In 1993 the black clouds were looming for Kurt Cobain. His rock band Nirvana might have been the biggest and best rock band on the planet but like a character in a Jim Thompson novel his life was beginning to unravel in a very public and spectacular way. With a crippling heroin addiction, an infamous relationship and his own record company desperate to cash in on his huge success - there seemed no hiding place for an isolated genius of a songwriter plain born under a bad sign. As Guns and Roses bassist Duff McKagan once famously remarked 'around this time you could almost smell the death on him'.
Artistically though if not spiritually, his star was still blazing high like one of Kerouac’s 'Mad Ones' at this time. With the release of their third album In Utero, Nirvana had stepped up a gear from the heavily MTV rotated sound of Nevermind into sonically different pastures. Gone were the metal riffs and huge choruses and in came a darker, edgier sound and more sophisticated writing style. At least lyrically Cobain seemed to have taken huge leaps forward from abstract lyrics into the more autobiographical and personal. The Steve Albini produced effort was a critical and commercial success, leading some to suggest he was the voice of a generation, albeit one with a nihilistic and twisted world view.
If Kurt Cobain thought this was to be his saviour however he was to be extremely disappointed. Originally he'd intended to call the album 'I Hate Myself and I Want To Die' and wanted to rid himself of a certain element of his crowd he deemed as surplus to his outsider rock vision. Rows and rows of drunk jocks punching the air to songs like 'Lithium' and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' troubled him. These were the same people he despised at high school. He'd even taken to wearing dresses on stage to prick at their homophobic tendencies. Ultimately however, Cobain’s great talent lay not in the avant garde nihilism of American punk rock but in good old fashioned melody. Nirvana were closer to The Beatles than Black Flag. However much he dressed his recordings in white noise, they seemed to crossover instantly into mainstream success.
Then again, there was always a contradictory nature to Kurt Cobain’s view of record sales. Prior to the release of In Utero, Nevermind producer Butch Vig was astonished to hear the singer dismiss their multi-platinum selling album as sounding 'too clean and polished', when the truth had been that the singer had rehearsed the tracks obsessively and asked the producer to make them sound like The Beatles. This was a recurring theme with the singer. As much as he admired the left field stance of his punk heroes there was more than a little piece of him that burned with ambition. He'd even used the music press at that time to aim barbs at his alternative rivals. Billy Corgan for one had more than a few insults aimed at him, which was hardly the copybook text of someone glowing with punk rock solidarity.
Whether it was a personal or political reason however on the night of November 18th 1993 in New York, Nirvana took to the stage as part of MTV's Unplugged series, in what many saw as a fascinating experiment as to whether their incendiary material would cross over on an acoustic stage. It was a performance that nearly never happened. Behind the scenes things were fraught with tension between Cobain and the MTV hierarchy. Still smarting from a station ban of an intended performance of 'Rape Me' at an awards show, he wasn't about to back down over their nervousness at his intended playlist at the Unplugged show. In fact, apart from 'Come As You Are', there wasn't a single Nirvana top ten hit on it and certainly not the one they wanted. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', a track which Cobain had grown to pretty much hate was virtually impossible to play acoustically anyway, but more than that, the obscure covers by Scottish band The Vaselines and slacker drop outs The Meat Puppets he planned as substitutes to their anthems - didn't exactly appeal to their corporate mentality on any level either.
The ace card Cobain did have at that time however was that single-handedly he was the most important rock star on the planet at the time. It's difficult to imagine now but pre-Nirvana rock and roll was going through a terrible time. Horrific poodle permed soft rock bands like Poison were singing about thorns in latex and strumming Gibson acoustics with all the gusto of fat, flailing pigeons on a Wetherspoons step. Cobain however was the poster boy of every angst ridden youth the world over and he knew it. As he took the stage that night in New York and broke into 'About A Girl', a knowing alligator grin spread on his face. At least on this occasion, he'd won the battle of style over corporate substance.
The starched suits needn't have worried anyway. Cobain had always had impeccable taste. He was renowned for it amongst touring bands and was knowingly eclectic with his taste. A beautiful rendition of The Vaselines 'Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam' and a lesser known Bowie track 'Man Who Sold the World' were delivered subtly to an entranced audience. Already, the man with the most distinctive howl in rock and roll was showing another side of his layered personality. The ghosts of folk singers like Tim Buckley and Nick Drake were brought to mind. The linear lines of folk and alternative rock were never so slight.
'Pennyroyal Tea' followed as did 'Polly', which Bob Dylan himself had described as 'one of the most soulful, mainstream songs' he'd ever heard. Stripped down into acoustic versions, these tracks seemed ever more ominous. The former’s line 'give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally' now seems horribly prophetic. And ‘Polly's chilling refrain of 'do pass the blowtorch' remains an uncomfortable piece of rock poetry, given that it was based upon a real life torture of a teenage girl Cobain had read about.
In hindsight too, it may be telling that Cobain had the stage that night set up like a funeral wake. Black candles were lit around him and he had never looked quite so translucent. At this point he was trapped in the sickly world of acrid cottons and burning spoons, a smack vortex which he probably knew he wasn't going to escape from. Towards the end of the set his cover of The Meat Puppets’ 'Lake of Fire' seems another clue. Was he trying to tell us something? If not he was setting up a finale that to living memory remains one of the spine tingling moments in rock and roll history.
Leadbelly's 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night', a lesser known blues torch song was not an obvious choice to finish the show, but from the opening chords and the way he brutally hit the strings, it's certain it was a song close to Cobain’s heart. Later Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie would describe Cobain as singing like a 'scolded cat', and it certainly was that intense, as if he'd been waiting to deliver the performance his entire life. The anguished howl he lets out towards the end is like something trying to escape his body. Soul music in its purest form, hauntingly inspiring but making you want to look away at the same time. Which a few months later was pretty inevitable anyway.