The last months of Kurt Cobain‘s life was chaotic to say the least, but in the middle of it all, the singer and his band Nirvana delivered a poignant and beloved live performance that proved to be one of their most popular releases. It would be the band’s MTV disconnected performance, recorded in November 1993, that would eventually be released on Nov. 1, 1994, in the wake of Cobain’s death.
By then, Nirvana had seen their popularity reach new heights and the band had become one of the most recognizable faces on the music video network thanks to videos like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Come as You Are”, “In Bloom” and “Heart Shaped Box .” At the same time, MTV had created one of the most popular music showcases of the time with theirs MTV disconnected series that features some of the biggest acts performing their songs in an acoustic setting.
Nirvana who had released their In Utero album just two months before taping, had been pursued by the network for what would surely be considered a coup for the show. But the band wasn’t exactly intent on replicating what had been done by others before. As Dave Grohl stated, “We had seen the other one Disconnecteds and didn’t like a lot of them because most bands would treat them like rock shows — playing their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.” Instead, the band looked at Mark Laneganalbum from 1990 The twisted sheet as a source of inspiration. The disc had a more stripped down sound and it should be noted that both Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic made guest appearances on the Lanegan disc.
Unlike many of their peers, Nirvana didn’t see this as a “greatest hits” show, instead opting to go deeper in selecting cuts and including a number of cover songs, something that didn’t sit well with the network. Among the set list is only “Come as you are” could be considered a major hit for the band.
Nirvana, “Lake of Fire”
Speaking of covers, three of them belonged Meat puppets, with whom Nirvana had toured just before the recording. Cris and Curt Kirwook joined the band for performances of “Plateau“”Oh, me“, and “Lake of fire,” the latter of which would get plenty of play in the aftermath of the broadcast. Producer Alex Coletti shared Guitar world“[The network] wanted to hear the ‘real’ names – Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who.”
In an interview with Rolling stones, Curt Kirkwood was asked about the band’s influence on Nirvana. He stated, “We’ll never know how much of an impact we had on Kurt because we can’t ask him. We can ask Krist Novoselic, I think. Musically — when we heard them — we were too far into our own thing. I think they immediately warmed my heart because I immediately felt some kind of spiritual kinship. They were one of the only bands I’d seen since the Butthole Surfers that I really felt were in the same ballpark as us nihilistically and aesthetically and spiritually.”
Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World”
Other covers are included David Bowies”The man who sold the world“, which would serve as a single from the album release, Lead Belly’s “Where did you sleep last night?“, which closed out the set, and a retitled “Jesus doesn’t want me for a ray of sunshine,” which was originally made by The Vaselines.
As for the Lead Belly cover, the song dates back for Cobain to the aforementioned Mark Lanegan record The twisted sheet. According to New York Times, the two musicians bonded over the original song that Lead Belly recorded in 1944, and Cobain played guitar on Lanegan’s version. When it came time to do MTV disconnected special and feeling the spirit of the moment, the band closed their show with their memorable rendition of the song.
The road to admission turned out to present many challenges. The band dedicated two days to rehearsing for the show and were reportedly not happy with Dave Grohl’s drumming. “What I didn’t know was up until the day [of the Unplugged performance]there was talk of Dave [Grohl] doesn’t play in the show at all,” Coletti remembered. “Kurt wasn’t happy with the way the rehearsals were going; he didn’t like the way Dave sounded playing drums with sticks … He’s a heavy hitter, and that Disconnectedespecially with rock bands, if the drummer doesn’t really, really get it under control and tries to play a rock show on a smaller set, it turns the show into a bad-sounding electric show instead of a good-sounding acoustic show.” Ultimately Coletti sent a production assistant to a local Sam Ash to get Grohl some wire brushes and soldering irons, which proved to do the trick.
Cobain was also nervous about the performance, worrying about everything from the sound to the appearance. Coletti recalls, “The set was a conversation with Kurt. He asked for stargazer lilies, and when I went up to see Kurt and showed him the drawings, he said, ‘I need more flowers and candles.’ I said, ‘Like a funeral?’ He said, ‘just like a funeral’.” In Charles Cross’ bio on Cobain, an observer of the show stated that at one point the singer refused to play. He added: “There was no fun, no smile, no fun coming from him … Therefore, everyone was more than a little worried about his performance.” But the worry was for naught as Nirvana put together one of the most memorable live performances in music history with the show.
Nirvana, “About a Girl”
The line-up consisted of the well-known Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl, augmented by a touring guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston. The show opened with a beautifully reserved version of “About a girl” from the band’s Bleach album. The song was an important turning point in defining Nirvana’s sound early in their career, and its pop-leaning influence set the tone for what was to come. When Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York was released a year after the performance, “About a Girl” got the first nod as a single.
“All excuses“, which was recorded for In Utero album and was originally released as a double-A side with “Rape Me,” is probably better known for MTV disconnected version that dominated the MTV airwaves in the wake of Cobain’s death. The song was nominated for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group and Grammy Awards for Best Rock Song in 1995. “The Man Who Sold the World”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “Lake of Fire” also generated plenty of attention from the counter.
Nirvana, “All Excuses”
Cobain died on April 8, 1994, just five months after the recording of MTV disconnected particular. Originally, DGC asked for something they could release to combat bootlegs flooding the market. The band intended to release a double album of live performances from throughout their career with the addition of MTV disconnected particular. However, having trouble emotionally investing themselves in the project, the surviving members chose instead to just release Disconnected performance and hand it over to producer Scott Litt to oversee the record.
The Nov. 1, 1994, the album was released, immediately debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. The disc would go on to be certified 5x platinum and has been universally regarded as one of the greatest live albums of all time. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York would also win the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996, and the DVD would be released in 2007.
“I think it’s a really important achievement for Nirvana fans because I think it showed another side of them that we unfortunately never got to see again,” concluded MTV disconnected director Beth McCarthy-Miller.