November 23, 2007
Nirvana: Unplugged In New York
9 / 10
Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York was never intended to be the band’s epitaph, but when Kurt joined what his mum called “that stupid club”, that’s exactly what it became: a sombre coda to a career that burned brighter than the singer’s golden locks. So it’s surprising, to say the least, that this is the first time it’s ever been released on any video format.
But watching it now, it’s striking how much it always looked like the end of things. Nirvana on MTV Unplugged shouldn’t have worked, it being the staple of the big’n’bland like KD Lang. Yet by sparing the world acoustic renditions of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Territorial Pissings’ or ‘Been A Son’, they got to promote some of their hidden gems. Its most famous export was ‘About A Girl’, rehabilitated from ‘Bleach’ to take a prominent place in the Nirvana canon. ‘On A Plain’ and ‘Polly’ are phenomenal songs in any language, and this does boast the definitive version of ‘Pennyroyal Tea’. But what raises this above a telly show are the covers: David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and this recording’s defining moment, Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’. And it’s magical. Here, scattered wide across a TV studio draped in rugs and lilies, you can almost smell the bonhomie. Kurt looks peaceful; certainly not the quick-witted dandy, but not a man weeks from suicide either. What is funny is how you notice how pissed off Dave Grohl looks the whole time. Or how guitarist Pat Smear seems to be the only one enjoying himself. Most of all you can see that, as much as the prospect makes you feel a bit sick, Kurt would have handled the inevitable transformation into a folkie with typical brilliance. Most of all, you notice that this was the end of Nirvana. By the time of Unplugged, Kurt had already recorded his pits-of-hell kiss-off to the world in ‘In Utero’. You can read the calm before the catastrophe in his face. And you really do wish that moment could have lasted forever.
Now, we’re not in the business of reducing a person’s entire soul to a few drug problems. And troubled rock stars come in all shapes and sizes, after all. But the fact that Unplugged comes out at the same time as Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse release their first live DVDs makes the comparison roar. What better time than Christmas to use the thriving DVD market to Bring It All Back To The Music?
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