#313: Nirvana, "MTV Unplugged in New York" (1994)

Armchair Friendly Page Turner

“All in all is all we are.”
    — Kurt Cobain

Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged session took place about five months before the death of Kurt Cobain. As an eleven-year-old, I was on the bus to school when I found out he died. I sat down on that stiff, greenish-grey, plastic-y seat, complete with portions reupholstered in duct tape, and looked over to her. She wasn’t just upset. It was like her whole world had ended.

“Are you OK?” I meekly asked.

“Kurt Cobain died,” she said.

Her display of emotion was like the sting of a gadfly. Nirvana was the music I kept myself company with at home, and a shared experience with my dad and my sister on any car ride. But Kurt himself—Kurt who once said, “If you're really a mean person you're going to come back as a fly and eat poop;” Kurt who said, “I'm a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am”—he wasn’t real to me. Death wasn’t real to me. I didn’t know what to do with either of these facts. With age and maturity, I came to better understand Kurt’s death and what he lost in dying. And what we who did not know him lost. Death, on the other hand, is still a mystery to me. Like the Buddhist finger pointing to the moon, we can only conjecture about what death really is until we actually arrive there.

This is a bit tangential, but have you heard “Scentless Apprentice” lately? It’s so damn good. I love screaming-his-head-off Kurt. Kurt who spit into the cameras on stage. Kurt who once wrote, “I would only wear a tie-dyed T-shirt if it were dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia.” Kurt who once performed a modification of “Come As You Are” by replacing all the words of a verse with the word “hey.”

“Scentless Apprentice” would have been a hard one to play unplugged. Which must be true of many Nirvana songs. At most unplugged sessions, bands play their hits. But nearly half of Nirvana’s set, per Kurt, was cover songs: three songs were by the Meat Puppets (accompanied by M.P.’s two Kirkwoods), one each by David Bowie and the Vaselines, and one traditional song as arranged by Lead Belly. They performed eight of their own songs: four from Nevermind, three from In Utero, and one from Bleach.

Many of us on the Gen X/Millenial cusp can thank Kurt’s version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for bringing us to Huddie Ledbetter. And the (somewhat) unplugged version of “The Man Who Sold the World” was so culturally significant that for many years, young folks hearing Bowie perform the song would applaud Bowie—Bowie who thought Kurt’s rendition was “heartfelt” and “very honest”—for covering a Nirvana song (says Bowie: “I think, 'Fuck you, you little tosser[s]!’”).

I think a good cover song is like a reincarnation—a spirit, stripped of its former identity yet with something essential sustaining, born again in new flesh. The material is not incidental to the immaterial. If the body is not honored, then the spirit fails to rebirth and the result is mere mimicry—something like what a parrot does—a poor substitute in absence of a more perfect original. There are countless bad covers of Nirvana songs. There are a handful of pretty damn great covers.* And a few covers which make me wonder if the spirit of Nirvana’s lead man hasn’t temporarily seized/been seized by some foreign body. One of these for me is Brad Mehldau’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Directions for listening to Brad Mehldau, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

Step One: Collect a thick blanket with which to cover your extremities.

Step Two: With the lights out, lay supine gazing at an unadorned ceiling.

Step Three: Give yourself permission to wail, swear, and whisper “fuck yeah” into the ether-register that is the fabric of spacetime.

It’s a little mad, isn’t it? Does it do the thing to you that it does to me? If I were standing, at about 3:56, my knees would buckle. Oh, Kurt—there you are. Still here. It makes me think of what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says about clouds: “When you look at a cloud, you think that the cloud has being. And later on when the cloud becomes the rain, you don’t see the cloud anymore and you say the cloud is not there. You describe the cloud as non-being. But if you look deeply, you can see the cloud in the rain. And that is why it is impossible for the cloud to die. The cloud can become rain, snow, or ice. But the cloud cannot become nothing.”

As much as Kurt is there (Kurt who once, to an MTV Headbanger’s Ball interview, wore a yellow dress that looked like Belle’s and Maleficent’s dresses got a little kinky together), Mehldau is there, too. Which tells us a little something about flesh and maybe reincarnation. This is no mere possession. The vessel is vital.

Patti Smith’s version of the same song is probably the only other Nirvana cover I feel this strongly about.

Directions for listening to Patti Smith’s rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

Step One: Plug it into your got-damn jugular.

Do you feel it, too? Especially as we roll around to 3:27 and she starts making shit up like “sleepy, illiterate, fuzzy little rats, haunted, paint-sniffin’, stoned out of their shaved heads, forgotten, foraging, mystical children, foul-mouthed, glassy-eyed, hallucinating.” How can Kurt be vanished, when I hear him again in the voice of an approximately sixty-year-old punk rock legend? Good cover songs, man. In valuing the flesh, they make the spirit live again.

Of the Unplugged covers Nirvana played, I return the most to “Oh Me.” It strikes me that Kurt never could have written the pure, simple sentiment expressed in the song’s second verse: I don't have to think / I only have to do it / The results are always perfect / And that's old news. Nirvana’s lyrics were never so direct (“Most of my lyrics are contradictions. I'll write a few sincere lines, and then I'll have to make fun of [them].”) I do think one can be contradictory and sincere at the same time though, because I think the truth often contains contradiction. Kurt didn’t like to say things directly. He did and he didn’t. Kurt who wrote Take your time / Hurry up / The choice is yours / Don’t be late. On this odd, omnisectionable plane, at least two opposing things can very well be true in any given moment. One can be both married and buried. About selecting “Nirvana” as the band name, Kurt supposedly said, “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name.” Contradictions. After looking, they make us look again.

If Buddhist reincarnation is real, we can be almost certain that Kurt would still be stuck in samsara, the cycle of birth and death that is only escaped through nirvana, the end of suffering and desire. And so Kurt may now, in this very moment, be a slender, shy doe, hooves marking up wet forest soil. Some versions of reincarnation allow for rebirth as animals. Perhaps he’s a black swan, often homosexual creatures, or a bisexual bonobo, just to stick it to all the homophobes (“At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records,” said Kurt, because morality > money).

Or maybe Kurt was reborn last week, the fourth and final child to a husband and wife who will live their whole lives together, deep in love. And tiny Kurt, with a new name, she’s doing just fine, at home surrounded by this family of painters and engineers. Dad worries more than mom and always has with the arrival of each of their children. Mom’s never felt more secure in the health and wellbeing of her newborn as she does this time, Mom who has become a master swaddler. She wraps her daughter just firmly enough in a thick cotton blanket. Her daughter loves to be swaddled, held close, coos more than any of her other children did, coos like humming. Rockabye Baby: Lullaby Renditions of Nirvana plays in the background—“All Apologies,” Mom’s favorite. “In the sun / I feel as one,” she always sings at the right time. All I wish for this new Kurt is that, in this lifetime, she be surrounded by all the kinds of soul mates that make life so worth living.

Have I said enough about the album itself? Well, it’s kind of like what Kurt said: “It’s all in the music, man; it’s all in the music. It’s all in the meat.” Let me be the finger pointing to the moon:

Directions for listening to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged:

Be at a party. At a rave. In a mosh pit. Scream at the top of your lungs. Turn it up in the park. In your bedroom, in your earphones, on the floor, pressed up against a cool wall. Reclining with your head upside down off the couch. Standing and staring out the window. Over tea. In your car while someone else drives windy streets, yell “No recess!” yell “Hey, wait! I got a new complaint!” yell “I love you–I’m not gonna crack!” Listen coming in and out of sleeping, in the sun. Feel as one. With your friend. With an enemy. Yesterday and tomorrow. Today and next week.

*A beginner’s playlist of great Nirvana covers:

Charles Bradley & the Menahn Street Band, “Stay Away”
Sinead O'Connor, “All Apologies”
Herbie Hancock, “All Apologies”
Will Dailey, “Territorial Pissings”
Foxy Shazam, “Drain You”

—April Gray Wilder