Kurt Cobain’s old home sits in Seattle’s quiet Denny-Blaine neighborhood, a posh place with water views where people probably kept to themselves even before an iconic rock star died in their midst. The room over the garage where the Nirvana singer’s body was found on April 8, 1994, after he ended his life at 27 with a gunshot wound to the head, is now gone, and the house is isolated by a large fence, an imposing gate, and some Middle-earth-level greenery growing up around it, so fans tend to stick to Viretta Park next door. There, a pair of benches have acted as a standing tribute to Cobain, with decades’ worth of messages etched into the wood by grunge pilgrims from around the world. I’ve made this trek myself multiple times, and as I sit on one of the benches, the same question that has occupied alt-rock devotees for the past 20 years tugs at me: Had he not died so young, what would Kurt Cobain’s music sound like now?
In many ways, his death marked the passing of one of the last monoculture stars—a name you knew no matter what kind of music you were into. His band’s three proper studio albums—1989’s Bleach, 1991’s Nevermind, and 1993’s In Utero—are considered seminal, and all have gotten deluxe reissues as they’ve aged into classic-rock territory. But unlike Tupac, or Jimi Hendrix before him, Cobain didn’t leave behind a trove of unreleased material for us to obsess over. There’s the single “You Know You’re Right,” cut during Nirvana’s last-ever recording session in January 1994; there are a handful of jams and song sketches released on 2004’s With the Lights Out box set; and there’s MTV Unplugged in New York, a recording that essentially served as Cobain’s musical epitaph, and may have left the bread crumbs on the trail to where he could have been headed musically.
Filmed on Nov. 18, 1993, at a studio in Manhattan, the band’s Unplugged session was unusual for being recorded entirely live to tape; most guests relied on multiple takes. Remembers former Nirvana publicist Jim Merlis: “The press [at the shoot] had been at the Stone Temple Pilots’ Unplugged, and I believe they did every song, like, three or four times, and it was really boring. I was worried it could really, really go wrong.”
It was also a strange set list, featuring very few established hits (“Come as You Are” would have been the only recognizable tune for radio listeners) and half a dozen covers, including a trio of songs by cult Arizona rockers the Meat Puppets, who also sat in. “[Nirvana bassist] Krist [Novoselic] told me they used to listen to early Meat Puppets stuff a lot when they were first starting out,” recalls Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood. “We went out on tour with them in the fall of ’93, and he asked if we’d do Unplugged. Kurt already knew which songs he wanted to do when he asked.”
It’s possible, of course, that even if Cobain had lived, Nirvana still would not have been long for this world. But Unplugged may have signaled the jumping-off point for wherever his musical muse was leading him. “My main feeling with the Unplugged thing was ‘Wow, what do you do now? The passion was at such a high level,’” says Kirkwood. “I was in awe of the whole thing, because there wasn’t much pretense and there was no glam. There was a lot of hoopla around them, but not from them. I think it would have been awesome to have a record or two of that kind of material. It’s definitely some of my favorite stuff that they did.” It was Cobain’s apparently, too: “I remember Kurt calling his mother after the show and being like a little boy about how well it went,” recalls Merlis. “He was so happy.”