Unplugged in New York
This is a weird one to review. It's been rerun so many times, especially in those eventful weeks of 1994, that I could replay most of it in my mind, without the aid of this DVD release. Th cumulative effect of this constant repitition of the original work is not unlike xeroxing a picture over and over again, until the source has lost all emotional closeness and you're just staring at a distorted, impersonal facsimile of what was a cherished memory. Y'know how they repeatedly screen "A Christmas Story" for like 24 hours on Christmas Day? That bad. And the seed of what actually made Nirvana distinct and vital becomes ever more distant. I will admit though, it's nice to see it without commercial interruptions and with the excised Meat Puppets cover "Oh Me" restored.
A bit of context. By this point, Nirvana as a band were surely on their last legs. Cobain, wracked by drugs, marital problems and plain ol' rock star pressure, was already making noises about breaking up Nirvana and forming a new one with Mudhoney's Mark Arm and solitary man Mark Lanegan. Management and MTV brass no doubt had to basically blackmail Nirvana into taking part in this, but having already experimented with a quieter mini-set in the midst of their usual apocalyptic noise on a recent tour, Nirvana were as ready as they would ever be. So it was that the band clomped onto an MTV soundstage festooned with flowers and candles (like for a wake), augmented by cellist Lori Goldstein, guitarist Pat Smear, and played their hearts out in front of a invitation-only audience with an inspired set of covers and deep album tracks. It was a night that would be full of surprises.
Almost fifteen years later, some moments of this performance still pack a prickly, visceral thrill. Like what? The last verse of Leadbelly's already haunted "In The Pines" is fucking well beyond spooky - it's like a pained, frantic seance. Listen to that voice soar and crack. Tracks like "All Apologies" and "Something in the Way" became baroque dirges. The Vaseliees' "Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam" was like a transcendent hymn, with lead lines taken by Krist on an accordion! David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," was an out of fucking nowhere selection, and let me tell you as a Bowie fanatic that the song never sounded better. Best of all to this reviewer was a clearly jazzed (and finally stirring from his hazy grumpiness) Cobain inviting the bemused Kirkwood brothers, the twin engines behind pioneering country punkers the Meat Puppets, onstage to pitch in on coves of three of their classic songs. It was on these country thrash nuggets, recast as ramshackle bluesy sadness that Nirvana really fucking sizzled. This was another magnanimous gesture from a band that always SEEMED to try its best to help out the bands that "brung them to the dance," so to speak (see also Melvins, Breeders, Mudhoney, Shonen Knife, Half Japanese).
The extras remind you that, yes, even at the best of the time Kurt could be a dick to even the best of friends. The rehearsal recordings are by turns intriguing and terribly uncomfortable. Check out the icy contempt he projects like flying daggers towards Krist and Dave, though the beatific Pat Smear, punk legend and Germs mainstay, floats above it all, perched on a stool, barefoot, with a quiet smile on his face. Intriguing, because, as you can tell by the uncertain and tentative rehearsals, the whole shebang really did come together only in the final performance. That, and whoever the director was did a pretty good job in choosing iconic angles.
Other extras include the original MTV version (sure, why not), some interviews with various MTV types ("I can't believe it came together like this!") and some more largely unimportant documentary type stuff. Nowhere near essential but kinda nice that it's there. The packaging is a dead ringer for the "MTV Unplugged" cd release of a few years ago - the inner booklet has a bevy of great still shots. Should you buy this now or wait for the inevitable double disc anniversary set with 32 seconds of unseen footage? I don't want this performance to become as impersonal and unnecessarily imposing as Woodstock or somesuch. But the Market marches on. And YOU thought you hated yourself and wanted to die...
- Matthew Moyer