But still, what comes across to me in Cobain’s performance, and especially in his interactions with the audience, is not so much sorrow or wistfulness as flatness and detachment. Until the last two songs, “All Apologies” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which truly do reverberate with emotion, Unplugged shows us that performer from Cobain’s suicide note — the one who is struggling to connect with his audience but can’t shake the feeling that he’s punching a clock as he takes the stage to greet them.