NEW YORK — Nirvana became the first grunge-era Seattle band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony Thursday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Also in this year’s class were Kiss, Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, the E Street Band, and Daryl Hall and John Oates.
Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M., inducted Nirvana. He had been a close friend of lead singer Kurt Cobain, and he called the band “lightning in a bottle” in his speech.
“The first time I looked into his eyes I got it,” Stipe said backstage before his speech. “He was a very special person.”
When Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl came onstage to accept the award, they were accompanied by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love; Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor; and his sister, Kim. All but Kim spoke, expressing how much they missed Cobain.
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“Kurt was an intense artist, and he really connected to a lot of people,” Grohl said.
“He’d be so proud,” O’Connor said. “He’d say he wasn’t, but he would be.”
Love was surprisingly brief in her comments. “We all started bands when we were kids, and this is my family,” she said. She then embraced Grohl and Novoselic in their most visible physical interaction in decades.
Cobain died April 5, 1994, so the musical segment at the show had been the source of much speculation. Joan Jett, singer-songwriter St. Vincent, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and recent sensation Lorde joined Novoselic, Grohl and later band member Pat Smear. They played four songs, including “All Apologies,” with Lorde doing vocals, “Lithium” and, of course, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which Jett sang.
It was a smart move to avoid the direct comparisons a male singer would have faced. “These guys were feminists back in the ’90s when it wasn’t hip to be,” St. Vincent said backstage. “If you’re going to play these songs again, do it from a different angle.”
The ceremony was earlier marred by controversy around Kiss. Singer Gene Simmons criticized the hall for including rap, and he chose not to perform to protest the hall’s choice to induct the band’s original lineup.
In contrast to Kiss, the hall inducted the 1991 lineup of Nirvana, leaving out drummer Chad Channing, who played on a third of Nirvana’s released tracks. Channing was also the drummer on “Love Buzz,” the 1988 sub pop single that qualified Nirvana for induction this year, and even Grohl singled out Channing to thank from the stage during his acceptance speech.
The decision to leave out earlier members of Nirvana, when the hall in the past has sometimes inducted multiple band lineups (they included 12 members of the Grateful Dead), was controversial. Channing did attend, sitting with producer Jack Endino, and Dale Crover and Dan Peters, both of whom also drummed with Nirvana before Grohl.
The issue of exactly who to induct in a band’s long history will have relevance in the Northwest as more of the region’s bands qualify for the Hall of Fame. Soundgarden could be inducted in 2015, Alice in Chains in 2016, and Pearl Jam is an almost certain honoree in 2017. All of those bands have multiple lineups, so who is included will receive much local attention.
Bands are selected by a group of industry insiders that includes critics and record executives. Because previous inductees such as Heart, from 2013, also get to vote, it seems likely the Northwest will be well represented in years to come.
Much of that international attention on Seattle started with Nirvana. Stipe acknowledged as much in his emotional induction speech. “They spoke true; a lot of people listened,” he said.
Over two decades later, fronted by guest female vocalists, the world is still listening to that power.
Charles R. Cross is the author of nine books including 2001’s “Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain.” Charlesrcross.com, @charlesrcross