Today’s date, April 5, is a notorious one in the world of rock and roll, as it’s the date commemorating the passing of two of the most iconic and celebrated singers of all time, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.
On April 5, 1994, Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain took his own life in Seattle. Eight years later, on April 5, 2002, Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley passed away after an overdose on cocaine and heroin — also dying in Seattle.
Both Cobain and Staley were known for pained lyrics expressing the deepest and most intense of emotions, stemming from their respective tumultuous life experiences and addictions. The presences of both singers were key factors in Nirvana and Alice in Chains’ rise in prominence in the 1990s, but it was each band’s MTV Unplugged performance that showed the true power of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley as artists — tortured artists, but artists nonetheless.
Nirvana’s Unplugged was filmed in the fall of 1993, just months before Cobain was found dead. It aired in December on MTV and was eventually released as a live album in December 1994 — a posthumous tribute to Cobain. The band’s Unplugged performance was notable for the band’s steadfast decision to play anything but many of their hits.
Originally released 25 years ago today, 'MTV Unplugged In New York' is now available digitally & as a 2LP set, including five rehearsal performances previously only available on DVD.
— Nirvana (@Nirvana) November 1, 2019
There was no “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” no “In Bloom,” instead a collection of some of Cobain’s personally influential songs, like The Vaselines’ “Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” by Leadbelly and David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” the Meat Puppets’ “Plateau, deeper Nirvana tracks like “Something In the Way” and more.
The end result was a captivating Unplugged performance that has gone on to be considered one of Nirvana’s crowning achievements in its existence — made possible by Cobain’s refusal to just “play the hits,” a testament to his point of view as the so-called “spokesman of a generation” who rejected that title.
And the live album, via Spotify:
Alice in Chains’ MTV Unplugged performance was recorded in April 1996 and eventually aired on July 30 of that year. Unlike Nirvana’s segment, Alice in Chains performed some of the band’s hits, such as “Rooster,” “No Excuses,” “Heaven Beside You” and “Would?”, while also featuring deeper cuts as well.
It was also one of Alice in Chains’ final performances with Staley (the band’s first singer, before William DuVall joined in 2006), and the whole thing was remarkably poignant — a dark vibe provided by candlelight on the Unplugged stage, Staley’s pained vocals pairing with Jerry Cantrell’s guitar work in a way that captured the band’s primal, vulnerable energy.
After Staley’s death eight years later, the band’s Unplugged performance and live album became very highly regarded, and rightly so … it’s a showcase of Staley at his best, even while battling the demons that would ultimately take him down.
And the full live album, via Spotify:
May both Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley rest in peace, and may their audiences continue to grow in their absence.