Earlier this week, The Atlantic published an article commemorating the 20th anniversary of the airing of their MTV Unplugged in New York (Unplugged) album. It provides a great overview of the concert, some of which is transferred to the album, and some of which is only visible on the live show. However, I believe the author gets it wrong, as most do, when it comes to the subject of Kurt’s solo performance of “Pennyroyal Tea” (video above).
If you listen to the banter before the song, you could surmise that the solo rendition of the song was a spur of the moment decision made by Kurt, and the band was in such a bad place by then, that they had no choice but to listen for fear of a public melt-down. That is not the case, at all, though. Certainly, Nirvana was in a bad place. Dave had already been looking into a new band (what would become Foo Fighters) and Kurt had talked in interviews about a life after Nirvana. The album containing “You Know You’re Right”, assuming it would have been completed, could have easily been their last. However, this tiny exchange was not a micro-cosm of the bigger problems.
Nirvana had planned to play “Pennyroyal Tea” as a Kurt solo. They rehearsed it solo. The author of the Atlantic article jumps to several wrong conclusions.
Watching the video of the performance only heightens the effect. At the end of the first song Kurt looks at the camera and gives a gnarly forced smile. He later told the producers to make sure it was edited in because, “My manager tells me I need to smile more.” It’s a rare glimpse of humor from an agitated and prickly soul. Even Kurt’s closest allies seem wary of him. Dave Grohl sits quietly throughout, with only a stripped-down kit and a pair of brushes to protect him from Kurt, who repeatedly spins around on his chair and glares at the drummer over hunched shoulders. At one point Kurt passively tells Grohl to not play on “Penny Royal Tea,” [sic] saying, “Am I going to play this, alone?” Dave immediately understands that it’s not a question but a command and lays down his brushes on his snare: “Do it alone.” Grohl then nervously turns to guitarist Pat Smear, asking, “Do you have a smoke, Pat?”
Kurt goes on to play the very personal song alone with his eyes closed. As it ends Grohl shouts out “That was really great!” Kurt responds, “Shut up.” It’s a sore moment revealing a singer uncomfortable in his own skin, through addiction and depression, and a friend who seems to only want him to pull through.
The “nervous” conversation between Grohl and Kurt was more of a “should I really do this by myself?” with Dave answering “sure, why not”. The only question was if Pat would also help singing backup vocals.. As you can see from the setlist, it was always going to be jsut Kurt and Pat. The insecurity of Kurt show throughout the show. Right before he played “Pennyroyal Tea”, he starts of “The Man Who Sold the World” by saying that he “could screw it up” and after the song was over, with almost a surprised relief, he states “I didn’t screw it up, did I? OK, but here’s another one I could screw up…”
He then launched into “Pennyroyal Tea”. The song was rife with errors. He screwed up the second verse and subsequently, the second chorus. He also screwed up the chorus in the third verse. He did not screw up the guitar solo by not doing it. It was planned that he would not do it. Perhaps, it was a sign of his insecurity, perhaps he just didn’t feel like playing it. We’ll never know. He knew he screwed the song up, and Dave knew it as well. It seems that Dave was trying to ease the tension and anger Kurt felt after that performance.Kurt also did not, as the article states, play the song with his eyes closed. He played it the same way he played every other song during the performance.
Going into the Unplugged concert, Kurt was really nervous and anxious. There were at least two reason for this. This would be a stripped down set where everything would be exposed, and Kurt was keenly aware of his limitations on guitar; which is why Pat Smear was added to the lineup. The anxiety was also because of the setlist they chose. Nirvana had seen other bands play this concert and they were disappointed that they would play their hits. No one in Nirvana thought it was the proper venue to do that. There was a lot of pressure on Nirvana by this point. They decided to do the “Unplugged” concert because “In Utero” had not reached the commercial success of “Nevermind” and they weren’t selling out arenas anymore. “Unplugged” was a last ditch effort to breathe some new life into the band. All of this played into Kurt’s attitude and demeanor during the show.
All in all, The Atlantic piece is a great tribute to a great show, it just gets a few things wrong, reads into situations incorrectly. The “Pennyroyal Tea” myth has been persistent since people first saw it. The reality, however, is not as sex as the myth which is why it has persisted. To hear what the song should have sounded like at the show, listen to the demo version that was released on the box set. Because Kurt ended his life so shortly after the show aired for the first time and before the album was ever released, it has become the final portrait of a tortured soul. It has stood on it’s own merits for 20 years, and it will last the test of time.