Op-Ed: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged Saved My Life

9 mins read

With the 30-year anniversary of Nirvana’s release of their “MTV Unplugged” session in the Sony Music Studios in Manhattan happening this past week, I want to reflect on how Nirvana — more specifically this album — saved my life.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Nirvana? The three-piece band is one of the most iconic bands to grace this planet, and is revered for their songwriting ability. With their anti-establishment aurora that stems from their time as punk rockers, Nirvana is hailed as one of the bands responsible for ushering in a new wave of music decades ago to the popular media called grunge.

Donning elements from both punk rock and metal, this then new sound is one that lasted only a brief time in popular media, but is still in the hearts of millions to this day. I am one of those people — and I can genuinely say that Nirvana’s music saved my life. While that may sound extreme to those on the outside looking in, it’s the truth that needs context to truly understand why their music affected me so strongly.

My mother died from cancer when I was 16. She was my rock, always being there for me — albeit in the background as she was chronically ill — no matter what. It was around the time that she was diagnosed with leukemia that I was seeing a girl (whom we’ll call Grace). 

Being left home alone for days at a time with my dark thoughts, as my dad tended to my mom at the hospital, the only person who kept me company consistently was Grace, whether it be through FaceTime or physically being with me. 

Grace soon became my everything as my grades, social life, and extracurriculars fell through the basement. She was perfect for me in everyway; we shared the same humor, she was patient with me, cared about my emotions, and she always tried to cheer me up.

That didn’t last. For the purposes of word count, and to prevent this from becoming a full-fledged therapy session, I’ll keep the middle section to myself. What’s important is that we finally cut eachother off from our toxic on-and-off relationship at the end of the summer last year.

All you need to know is that it was ugly. Really ugly. I was completely out of my mind, and my suicidal thoughts crept back into the forefront. Grace really was my everything, and to lose her was beyond expression. 

However, after we split, it was bittersweet… I still loved her. I wanted to be with her but I couldn’t, for my own sake. My alternative was listening to the music that she enjoyed and tried to share with me — all rock music. 

One of the bands that I found on my own through her taste was Nirvana, and their impact on me is profound. There’s a strong chance I would not be here on this planet if it were not for them, as there’s multiple songs in their discography that helped me through this second dark time in my life, but none more so than their album from their MTV Unplugged session.

With the Fall 2022 semester starting a month after our splitting, I was fully emerged emotionally into Nirvana. At this point, I was starting to accept that it was over with Grace, but I still worried about her wellbeing. The song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” fully captured this state of emotion I was experiencing. 

With lyrics such as, “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me / Tell me where did you sleep last night,” and “My girl, my girl, where will you go? / I would shiver the whole night through,” embodies this. However, it’s the fourth song on this live album that forced me to face my innermost issues — it forced me to face myself.

This song was “The Man Who Sold the World” written by David Bowie but performed by Nirvana at “MTV Unplugged” and fairly often at their concerts. A combination of Bowie’s poetic lyrics, Nirvana’s instrumentally-sound performance, and Cobain’s haunting voice brought me to tears when I first heard this song. The song opens with:

We passed upon the stairs

We spoke of was and when

Although I wasn’t there

He said I was his friend

Which came as a surprise

I spoke into his eyes

I thought you died alone

A long, long time ago

This first-person point of view suggests that Bowie is speaking to another person, however, later lyrics suggest that he is instead speaking to a past version of himself. They read:

I laughed and shook his hand

And made my way back home

I searched for form and land

For years and years, I roamed

I gazed a gazeless stare

We walked a million hills

I must have died alone

A long, long time ago

It’s this switch in perspective that flared up emotion in me. Knowing Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain’s battles with mental health, hearing him singing about meeting his past self finally made me separate my past self and his relationship with Grace to who I am now. The chorus to this song is what finally opened the dam, as I fully cried, letting go of my pent-up emotions. It read:

Who knows? Not me

I never lost control

You’re face to face

With the man who sold the world

While I always went back and forth on who’s fault the splitting was, damning God that I had to lose the most important person in my life, this song brought me back to Earth. It was my fault, but I was just a kid when I met her. I finally confronted my past self and fully accepted what happened.

I found Nirvana through Grace with the intent to be closer to her, however, Nirvana’s music helped me discover every inch of my emotional intelligence and awareness. While there are many other songs that helped along that path such as “Drain You” which helped me accept that I enjoyed the toxicity of our relationship, the aforementioned two songs represent some major stepping stones in my journey. 

From wrangling with suicide and holding onto Grace in “Come As You Are” to finally letting go of her in “The Man Who Sold the World,” Nirvana helped me through every stage of my split with Grace. I would not be as emotionally sound — consciously — without their music, and I might have decided to end it all.

Holden Velasco

Editor-in-Chief at The Knight News. Queens. Sports. Writing. CUNY Product. NetsDaily at SB Nation. New York Times Corps member. Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Formerly SLAM.

1 Comment

  1. For me it was the opposite the more I listened to nirvana the more I cried I couldn’t belive Kurt was gone. I was about to die over a guy I never met.

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