Six Unforgettable (And Wildly Varied) Episodes of MTV Unplugged.

MTV Unplugged: Nirvana

There is an undeniably cathartic element to acoustic music. It just tends to soothe the soul, no matter the state you are in. And classic MTV knew this and (brilliantly) cashed in on it with the Unplugged series, which would run on Sunday nights. It was evident fairly early on in the history of the series that they had tapped a very smart corner of the market. To be honest, whether or not a band is good live pretty much dictates the talent that band has, so if you sucked as a band or were talentless hacks, most likely you were not getting your own episode of Unplugged.

For this reason alone, there are very few bad MTV Unplugged episodes. Don’t get me wrong, there are some bands and acts you just don’t really need to see acoustic (Um, LL Cool J?), but even the bands or artists you didn’t like would still often shift how you felt about them if they delivered a good Unplugged set. While it is quite clear MTV is not the network they once were, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the better performances from the Unplugged series. Remember, you don’t have to come from the 90’s or adore these bands to know some of these sets are remarkable. And to anyone under 30, sorry if this post seems foreign, but I will include some video performances so you can see I am talking about. Alright, before we go any further, a quick moment of silence for the 90’s. What a glorious time it was to be alive, huh? Speaking of Alive…

Pearl Jam

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if I didn’t emulate Eddie Vedder as a teen, I would have never gotten laid. Just saying.

This list will OBVIOUSLY be somewhat influenced by 90’s “grunge” (hate that term), which worked incredibly well on the acoustic format and was the primary target demographic for the show, so if bands like Pearl Jam enrage you, I suggest going elsewhere, right now. For the rest of us, the Pearl Jam Unplugged was the Unplugged that changed how we felt about Unplugged. Can you tell I am getting paid by the “Unplugged”?

What people underestimated about Pearl Jam was their passion. Pearl Jam were (and very much still are) a band filled with people who LOVE what they do, and believe in what they do. All you had to do was watch the Porch performance from this Unplugged (a song about pro-choice) to see just how enigmatic and amazing a front man Eddie Vedder is, and in this performance, we saw a much more raw side than we had ever seen before. And that moment where he stands up on the stool is just so rock n’ roll. Here, peep it for yourself and try NOT to get swept up in the magic.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjUBg47zfl8

I am not gay, but I also wouldn’t kick Eddie Vedder out of bed for eating crackers, if you get my drift.

Paul Simon

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Such an awesome, massive guy for such a little man.

I want to make it very clear that it is purely a coincidence that two of the bands I just mentioned were also mentioned on my “best music documentaries” list. I have very versatile taste in music, though the reoccurring artists here may lead you think otherwise. In the same breath, anyone who would insult Paul Simon can just walk right out of my life right now, because I have no desire to be associated with anyone who can’t recognize awesome. That out of the way, everything Paul Simon touches turns to musical magic, and his Unplugged set is no exception.

While I wear my adoration for the Graceland album on my sleeve, Paul Simon has always made stunning music, and this set is more a representation of his career than just that album. But also, this reminds us that the songs we knew him for before Graceland were ALL acoustic, folk songs. So in essence, Paul was right at home here, and that is evident from the first notes of this spectacular episode.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46bkXgxb66E

That, my friends, is a PERFECT hook for a song.

Lauryn Hill

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That is the real, true power of music on full display.

To me, there are very few things as raw and powerful as watching an artist getting proverbially naked behind an acoustic guitar and just showing their soul, as scary as it can be for any of us. And that is just what Lauryn Hill did when she made a return to Unplugged in solo form in 2002 (the last hurrah for Unplugged, really). What transpired that night was a woman, known for her bravado and honesty, completely stripping away that bravado. What we are left with is a woman, baring her soul, and getting so intimate with the audience as she works through her new music that she actually begins to weep openly at one point.

I get chills just writing about it. Words do no justice. See for yourself.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brWmS8As9Wk

This honesty and intimacy is all but missing in modern music.

Neil Young

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I am still bitter Neil Young is not my grandpa.

To me, I see Neil Young as the wild, old sage, living in the mountains and sometimes coming down from those heights to bestow lessons on life and beautiful melodies upon us. He is the great grandfather of the crunchy, grunge sound (even though he had no intention to be), yet, much like Paul Simon, at the heart of it lay a folk artists, adjusting to and evolving with the times. Neil Young’s Unplugged was one of those “still moments” from the 90’s. What I mean by that is, he reached into a very hectic time and he slowed us down for a moment, offering us a quiet moment as the whole world changed around us. And again, like Lauren Hill, he was very much naked to the world in those moments.

What we see, as the result of that is a gentle old man with the voice of an angel, telling his stories through music, like a bard in days of old. It was very disarming for me, and after seeing it, I fell in love with Neil’s music, and his overall badassness. But here, we see gentle Neil, and it is a remarkable thing to witness. Also, I think the following song is one of the saddest, prettiest songs ever written.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYna-UAt75c

That “when I last saw you alive” line chokes me up every time I hear it.

10,000 Maniacs

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Purple leggings are so 1994.

Did I lose you? I hope not, but if I did, so be it. The 10,000 Manics Unplugged changed my life for one reason and one reason only. For some reason, in my own life up to that point, I was not a huge fan of female vocalists. I’ve no idea why that is, but that is. But there was  something so utterly selfless about watching 10,000 Maniacs on Unplugged that night. What I mean by selfless is, up to that point, my image of female musicians was vastly “off”, and for some stupid reason, I thought that half naked pop stars were just how women were represented in music. The idea of women as being almost dehumanized in the industry (think Madonna) was not an ideal I was (or am) a fan of. But there was something so genuine about Natalie Merchant’s performance that night. There was just an old-world sensibility to 10,000 Maniacs music that I had never experienced before. It ultimately ended up opening my eyes, musically, and as a result, I suddenly had Tori Amos music, and Ani DeFranco music, and Fiona Apple music, and it was like I rubbed my eyes and finally had cleared them after years.

And that was all the result of this song from this Unplugged. I was never a “happy music” guy, but this was just that, and I loved every minute of it.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z55CbLIStic

Having a bad day? Put on this song and the bad days peaces out.

Nirvana

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You see a man, I see an angel. To each his own.

I love Kurt Cobain, and I make no attempts to hide that. Some think less of him because of his drug addiction and suicide. I don’t. I look at him for his music, and his music affected me deeply. Whether or not he wanted it, he was a spokesman for a generation (a title that would eventually kill him), and his final poem he wrote for that generation was his Unplugged performance. It was very much a suicide letter, written five months before he would actually do it. Why do you think it was all mostly covers that the band was not known for playing? Hear me out.

From his song selection that night, it was quite evident that Kurt knew where his life was heading. Think about it. Man Who Sold The World (He was very upset at how popular they were). Lake of Fire (Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly). Plateau (see a lot up there, but don’t be scared, who needs action when you got words). Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam (Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam. Sunbeams are not a man like me. Don’t expect me to cry for all the reasons you want to die). Oh Me ( I would lose my soul the way I do) Come As You Are (and I swear that I DON’T have a gun) and ofcourse, Kurt’s death wail on the end of Where Did You Sleep Last Night, which was directly addressing infidelity rumors circling the wife of his child, Courtney Love. So what do I mean by Kurt’s death wail?

That is the chilling final moments of Unplugged, when Kurt let’s out an absoluetly chilling scream at the end of the song, and looks at the camera with his bright blue eyes all wide, exhausted, and beaten down. He lets out an exhausted sigh, and that is it. The last moment of Kurt we will ever see or hear. For many, we would be haunted by those last, haunting notes we would ever heard Kurt exhale. It fucks me up. Like, you can see, he KNEW he was going to die. That was it. The musical death blow to a whole generation, and one my generation has never gotten over. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am covered in goosebumps right now.

Here, watch the final moments of this, when he says “I’d SHIVVVVVEEERRRR” and let’s out this massive exhale, looking directly at the camera with wide, wounded eyes. It is like watching a man’s soul leave his body, and it something I have never forgotten.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcXYz0gtJeM

The moment I speak of happens at the 4:48 mark, and you will never unsee his eyes from that moment. Oh well, whatever, nevermind…

the final moment