Rock Flashback: Nirvana on “MTV Unplugged”

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Nirvana Appears on "MTV Unplugged," 1993 (Getty Images/Frank Micelotta)

Nirvana Appears on “MTV Unplugged,” 1993 (Getty Images/Frank Micelotta)

It was one of the greatest moments in the history of MTV — and it’s at least somewhat arguable that it may have been the last great MTV moment, before the channel surrendered the unique place it had held at the center of worldwide musical culture for much of a decade.

The series MTV Unplugged was, for several years in the early ’90s, the jewel in MTV’s crown, and the place every band wanted to be seen. The series produced enormously successful acoustic albums by [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Eric Clapton[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Jimmy Page & Robert Plant[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Rod Stewart[/lastfm], and [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Paul McCartney[/lastfm], and also featured appearances by [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Bruce Springsteen[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Bob Dylan[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Aerosmith[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Elton John[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Pearl Jam[/lastfm], and many others.

But the members of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Nirvana[/lastfm] hadn’t been impressed by many of the episodes they had seen. When they finally agreed to appear, they didn’t want to simply do their greatest hits acoustically. Instead, they chose their setlist based on what they thought best suited an acoustic show — and the hits were few.

The set was unlike any other in the series — “like a funeral,” [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Kurt Cobain[/lastfm] said to a producer. Nirvana’s choice of guest artist — two members of the [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Meat Puppets[/lastfm] — did not provide the additional star power MTV was hoping for.

After a couple of days of rehearsal, the show was taped on November 18, 1993. What was seen on TV (and eventually heard on the CD and DVD releases) was a straight run-through without retakes. Cobain was going through drug withdrawal at the time, which helps account for his demeanor, and perhaps, the intensity of his performance.

The show was first broadcast on December 16, 1993. After Cobain’s suicide the next April, it was as if MTV put it on a continuous loop. The performance was released on CD in November 1994 as MTV Unplugged in New York. It went to #1 and won a GRAMMY for Best Alternative Album. The performance came out on DVD in 2007.

Here’s the closing number, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Experience more Rock Flashbacks.

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