Nirvana: Unplugged In New York

IT SEEMS A PARTICULARILY VICIOUS IRONY:THAT A BAND THAT electricity seemed to flow through, a band who at their best could fling the weight of rock’s past over their shoulder in a tiny rucksack and sprint effortlessly up a mountain, should leave an Unplugged album as their parting shot. Not just because their guiding light is himself now, in the most final and horrible way possible, unplugged; but because the whole Unplugged ideal — music as a living history lesson, hey, it’s acoustic and therefore real — seems antithetical to everything Nirvana were about.

The big question about this record though is, can it make you feel anything other than overwhelming sadness? The answer, for me at least, is yes. I wasn’t sure that it would be. Loving this band the way so many people did, listening to this record for the first time is like having a friend who has died and not being sure if you want to look at a picture of them so soon.

When the video of this show was on TV shortly after Kurt’s awful demise, it was almost unbearably moving and not just for Cobain’s angelic slouch, the moments when it felt like you could see into his soul, or the terrifying bloodless scream at the end of Lead-belly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’. The performance’s more cheery elements — Chris Novoselic (Krist still feels like an affectation, even if it isn’t) being helpuful, or Dave Grohl, in his best clothes, trying to play the drums quietly — were just as poignant.

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. Those who are nervous about MTV’s coroporate youth marketing triumph can always tape this album on to a blank cassette, make a cover and think up their own title.

The record begins with a tense, shuffling ‘About A Girl’ (ushered in by Kurt’s curt “This is off our first record, most people don’t own it.”) and then a looser, more luminous ‘Come As You Are’. Neither of these versions add anything in particular to the existing songs, but it is nice to have new ways to listen to them. Next comes the first of many covers; an accordion-led wheeze through The Vaselines’ subversive take on the odd holy rolling classic ‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’. The courtly and apparently sincere version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ which follows is more surprising. Puckish American punk rockers striving to rehabilitate Discharge and Anti-Pasti and the like we can cope with by now, but David Bowie?

In some ways this new sombre, seated, cello-accompanied Nirvana feels like a surrender to the inevitable — when you’ve done Faster, Louder as thoroughly as this band did, what else is there for you but Slower, Quieter? But in others, it is an adventure. The tension in their music does not slacken with quietness. At some points, notably a lacerating ‘Penny Royal Tea’ (the only song Cobain formally plays solo, though the feeling persists throughout that this is now a star and his backing musicians rather than a band), it actually increases. This is undoubtedly the greatest song ever written about self-doubt and abortion and greed and fame and stomach-aches, and “I’m anaemic royalty” seems even more painfully acute now than it did first time round.

One of the most upsetting things about Kurt having been so certain that his creative juices had run dry, is that is doesn’t feel that way to the listener. The three songs from In Utero which reappear here (the enduringly jaunty ‘Dumb’ and the achingly beautiful ‘All Apologies’ being the other two) are all highlight. And even this record’s most apparently problematic elements — the inclusion of not one but three Meat Puppets songs, all from their (until now) neglected master-piece of a second LP — is an integral part of its fascination.

For all the undoubted scope of the Cobain ego, its proprietor never seems to have understood why he got so famous when The Vaselines or The Raincoats or The Meat Puppets didn’t. So the Puppets’ Cris and Curt (weird parallel name alert) Kirkwood stroll onstage and strum along elegantly and apparently without rancour as Kurt sings three of their most beautiful songs, and does so with considerable success, even though they are way out of his normal vocal register. This might be sheer triumphalism — “like sleeping with your less successful friend’s girl or boyfriend, just because you can,” is how a passing Meat Puppets obsessive puts it — but in fact there is something honest and touching about it. It’s as if Kurt is acknowledging that his own music can no mean as much to him as theirs did: because it is no longer a secret.

A lot of people suddenly getting access to something precious is not necessarily a good thing, but no crowd, however large, can trample the beauty of that original something. In the midst of this hoarse, gentle, courageous, desperate music, it is possible to feel that maybe the Unplugged-ness of it all isn’t actually ironic. Just the same as it isn’t really ironic when people have hit singles with bad disco versions of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, or kick their amplifiers on Top Of The Pops when celebrating jeans advert Number 1s Whose guitar textures are unnervingly Cobain-esque. It is in fact entirely appropriate. And if Kurt does — as he should — sleep with angels, he might even have a wry smile on his face.

© Ben ThompsonMOJO, December 1994

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