Although most of the inductees who took the Barclays Center stage at Thursday night’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony were men, it was a quartet of thriving women who ushered in grunge icons Nirvana with a special, unforgettable tribute: Lorde, St. Vincent, former Sonic Youth singer Kim Gordon and Joan Jett.
“She has her whole future in front of her,” Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic said before Lorde hunched across the stage in a David Bowie-esque pink suit to tear her way through his band’s seething 1993 hit “All Apologies.”
At that point, the five-plus-hour induction ceremony was drawing to a close, the evening blinking out as a young woman, head down, hair covering her face, tried to channel the long-gone spirit of one of modern rock’s biggest legends.
The night had already been a blur of speeches and memories, with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello ushering in fan favorites KISS, who played nicer than expected after weeks of grumbling about which members were allowed to join them on stage. The Roots’ Questlove paid homage to 1980s soul duo Hall and Oates, while Coldplay’s Chris Martin recalled the influence of Peter Gabriel on his own childhood, and Bruce Springsteen offered up a loving tribute to his E Street Band.
The event — which will air on HBO in an edited version on May 31 — also included the induction of British singer Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam) and 1970s country rock star Linda Ronstadt.
Still, the evening ended with a bleeding of decades — Nirvana’s Dave Grohl and Novoselic performing with a singer known for both signature locks and an embattled view of music stardom. A singer who was born a full two years after their fallen frontman died: Lorde.
Yes, instead of trotting out an aging rocker or an up-and-coming music man, Nirvana chose to honor their induction into those hallowed halls by performing with a quartet of powerhouse women, a fitting choice given their outspoken feminist attitude.
It was a bittersweet way to close out a show that both celebrated all that’s alive, kicking and vital in rock and roll — and what’s noticeably absent.
“That voice, that voice. Kurt, we miss you. I miss you,” former R.E.M. singer and Cobain confidant Michael Stipe said in his induction speech. “Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders — for the f-gs and the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, goth kids.”
“I want to say thank you to Kurt Cobain,” Novoselic said while accepting his trophy, “And I wish Kurt was here tonight. And that music means so much to so many people.”
Cobain’s widow, Hole singer Courtney Love, and the rest of Cobain’s family also took the stage to accept the honor for him. “I want to give this (award) to Frances, our daughter,” Love said. And while she didn’t read the speech she said she’d prepared, Love hugged everyone — including a long embrace for frequent enemy Grohl — and stated, “I just wish that Kurt was here to feel this and be this. Twenty years ago Rock and Roll Hall of Fame maybe wasn’t — tonight he really would have appreciated it.”
The lead-up to the induction of the seminal grunge band has been a minefield of nostalgia and sadness, with the anniversary of Cobain’s death ringing in the week and remembrances of his icon status flooding any and all media outlets — including this one.
Photos of his death scene surfaced. A Broadway musical was teased. And as the days marched forward — each one reminding us that Nirvana would be short one member when they hit the stage at Barclays — one question was on everyone’s mind: Who would fill his Converse? Who would measure up?
Little did we know, this task would require four pairs of feet — each a legend or legend-in-the-making in their own right, each possessing of some facet of Cobain’s tragic glamor.
Jett, who Novoselic opined should be in the Hall of Fame herself, brought a kind of hard-edged history to her rendition of the band’s biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Dressed in leather, she tore through the jam, all hard edges and snarls.
Gordon brought an even more unbridled, gloriously messy aspect to the tribute. Wearing a short, striped dress, Gordon pogoed around the stage, slurring and shrieking “Aneurysm” before slinking off, leaving us all collectively panting.
St. Vincent, well, she just shredded. Anyone who has ever seen Annie Clark live knows that she can tear sounds out of a guitar that make one’s insides shake, so when she ripped out “Lithium” — a reprisal of her Cobain tribute last weekend — her bleach-blond hair wasn’t the only thing reminiscent of the icon.
“Nevermind came out when I was nine and it changed my life,” Clark said backstage before the show. “I wouldn’t be playing music if it wasn’t for Nirvana… It’s a real honor and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a little melancholy, too.”
Melancholy, yes, that was a word to describe the performance — the proliferation of tears in the audience was evidence of that. But also “intense,” to borrow a term from Novoselic that he used to describe Lorde’s set-closing performance, which he also praised as “passionate” and “perfect for the job.”