You would be forgiven for thinking that Nirvana were ready to go for their legendary MTV Unplugged set in late 1993. The band had been on the road for a month, hammering out material from In Utero along with classics from their back catalog. Apart from the songs from tour mates the Meat Puppets, even the cover songs had all been played live by the band prior to the Unplugged show. In theory, it was just a case of using acoustic guitars in place of electric ones. Simple enough, right?
Wrong. Nirvana encountered plenty of problems during rehearsals. Dave Grohl couldn’t play with regular drumsticks, since he was consistently louder than the band. It took a few days of experimentation before brushes and hot rods were brought it to make his signature bash more controlled. But more worrisome was the air around bandleader Kurt Cobain, who was fairly taciturn during the lead-up to the performance.
Rehearsals were notably uncomfortable: Cobain could be goofy and genial, but he could just as quickly turn sullen and surly. The Unplugged rehearsals show him during a period of frustration and uncertainty, trying to adapt the band’s signature power to a more intimate setting. Cobain was also suffering from drug withdrawal at the time, which contributed to his relatively cold and detached demeanor.
“The rehearsals were tense,” journalist David Browne recalls, “MTV brass wasn’t thrilled when the promised guests turned out to be the Meat Puppets and not, say, anyone from Pearl Jam. Cobain was going through withdrawal that morning.”
Normally, when Cobain was faced with this kind of irritation, he could take it out by cranking his amp, screaming his vocals, and destroying his equipment. No such luck at MTV Unplugged. He had to be controlled and measured, with all eyes firmly on him in case any wrong note or mistake might squeak out.
As the band runs through ‘Polly’, Grohl finds it difficult to hit his harmonies, no doubt becoming somewhat thrown by the gentleness he had to bring to his vocals. For ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, Cobain fumbles his entry when a guitar chord from Pat Smear messes him up. Ironically, Cobain nails the guitar solo, which he actually ends up flubbing slightly during the live show.
The rehearsals are a smattering of hit or miss moments, and nobody seemed sure as to whether the show would work out or not. Cobain even refused to perform the day before the show, but arrived on time and ready to play as the audience began to filter in. Despite the shaky rehearsals, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged wound up being one of the band’s most legendary concerts, one that still had a major association with their legacy today.
Check out the rehearsals down below.