February 20, 2020, would be Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain‘s 53rd birthday had he had not taken his own life in April 1994. Now, I know the Cobain is hardly the first guy you think of when you’re in the mood for acoustic music—few late ’80s/early ’90s bands were as raucously electric as Nirvana. It wasn’t called “grunge” for nothin’! But there was this one blip in the space-time continuum, on November 18, 1993, when Nirvana shocked the world by performing on the hit series MTV Unplugged. The program, which first aired on December 16, 1993, was embraced by many music fans who had heretofore shunned the group; it showcased Cobain’s songs in a new way.
After Cobain’s shocking death the following spring, MTV started airing the program often, to a huge response, and when an album of the performance (titled MTV Unplugged in New York) was released in November 1994, it also became an enormous success, hitting Number One on the charts and selling some seven million copies in just a year; it’s the group’s most popular record. It was also a smash DVD.
Though the Unplugged appearance was dominated by Cobain’s songs, there were also a few cover tunes in the mix, the most interesting being a haunting version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a traditional song popularized by Lead Belly, and this week’s Throwback pick, David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World’ (from Bowie’s 1970 album of the same name; his third record). On this number, as on much of the Unplugged show, Cobain—playing acoustic guitar through an amp, occasionally with some distortion—and his Nirvana bandmates bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl are joined by a second guitarist, Pat Smear, and cellist Lori Goldston. This video has accrued more than 287 million views; an amazing feat! Good stuff. —Blair Jackson