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Nirvana “Unplugged” At 30

Kurt Cobain Nirvana

Kurt Cobain had it all planned out. The stargazer lilies, black votive candles, and somber lighting on set prompted one producer to observe “It looks like a funeral in here.” It did. Because it was.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, which remains a seminal moment in 90s music. It was supposed to be a purely commercial enterprise; a quick money grab, one in a series of concert programs affording popular artists a chance to cash in on hit songs stripped down for easy listening. But in the hands of Kurt Cobain, the episode was transformed into the band’s swan song and his own grim personal farewell.

It all happened so fast. Nirvana’s stratospheric rise began in late 1991 with the release of Nevermind. By the time of the band’s debut appearance on Saturday Night Live in January of ’92, the record was selling 300,000 copies a week. Their last television performance on MTV was recorded in November 1993 and aired in December. In March of ‘94, Kurt attempted suicide in Italy but was rushed to a hospital and revived. In April, Cobain agreed to enter rehab. But he reneged. He promptly escaped the institution by climbing down a security wall and returned to Seattle. He took his life a day or two later. Fans were shocked, but not surprised. After his death, MTV repeatedly aired this posthumous farewell. The morose chronicle of Cobain’s living wake did not soothe, so much as stun, heartsick fans.

Warning signs are easier to see in hindsight. With Nirvana’s Unplugged set list, Cobain screamed a litany of warnings. Kurt had flatly refused to play the band’s biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and ignored calls from the audience to play fan favorites like “Sliver,” and “In Bloom.” Instead, the man called the greatest songwriter of his generation, relied heavily on cover versions of other people’s songs. Six of the fourteen songs presented — almost half—were written by other artists. Kurt was never short on original material. He chose the songs for the tragic story they would collectively tell.

Kurt filled the setlist with songs about death and dying, a chief warning sign of suicide ideation. Experts caution that excessive discussion about death is an indication of potential self-harm. Unplugged’s narrative story foreshadowed Kurt’s own suicide plan: “Have a gun, haven’t told” “I swear that I don’t have a gun,” “I’m a liar and a thief.” In light of Kurt’s fateful end, such overt messaging would send chills through groups of young fans who gathered to pay homage to an icon, watching Nirvana’s final television appearance together.

Survivors of suicide loss are often racked with questions. Questions like “Why?” can be rabbit holes with no satisfying conclusion.  But others, like “How could we have known?” or “What could we have done differently?” may lead to more productive future outcomes.

America is currently experiencing an epidemic of suicide. Rates reached a record high in 2022, according to government data.  Thankfully, “suicides among young Americans, whose mental health problems during the pandemic reached crisis proportions, declined sharply last year,” according to The Washington Post. But suicide among men over 35 was up almost 15% from the year before. Firearms were involved in about half of all suicides. Knowing the warning signs could save a life.

Warning signs can be everywhere. For Kurt Cobain, they were expressed in his music and lyrics:

  • Putting Affairs in Order “The Man Who Sold the World” (The Man Who Sold the World)
  • Sleeping Too Little “I’m so tired, I can’t sleep” (Penny Royal Tea)
  • Securing Lethal Means “Have a gun, haven’t told” (Come As You Are)
  • Isolation “All alone is all we are” (All Apologies)
  • Increased Anxiety “Take your time, hurry up” (Come As You Are)
  • Expressing Hopelessness “The soul is cheap” (Dumb)
  • Feeling Unbearable Pain “Warm milk, laxatives, cherry flavored antacid” were treatments for Kurt’s chronic stomach pain. (Penny Royal Tea)
  • Increased Substance Abuse “Got so high, I scratched ‘til I bled” (On a Plain)

The effect of Kurt’s death on a generation of young Americans was profound. He was often likened to John Lennon, the spokesman for the Baby Boomers. The impact of Lennon’s murder in 1980 is widely thought to have signaled the end of the Boomers’ collective innocence.

Kurt had no hope to lose. Perpetually bullied as a kid, he’d long given up faith in people to be kind, or institutions like school to help. But he was kind anyway. He gave voice to angst and cynicism but also defended the weak. He articulated a vague feeling among some that things were worse than we thought, that authority was contemptible, and that the world, in a nutshell, was f**ked.

Kurt’s suicide seemed a bitter confirmation of our worst suspicions. But in life, Kurt also held to high ideals we admired; kindness, inclusion, and acceptance. These became cherished Gen X values. It wasn’t the “Come on people now, smile on your brother” ethos of the 1960s. That was derided by Krist Novosellic on “Territorial Pissings.” This generation had a kind of empathy and consideration reserved for the underdogs, for the little guys, the oddballs, the unwanted. In other words, the Kurts of the world. It was the kind of love he always needed, but in the end could not offer to himself.


Kurt Cobain did get help, but it was too little too late. In 2009, Dave Grohl told the BBC, “Sometimes you can’t save someone from themselves.” It’s a concept that survivors of suicide loss struggle with.

Thirty years later, Kurt Cobain’s most valuable legacy may not be giving voice to anger at the injustices of the world. It may be as a cautionary tale, a lesson in the hazards of ignoring our loved ones’ cries for help, the importance of taking a moment to check in with each other. For people coping with a suicidal loved one, it’s a call to try, even if the odds are stacked against us. And for survivors of suicide loss, it’s a reminder to be kind to ourselves.

-Ed Zareh

Photo: Kurt Cobain (Getty Images)

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Ed Zareh is the playwright of “Long Lost John,” and co-creator (with Mary Clohan) of “Long Lost John: Drama Therapy,” a program supporting bereaved families, presented in partnership with COPE Foundation. Past writing credits include Second City This Week, UCB Comedy, and SNL Studios. He’s a frequent contributor to Culture Sonar.

2 comments on “Nirvana “Unplugged” At 30

  1. Wow, I never realized how the song choices of Unplugged all added up. When I watched the original airing, it did seem funereal, but I figured they were just leaning into the grunge ethos, playing acoustic instruments, but with heavy song choices.

  2. Barry Nobles

    Great analysis, great piece, great reminder to be kind. Thanks, Ed!!!

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