Nirvana had resisted the idea of recording an episode of MTV’s live concert series Unplugged. “We’d seen the other Unpluggeds and didn’t like many of them,” Dave Grohl said. “Most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.” But while touring with the Meat Puppets, Kurt Cobain finally accepted on the condition that they do something different than the typical Unplugged episode.
The band drew inspiration from Mark Lanegan’s stripped-down 1990 album The Winding Sheet. The album, which Grohl has called “one of the best albums of all time”, featured contributions from both Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic on a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
Cobain would end up using that same song as the powerful closing number of the Unplugged concert. Neil Young described Cobain’s final screamed verse as “unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.” His rendition has often been regarded as one of the greatest live performances of all time.
Although Nirvana had agreed to do the show, Cobain was nervous about the idea of an entirely acoustic show, and it almost fell apart several times during production. The producers at MTV were unenthusiastic about the band’s idea of performing a set of lesser-known Nirvana tunes and obscure covers. The execs were also opposed to the idea of featuring the Meat Puppets as guests, and instead tried to push for more mainstream contemporaries like Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos.
Nirvana brought in their touring guitarist Pat Smear and a cellist Lori Goldston. Although it was an “unplugged” show, Cobain actually ran his acoustic guitar through his regular amplifier and effects pedals. To maintain the illusion of a purely acoustic show, producer Alex Coletti placed a fake box in front of the amplifier to disguise it as a monitor wedge. Coletti said the amp was “Kurt’s security blanket. He was used to hearing this guitar through his Fender. He wanted those effects. You can hear it on ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. It’s an acoustic guitar, but he’s obviously going through an amp.”
Unplugged In New York, the first and most successful posthumous Nirvana album, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. It was certified 5x platinum in the US by 1997. It is still regarded as one of the best live albums of all time.