It’s not every show that Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens, Hall and Oates and freaking Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are merely the warm-up acts, but then last night’s concert at Barclays Center wasn’t just any show: Nirvana was also being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and surviving members performed the band’s songs for the first time since the death of Kurt Cobain 20 years ago this month.
There’d been hints that Joan Jett would play with Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Pat Smear, but who could’ve guessed they’d do “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and that Kim Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde would follow.
That’s right, rather than team up with Cobain’s least favorite Beatle as they did for the 12-12-12 Sandy Benefit, the boys went with “a few ladies,” as Novoselic put it when he introduced Jett — “an individual who I can’t believe is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Some had hoped Michael Stipe would stand in for Kurt (the friends had planned to collaborate). But Stipe merely introduced the band. Here, for the record, is a chunk of what he said.
With their music, their attitude, their voice – by acknowledging the political machinations of petty but broad-reaching political arguments, movements and positions that had held us culturally back – Nirvana blasted through all that crystalline nuclear rage and fury. Nirvana were kicking against the system, bringing complete disdain for the music industry and their definition of corporate mainstream America to show a sweet and beautiful but fed-up fury, coupled with howling vulnerability, lyrically exposing our frailty, our frustrations, our shortcomings, singing of retreat and acceptance, of our triumphs, of an outsider community with such immense possibility stymied or ignored but not held down or held back by the stupidity or political pettiness of the times. They spoke truth and a lot of people listened.
They picked up the mantel in that particular battle but they were singular and loud and melodic and deeply original – and that voice, that voice. Kurt, we miss you. I miss you. Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders, for the fags and the fat girls and the broken toys and the shy nerds and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky, for the rockers and the awkward and the fed up and the too smart kids who were bullied. We were a community, a generation (in Nirvana’s case, several generations), an echo chamber of that collective howl – and Allen Ginsberg would’ve been very proud here. That moment and that voice reverberated into music and film, into politics, into worldview, into poetry, into fashion, into art, into spiritualism and the beginning of the internet, in so many fields, in so many ways and in our lives, that this is not just pop music – this is something much greater than that. These are a few artists who rubbed each other the wrong way in exactly the right way at the right time. Nirvana.
Dave Grohl thanked the four drummers who came before him, including Bleach‘s Chad Channing, who was in the audience. “When I joined the band, I had the honor of playing Chad’s parts,” said the Foo Fighters frontman, acknowledging that the fill in “In Bloom” was one of them.
It’s tempting to wonder if Cobain – who sent a Michael Jackson impersonator in his place when Nirvana won “Best Alternative Video” at the MTV Music Video Awards in 1992 – would’ve hated all this. Grohl alluded to that, somewhat, when he said, “We came from this underground punk rock scene where there really were no rewards or ceremonies or trophies – it was all about doing it for real and the reward was doing it right and doing it for real and sharing a community of music, helping other musicians and inspiring people.”
After thanking Nirvana’s fans, Novoselic said, “Fans walk up to me every day and say, ‘Thank you for the music,’ and when I hear that, it reminds me of Kurt Cobain — so I want to say thank you, Kurt Cobain, and I wish Kurt was here tonight. That music means so much to so many people and there’s new generations and new bands coming up and it’s really powerful and Kurt was an intense artist and he really connected with a lot of people.”
Next came Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, who put his childhood home up for sale last year (last month, an online fundraiser was launched to turn it into a museum). Flanked by her daughters, she kept it short and sweet: “I’m probably going to cry – I’m already crying – because he’d be so proud. He’d say he wasn’t, but he would be. I just miss him so much. He was such an angel.”
Finally, Courtney Love was jeered as she approached the podium (or maybe the Springsteen fans were just reprising their calls of “Bruuuce”?). “You know, I have a big speech but I’m not going to say it,” she said, instead noting that “brother Michael, brother Krist, grandma Wendy, Mr. Grohl” were “family” and hugging them all. “That’s it. I just wish that Kurt was here to feel this and be [a part of] this.”
Then came the performances. If Courtney Love and Dave Grohl (who’ve been very publically at odds for many years) were hugging, clearly anything was possible — but hearing Joan Jett rattle off the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was still kind of a shock. Sure, earlier this year NME put it at the top of its list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time, but toward the end of Nirvana’s run, Cobain told Rolling Stone he couldn’t pretend to have a good time playing it. “I think there are so many other songs I’ve written that are as good, if not better than that song, like ‘Drain You,’” he said.
Tori Amos, Kathleen Hannah and Patti Smith have all covered the song, so the strong female lead wasn’t anything new – but somehow Nirvana’s most tired track came roaring back to life as Grohl bashed his drum set with all of the ferocity that made everyone lose their shit the first moment they heard it.
Novoselic introduced “Aneurysm” — the b-side to “Smells Like” and one of the band’s best live songs — by noting that Nirvana came up listening to an eclectic array of bands, from the Meat Puppets to Black Flag. Then, as a nod to one of them, he brought on Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. In a summer skirt and metallic shoes, Gordon bounced around and danced like a 12-year-old — as if it was “1991: The Year Punk Broke,” the tour film that documented Nirvana and Sonic Youth in their prime. Her guttural vocals suited the song perfectly, and at one point she slipped and fell in a way that was very Kurt (his skirt would’ve flipped up, too). As she walked off stage, she thanked everyone (even Courtney, despite their frayed relationship) and dropped the mic. (Update: added better video of this performance. “Aneurysm” at the 6:10 mark.)
Next up was the East Village’s own St. Vincent doing a somewhat stony rendition of “Lithium” (video at top). And then Lorde (who has collaborated with Novoselic in the past) did “All Apologies,” with Gordon, St. Vincent and Jett returning to the stage:
The whole thing airs on HBO on May 31.
Update: Brooklyn Vegan reports that the band (with Gordon, Jett and St. Vincent) also played a secret 16-song set at St. Vitus in Greenpoint, with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and John McCauley of Deer Tick also lending vocals. Amazing.