Nirvana Taped Iconic “Unplugged” 20 Years AgoBy: Lacy Langley - November 17, 2013
If you were alive in the 90s, you most likely owned the “Nirvana: Unplugged” CD, and burned it out. It was amazing and the show on MTV was even better, in fact, it was probably the iconic show for the series.
Well, not to make us feel old or anything, but this week will mark the 20th anniversary of that taping, which took place Sony Studios in New York on Nov. 18, 1993. With that acknowledgement, comes inside stories about how that taping almost never happened, as well as some behind the scenes issues that could have led to disaster, according to Yahoo.
First, when MTV producers received the set list they saw, to their dismay, that Nirvana didn’t intend to play any of their biggest hits, namely “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, except for “Come As You Are”. On the list was an unnerving list of obscure covers, and freaking out commenced.
“We got a setlist out of the band, and other than ‘Come As You Are,’ there are no real Nirvana hits,” producer Alex Coletti remembered. “I wish Kurt or someone in the band or management clued us into ‘We put thought into this, this works this way, trust us.’ Instead it was just [defiantly] ‘This is what we’re doing.’…Not being familiar with some of the covers, some of the people here became very tense about ‘We’ve got to get them to do more hits.'”
Kurt Cobain, himself, almost did the infamous show in on the day before, suddenly informing staff that he was pulling the plug on the taping. “He did it just to get us worked up. He enjoyed that power,” MTV’s Amy Finnerty said.
He was also wracked with physical pain caused by his heroin withdrawals. “The morning of Unplugged, Kurt spent an hour filling out a physician’s questionaire on his eating habits,” Cross said. He added that Cobain had been “vomiting bile and blood.”
The panic grew when the idea was floated that perhaps someone should get some “medicine” for Cobain. Finnerty revealed to Cross, “They told me that ‘he’s not going to make it on the show if we don’t help him out.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve never done heroin, and I don’t know where to find it.'”
Luckily he was able to make it through the night with just Valium, but he just made it to the end, no further. Forget the encore. Coletti had everyone else ready to do an encore, “but Kurt just wasn’t into it. I was just doing my job for MTV at that point, trying to get that one extra song in the can, to see if the night could produce one more gem. The pleading went on for about five minutes. Finally Kurt said, ‘I can’t top that last song’ [a cover of Leadbelly’s morbid folk song ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’]. And when he said that, I backed off. ‘Cause I knew he was right.”
Finnerty felt the same way: “When you saw the sight of his face brefore the last note, it was almost as if it was the last breath of life in him.”
There was also serious tension between band members, well, Dave Grohl to be exact. His drumming was not good enough for Cobain leading up to the show, and tempers were hot.
“I had this small cocktail drum set and these really light sticks,” Grohl recalled, “In rehearsal, we would do a song, and Kurt would turn to me and say, ‘Hey, do you think you could play it a little bit lighter?’ ‘Oh yeah, I’ll try.’ So we’d do another take, and he’d turn around and go, ‘Could you bring it down just a little bit more?’ And we’d do another take, and he’d say, ‘You know what, just still, could you bring it down?’ And I was like, ‘Should I even f—ing be here?'”
The day was saved by Coletti, who lent him a set of sizzle sticks as well as brushes, which Grohl had never used in the place of normal drumsticks before. “We ran through a song, and Kurt’s face lit up,” the drummer said, “Those sticks saved the entire show.”
The finished product was an incredibly memorable show, where everything came off without any bumps or even any re-dos. Dave Grohl said about “Unplugged”, “We’d seen a lot of other bands do Unplugged tapings, and what they’d done was basically rock out the songs as if they were playing electric instruments. They didn’t do anything to change the songs; they just basically plugged in acoustic guitars instead of electric ones. There was no way we were going to try to pull off ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with f—ing acoustic guitars. It wouldn’t work…I think Kurt wanted to bring it down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level, which was really fun. I think that’s what made it so special; it wasn’t just acoustic versions of Nevermind.”
The show is as iconic to our generation as witnessing “The Beatles” on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was to our parents. Kurt Cobain took his own life just a few months later on April 5th, 1994. After that, MTV staff couldn’t help but recall how the set, requested by Cobain, had the aura of a funeral.
“He did specify that he wanted star lilies, which are these big, white flowers,” Coletti said in 1995. Along with the candles and heavy drapes, made for a sort of morbid backdrop. When Coletti asked Kurt if he really wanted it to look like a funeral, he answered, “Yeah.”
Coletti added, “I don’t want to read too much into it, but that memory sure spooked me out a [few] months later.”
Image via youtube