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Since KISS announced in advance that they absolutely would not perform at this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony without their current lineup — and the Rock Hall big-wigs only wanted to see a reunion of the original members — KISS did not rock and roll for even part of the night at Thursday's Rock Hall event at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. Instead it was Nirvana who provided all of the drama, excitement, and unpredictability upon which rock 'n' roll was founded.
Even so, for the band members and their fans, the induction was bittersweet. Almost exactly 20 years has passed since Nirvana singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain took his life, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (now the frontman for the Foo Fighters) haven't played Cobain's songs together in all that time.
"I'm probably going to cry," said Cobain's mother, Wendy O'Connor. "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. I miss such an angel."
After the brief, touching words, Cobain's widow Courtney Love stepped up to the mic. "We all start bands when we're kids, and this is my family I'm looking at right now, all of you – brother Michael [Stipe, of R.E.M.], brother Krist, grandma Wendy, Mr. Grohl," she said. Love then hugged and kissed both Novoselic and Grohl, even though the three have remained distant through the years. "I just wish that Kurt was here to feel this and be this," she continued. "Twenty years ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame maybe wasn't… But tonight he really would have appreciated it. And I just want to give this [award] to Francis, our daughter, who's not here because she's ill."
The band was introduced by Stipe, who delivered an eloquent speech that addressed the power and historical importance of the band as part of a counterculture that somehow became mainstream. "Nirvana tapped into a voice that was yearning to be heard," he said. "In the '80s and early '90s, the idea of a hopeful, democratic country had practically been dismantled by Iran Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan, Bush Sr. administrations. With their music and their attitudes, Nirvana blasted through all that with crystalline, nuclear rage and fury. Nirvana were kicking against the system to show a sweet and beautiful, but fed-up fury coupled with howling vulnerability. They spoke truth, and a lot of people listened. They were singular and loud and melodic and deeply original. And that voice… That voice. Kurt, we miss you."
Up until Nirvana took the stage, the big question of the night was who was going to fill Cobain's shoes. Grohl hinted in an Instagram post a couple days earlier that Joan Jett would join Nirvana onstage, and indeed, she did, performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with unbridled fury, clad in a black leather jacket and sawing her guitar with as much anger as elation. But there were bigger surprises to come.
Sonic Youth bassist and vocalist Kim Gordon sang "Aneurysm," and while she didn't even try to hit the notes, instead wailing atonally, she brought a previously unheard level of ferocity to the song. Nirvana's choice to include Gordon wasn't arbitrary. Sonic Youth were vocal supporters of Nirvana before "Nevermind" came out and invited the band to open for them right around the time "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was starting to hit the airwaves.
For their final two songs, Nirvana tapped two younger performers, also both female, which spoke for Cobain's strong belief in feminism and equality. Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, performed "Lithium." The final vocalist was none other than Lorde, who sang "All Apologies" with a passion and vulnerability unanticipated from someone so young whose claim to fame is the pop hit "Royals." On that song, Jett and Germs/Nirvana/Foo Fighters member Pat Smear both played acoustic guitar, Novoselic manipulated and accordion, and Gordon filled in on bass.
The rest of the evening was a hodgepodge of hits and misses. Before the ceremony, some, including KISS vocalist and guitarist Paul Stanley, accused the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of being an old boy's network that makes its own rules arbitrarily and inducts acts based on its personal tastes, not the interests of the public.
It may have taken the Rock Hall 15 years after KISS first became eligible to induct the original four masked marvels into the hallowed Hall, but the Hall of Fame took a big step towards reflecting the interests of the mainstream by putting together an event that showcased the talents of a wide range of performers from the '70s to the mid-'90s (artists become eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after the release of their first album).
"In the past, the Hall has not been there for fans of hard rock and metal music," said Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who delivered KISS's induction speech. "Our heroes have not been represented. Last year with the induction of Rush, this year with the induction of KISS, and who knows next year with Deep Purple or Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, the Hall will come to better reflect one of the strongest limbs in the tree of rock. And that will continue to make them a more authentic and legitimate institution that everyone wants to be in. They took a huge stride in that direction tonight. Tonight is not just a great night for KISS, it's a great night for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
After thanking Morello for his introduction, bassist and vocalist Gene Simmons said, "We are humbled that the fans ever gave us the chance to do what we love doing. So I'm here to say just a few kind words about the four knuckleheads who got together 40 years ago and decided to put together the band we never saw onstage. Critics be damned." Simmons went on to compliment and thank Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, who he admitted were integral to the beginning years of the band – even if he never wants to share a stage with them again.
Performance highlights through the evening included Peter Gabriel, who was introduced by Coldplay's Chris Martin and performed "Washing of the Water" as a duet with Martin and "In Your Eyes" with Senegalese performer Youssou N'Dour.
Although Linda Ronstadt was too ill to be at the celebration, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Nicks, and Carrie Underwood performed a medley of Ronstadt's songs, including "You're No Good," "It's So Easy," and "When Will I Be Loved."
In 1999, Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist. It took his cohorts, the E Street Band, 15 more years to catch up. And at this year's ceremony, they made up for lost time. After being introduced by the Boss, every member delivered a lengthy speech. Then they performed "The E Street Shuffle," "The River," and "Kitty's Back" with their fearless leader.
Also honored during the evening were Cat Stevens, who was introduced by Art Garfunkel, and Hall & Oates, who were introduced by the Roots' ?uestlove; he praised their ability to write simple, infectious pop songs and pioneer blue-eyed soul. After speeches in which they urged the Hall of Fame to induct more Philadelphia-based acts, including Chubby Checker, Todd Rundgren, and the Delfonics, the duo sang "She's Gone" and "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)."
More than five hours after the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebration held at the Barclays Center began, the event ended. Appropriately, Nirvana bashed out the closing chords. Surprisingly, though, there was no all-star jam at the end, likely because of the lengthy duration of the show. If only there weren't so many members in the E Street Band, maybe we could have heard Ace Frehley jamming with Tom Morello on AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," which was rumored to happen. Maybe next year. For now, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to be on the right path and is, perhaps, ascending the stairway to heaven.
The 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebration will air on HBO on May 31.