Beyond Fright – “I Was At Nirvana Unplugged…”
“I Was At Nirvana: Unplugged…”
I’ve got a confession to make. When I was about 17 years old, I was at MTV’s live taping of Nirvana’s now legendary Unplugged performance. I didn’t realize at the time just how important this gig would end up being, both for the band and for pop culture music history in general. I was just so happy I finally got to see my favorite band live for what would be the third of three consecutive times in a single week. About a year ago, Icons Of Fright co-creator Michael Cucinotta pointed me over to a Reddit threat where a Nirvana fan was asking a series of questions for anyone that was actually there for this monumental performance. It’s a rarity that I get to talk about the whole experience. It just doesn’t come up in regular daily conversation, so I decided to log on, reach deep back into the recesses of my mind and answer the questions posted on Reddit as best as I could remember. Seeing the reaction and responses from other Nirvana fans was so warm and rewarding that I always told myself that I’d one day write out a whole article chronicling the entire event. (Read the Reddit threat RIGHT HERE, I’m user Pollyweb1) This past November 18th marked the 20th anniversary of the Nirvana Unplugged performance (if you can believe it’s been 20 years!) and for Record Store Day this past weekend, the 2013 Steve Albini remixes of In Utero were made available on vinyl as an exclusive collectible release, so… what better time than right now to share this story?
How it all came to be requires just a little bit of backstory. You have to keep in mind that 1993 was a completely different time. It was long before the days of what you now know as the modern internet. No Napster, no iTunes, no downloading, maybe AOL at it’s infancy. That’s about it. And since Nirvana was my favorite band of all time, I couldn’t rest at just collecting every one of the albums and singles (in just about every conceivable format), I had to search for bootlegs. In those days, every weekend my buddy/band mate Pete and I would take the ol’ LIRR train into Manhattan and we had our whole itinerary of about 4 or 5 record stores completely mapped out. Some catered specifically to vinyl (his thing) and others carried a lot more bootlegs than you could ever possibly imagine. (Boots were more my thing.) It was always a gamble buying a bootleg CD, because they often ran for about $20 bucks a piece, which even now is pretty steep for a single CD, especially one with questionable sound quality. If you were lucky and the cashier at the record store was cool, they’d pull out a discman from behind the counter and let you skim through a few tracks before you bought it, but you never knew if you’d be granted that luxury. If I saw a title on the back of a CD I didn’t recognize, I’d pick it up hoping to discover a never-before-heard Nirvana track, hence proving I was the biggest fan on the planet. (Hey, 17 year old mentality.) I’d see something titled “Imodium” for example and be bummed that it was just yet another demo for “Breed.” I can’t count the amount of Nirvana discs I own that have “Everything & Nothing,” “Verse Chorus Verse” and “Sappy” which are all the same track. In other words, I owned a crap ton of Nirvana bootlegs and despite it all, I was always on the quest for more!
One day, I’m skimming the classified section in the back of an issue of Spin magazine and I saw a tiny little box that read “Nirvana Fan Club” with a listing for a PO Box address in Hoboken, New Jersey. Nothing more, nothing less. No details, no legit info. Nothing to confirm if this was a band endorsed “fan club” or simply a fan in New Jersey that put their PO Box address out there into the world in the hopes of trading bootlegs with another sorry soul such as myself. I bet on the latter and of course wrote to the Nirvana Fan Club, hoping that I’d at least make a new friend. And then… I heard nothing. This was probably roughly around March of 1993, so by the time a random letter showed up in my mailbox in November, 8 months had passed and I had completely forgotten about writing to the “Nirvana Fan club.” Yet here was a letter with the Nirvana Fan Club logo stamped right in the corner and that Hoboken address again. It turned out I did in fact write to a band sanctioned fan club run by the same people that did the Sonic Youth and Breeders fan clubs, which I recall at the time offered exclusive sound board recorded shows directly to fans for sale. But when I opened the letter, I didn’t get a catalog to a bunch of rare Nirvana goodies. I instead got this following letter below:
OK, to put this in perspective, I got this letter on November 12th. The actual Unplugged show was November 18th. So I had about 6 days notice to soak this all in and convince myself this was really happening. Also, the band were playing 2 full-on electric sets, one at the New York Coliseum on November 14th (2 days after my letter showed up) and again at Roseland Ballroom on November 15th. Was I really about to see Nirvana 3 times in one week? Heck yes, I was! I had been frequently traveling into New York City pretty regularly by then, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough going alone for this particular show into Hell’s Kitchen, especially considering it was an area I was completely unfamiliar with. So although he couldn’t come inside to the gig with me, my brother John (bless him) chaperoned. When I arrived at the venue, there was a considerable line out front but I don’t remember much more than that, other than everyone clutching onto a canned good for the Thanksgiving drive, which as the letter above stated was the admission price for the show.
There were about 10 of us specifically there from the official Nirvana fan club and it was all kids roughly about the same age as me, and much like myself, they were all accompanied by an adult. The adults were all taken into a waiting room while we were brought into the actual theater where the performance would take place. (It felt very Willy Wonka.) The majority of the main crowd directly in front of the band seemed to be made up of MTV studio execs and people from the network. MTV VJ Kennedy was right in the middle of that particular crowd, while myself and the other fan club members were stationed on a platform directly behind Dave Grohl’s drum kit. Not exactly the greatest view, but who cares! We got into Nirvana Unplugged!
I befriended the kid that sat next to me for the show. I feel terrible to say this but I think his name was Dave. It’s been 20 years and we didn’t have the benefit of adding each other on Facebook to remain friends after this, but regardless, we traded Nirvana stories, talked about our other favorite bands and speculated on what Nirvana songs would translate properly to an acoustic format. We were pretty much trying to guess the set list. As we were carrying on, Dave Grohl appeared in front of us, as if magically out of nowhere. How we didn’t notice him walk up is beyond me. But regardless, he was followed by Krist Novoselic and they both took turns chit-chatting specifically with the fan club members. I don’t remember much of what was said, because we were all kind of in awe when Kurt Cobain came over to talk to us just a few short moments later. I know Dave and I brought up the two live gigs they did in New York earlier in the week and at one point Dave asked Kurt if he had an extra cigarette. (He did, a Benson & Hedges.) And the gratitude he and the rest of the band showed us was truly amazing. They didn’t really talk to anyone else in the audience. My memory was they wanted to hang for a few minutes with the “fan club” kids. Kurt even leaned in and gave me, Dave and at least one or two other fan club members a big group hug. And then the band took the stage.
If you own and have watched the uncut DVD version of Nirvana: Unplugged In New York, then I’d say you’re not missing much in terms of how the actual gig played out. They opened with “About A Girl” from their debut LP “Bleach” to which Kurt joked “This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it.” And from there on out, they pretty consistently went straight through their set. They did not play any songs more than once. Just about every single track was recorded in one take, even “Pennyroyal Tea” which has a minor flub on Kurt’s part mid-way through. The only time they re-started a song was for “All Apologies.” They only made it a few bars into the song before Kurt stopped and started again. That’s why you can hear the audience reluctant to clap in the broadcast version. I think we all thought we screwed them up or something by applauding too loud the first time.
But even as one the most die-hard of Nirvana fan’s on the planet, I was baffled by the fact that I couldn’t identify a good chunk of the set list. OK, I knew “About A Girl, then they did “Come As You Are.” They followed that up with “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam,” a cover of an old Vaselines song; not a total surprise as I’d heard them play a rock version of it on some bootlegs, although I don’t think any of us expected the accordion to come out. And actually, fun tid bit. This is the one time you can hear me on the CD. When Kurt introduces the song as “this is song by the Vaselines,” you’ll hear a “whoo!”, “woo” and a “yeahhh.” I am that “yeah.” I know. It’s not much, but as a result, well… my voice now appears on a multi-million selling record!
Anyways, I digress. I did not recognize the next track at all, and I could tell most of the audience didn’t either. They didn’t announce it as a David Bowie track until after they had performed it. But then they got back on track by playing a handful of songs from both “Nevermind” and “In Utero” before bringing out The Meat Puppets. And yet again, at the time none of us knew who the hell Meat Puppets were, nor did the band think to introduce them! Even Krist gets their names wrong during their intro. Kurt mentioned the names of the songs, but we still didn’t know who this guest band was until maybe in between the 2nd and 3rd cover of theirs? I mean, it’s rare for any band to divert from their usual set for a good 10-15 minutes to perform not one, not two, but three tracks from another band! That part was definitely bizarre, but as Nirvana has always been great at doing, they introduced me to a new band to follow with The Meat Puppets.
I remember the band was very, very playful and fun in between songs and there was a point where they entertained the notion of requests. People were screaming for things like “In Bloom” and “Sliver” which Krist started playing for a few seconds before the rest of the band laughed it off. I kept screaming “Play Everything & Nothing!” to dumbfounded looks. It was the “No Alternative” secret track I was referring to which at the time had been known as “Verse Chorus Verse,” but I was stupidly yelling out an obscure title for an obscure song because that’s the title it was credited to on all my bootlegs. (The CD was called ‘Wipeout’ if anyone else remembers it!) Kennedy at one point screamed out “Play Rape Me!” To which I recall Kurt saying, “Is that you, Kennedy? MTV didn’t let us play it at the MTV Music Awards so we’re definitely not playing it now.”
They closed with the Leadbelly cover “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Another personal favorite although I’d never heard Nirvana cover it. I was familiar with it from Mark Lanegan’s first solo record where Kurt and Krist played on that particular track. Needless to say, being in that room when Kurt started screaming that last verse was just as powerful in the room as it is when you watch it back now. It’s a timeless performance.
Once they finished that track, they were done. There didn’t seem to be any inkling of an encore of any sort. Instead, they thanked the crowd and Kurt yet again came over to us, the humble fan club members who were just stoked to be there. We chit-chatted for a bit more as a group, and Kurt signed my limited edition first pressing In Utero record with a regular pen (it’s all I had on me) right on the front cover. He signed it as “Kurdt,” his Bleach-era persona. I gave him a quick hug and took off to find my brother, although now in retrospect, I wish I had gotten Krist and Dave to also sign my record. I’m pretty sure they were already gone by then anyways.
Looking back on the entire experience is very special to me. If you look at the time table, this was late November 1993. Kurt Cobain suffered a drug overdose and was comatose while touring in Italy in March of 1994. On April 5th, 1994, a mere 5 months after the Unplugged performance, Kurt was dead. It’s really amazing to think of just how huge an impact Nirvana had on pop music in the short span of 3 years. From 1991-1994. For those of you that were in high school like I was, I’m sure you remember it well. Everything changed. Everything, because of Nirvana and Nevermind. The cultural landscape, MTV’s video rotation, fashions, trends, music, bands, everything. So for that, I will always have a special place in my heart for Nirvana and that entire period of my life. Because it was among the best time of my life and it inspired me in so many ways to open up, be creative and most importantly, just be myself.
Post Script: The last thing I’d like to add is a minor regret. I’ve been living in Los Angeles now for about 5 years and a year or so back, I was at a local pub not too far from where I live here celebrating my best friend’s birthday. It was literally a small group of maybe 6 of us in one corner of this bar, another group of 3 a few tables over and a handful of people sitting on stools circling the bar. To our surprise, one of the fellow’s drinking at the other table was none other than Dave Grohl with 2 buddies. Some of the people that were sitting at the bar went over to him periodically just to say hi, tell him they were big fans and offer to buy him and his friends shots. I opted to not bother him, and carry on with my friends in our corner. I do wish now in retrospect that I went up to him, because rather than gush and say the traditional “I’m a huge fan” speech, I instead would’ve said, “Mister Grohl. When I was 17, almost 20 years ago, I sat behind you at the Nirvana Unplugged show. And now all these years later to see you sitting at the same local pub as me & my friends, well it’s just a trip. And it’s great to have had you in my life that whole time.” Maybe one of these days I will get to tell him just that. Ya never know…