Lake of fire and assorted b-sides
In the 1990s, the Unplugged series was the flagship show for MTV, showing that the video network was genuinely concerned with musicianship. Perhaps, no other performance featured on the show had quite the same impact as the one from alternative rock band Nirvana. It would turn out to be one of the group’s last concerts and in many ways one of their best. But why did Kurt Cobain and the group decide to use the momentous occasion to showcase rarities, old folk tunes, and, especially, a handful of Meat Puppets covers?
In the intervening years, MTV milked the Unplugged format dry. But, during the late 80s and 90s, major label artists would battle for an opportunity to be featured on the show. The benefits were soon obvious.
The bands and artists received a great deal of exposure on a show that was still deemed cool by the MTV audience. This meant that older artists like Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton could leverage the show’s popularity with young audiences.
It ultimately didn’t hurt a certain Seattle band’s fortunes either. Lake of fire unplugged earned immense fame and was part of one of the best-selling albums by a grunge band. And, the Nirvana – Meat Puppets connection was forever established.
MTV Unplugged, 1990s Grammy bait
Also, the Unplugged format, begun as a low-budget experiment, was seen as a way in which real musicians could show off their chops, their songwriting abilities, the way in which they could woo a studio audience without the use of gadgetry or studio tricks.
The show was a mixed bag. Guitar virtuosos like Joe Satriani and Stevie Ray Vaughan used early episodes as a sort of in-studio acoustic jam session that fully demonstrated his skill on a six-string. Eric Clapton recorded a classy, low-key album of signature songs and blues covers that earned both him and MTV an album that climbed up the charts. And, hair metal behemoths like Poison showed off their pompous songs and stage movements, in much the same way, albeit with acoustic instruments.
When some alternative rock bands became massively successful in the early 90s, MTV suggested a number of live projects that would include their talents. REM played an intimate acoustic session. Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains participated. Soundgarden was offered a slot but chose to perform with full electric orchestration instead.
Nirvana was the big name to still hold out. Nirvana’s Nevermind album was a commercial juggernaut, anticipated by barely anyone. Suddenly the group from Seattle was the dominant force in not only rock music but the pop landscape.
Nirvana’s 1993 performance is today one of the most recognizable moments in the series and, arguably, of the decade’s music. This is largely due to two things. One, certainly, is the private feel of the performance of one of rock’s most famous and, frankly, loudest rock bands. The other is due to Kurt Cobain’s tragic end merely months after the performance.
Nirvana accepts the MTV proposal for an Unplugged session
According to what we know now, it took a good degree of persuading on MTV’s part to get Nirvana to accept to do the show. By 1993 the group was one of the best known in the world. It was a rags to riches story of a band that had cut their teeth in the underground punk scene.
The success and media scrutiny often felt burdensome. Nirvana’s members were now required to be available for numerous interviews, photo sessions, TV performances. By most accounts, Cobain felt especially confused by the newfound level of responsibility.
The group relented to the idea of the Nirvana Unplugged extravaganza but set up a number of conditions. The show was to stray from the regular format. The band would attempt to make a more intimate session, which would be unlike the corporate rock package presented by most acts. Drummer Dave Grohl had this to say about the previous Unplugged sessions: “We’d seen the other Unpluggeds and didn’t like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.”
There was also the matter of Nirvana’s relationship with their record label. The album In Utero had been recorded by the band, with Steve Albini, generally off the grid, and contained largely uncommercial songs. Playing the Unplugged was meant to appease Geffen. Regardless, the decision to play Lake of fire and ultimately place it on an album likely thrilled the label bosses much less than playing Smells like teen spirit or something of the sort. The Lake of fire original was a song well-known to fans of semi-obscure, but valuable nonetheless releases of 1980s American underground. One such fan was Kurt Cobain.
Preparations for the show ran behind schedule, and the band’s practice was deemed below par by both band and MTV. At one stage, both parties considered axing the performance. Finally, with little fanfare, Nirvana played their songs in front of an MTV assembled studio audience.
Nirvana and the Meat Puppets
Lake of fire by Nirvana is, in fact, a song by cult rock act Meat Puppets. The song choices, praised in retrospect, further worried the MTV executives. There were few Nirvana hits chosen. No Smells Like Teen Spirit. No Lithium. Apart from a couple of singles, Nirvana relied on obscure cuts and low-key covers.
Bands that played MTV’s Unplugged often used the opportunity to invite a number of notable guests, showcasing the group’s potential to associate with stars. Nirvana did the same, but in their case, the stars were indie/alternative heroes, the Meat Puppets.
Cobain was an enormous fan of the Meat Puppets’ first two studio albums. The group had built a great legacy, away from the prying eyes of the mainstream. But, those in the alternative rock circle, like Cobain or John Frusciante, often praised the group for their inventiveness and songwriting prowess. Lake of fire has always been one of the Meat Puppets’ most loved songs.
Nirvana had even asked the Meat Puppets to join them on tour. They had agreed, and at the time of the recording of the shooting of Unplugged, the group was the opening act for Nirvana’s tour in promotion of the In Utero record.
The choice of cover was not accidental. Frankly, to the uninitiated, the songs Nirvana covered were not unlike the band’s original material. The quirky lyrics primarily were written in a way that would not have been out of place in a Kurt Cobain composition. The lyrics were imaginative, slightly surreal, and dealt with darker topics. It is no wonder why some may still get the wrong impression and believe the songs, actually written originally by Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, were original Nirvana compositions.
The chord structures were, albeit, a bit more sophisticated than many of the songs that could be found on Nevermind or Bleach. In the end, it was the gusto of Cobain’s trademark vocals that sold the songs and helped them achieve an even greater degree of notoriety than they previously had.
To play the cover songs, Nirvana recruited the service of the members of the Meat Puppets. This was done for a number of reasons, not least of all practical concerns, as Cobain would not be forced to learn the arrangements of the songs. It also created great exposure for the Meat Puppets, indie-rock heroes for Nirvana and other bands of their generation.
As it would turn out, the Nirvana – Meat Puppets connection would play significantly into the latter band’s future success. While the group’s indie rock cred was well established by that point, Kurt Cobain’s vote of confidence helped the group’s reputation in the eyes of the rock mainstream.
And so, midway through, what would become one of the most famous live shows of all time, Chris and Curt Kirkwood, the founding members of the Meat Puppets, joined Nirvana on stage. Cobain further showcased his admiration, choosing to perform three songs from the Meat Puppets’ influential second album. The songs performed were: Plateau, Oh, Me and Lake of Fire.
The heartfelt performances would acquire their own near myth status. Following Cobain’s death, record execs and the band would come together to release Unplugged in New York, with the three songs singled out as three of the best cuts on the record.
The legacy of Lake of fire and the Meat Puppets
The last of the songs performed, Lake of fire, would, in particular, come to define in the public eye’s Cobain’s final, often tormented, days. As years went on, together with the cover of Leadbelly’s Where did you sleep last night, it would come to be the most used soundbite of the famed acoustic concert.
In some ways, the rendition of Lake of fire defines many of Nirvana’s best traits. For one thing, it’s a brilliantly chosen song by one of indie rock’s best bands, the Meat Puppets. For another thing, Cobain’s singing is brilliant and occasionally funny, as he purposely misses the last note of the verse. Lastly, the entire band, together with their guests, performed it brilliantly, showing that Nirvana was, indeed, one of the best bands of their era, despite attempting to look amateurish.
The legacy of the Meat Puppets, 25 years on, is intrinsically linked with Nirvana and with that acoustic show. Nirvana’s legacy is intrinsically linked with the performance of those three songs. The Nirvana – Meat Puppets association has forever been formed in the minds of the public at large. In the intervening years, Cobain’s quotes and taste for music have been carefully dissected. Both his own art and that of the artists he has recommended to his audience continue to be discovered and celebrated. In 2019, the original version of the Meat Puppets returned with their album Dusty Notes.