The thought of entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work in Nirvana barely even entered Dave Grohl's head until shortly after he walked offstage at last year's ceremony in Los Angeles after inducting Rush and jamming with them on "2112." "I did a quick interview and someone said, 'Are you excited to be eligible next year?'" Grohl says. "I just hadn't done the math. Then it hit me. But I couldn't imagine they would nominate us in our first year of eligibility."
Groups are eligible to enter the Hall of Fame 25 years after the release of their first album or single, and Nirvana's debut release - a cover of "Love Buzz" by Shocking Blue - hit shelves in the final weeks of 1988. "I found out we were on the ballot right around the same time we were nominated for a Grammy [for the Paul McCartney collaboration "Cut Me Some Slack,"] says Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. "I was just like, 'Wow!' But it was bittersweet because the ceremony was scheduled for about a week after the 20th anniversary of Kurt's passing. I got anxious about that, but then I thought, 'Well, why don't we just make this a great tribute to him?'"
Most groups inducted into the Hall of Fame perform in one form or another, but the surviving members of the group hadn't played a Nirvana song in public since Cobain's death. "We didn't even start talking about playing until about eight weeks ago," says Grohl. "It just seemed practically impossible. It was hard to imagine jumping onstage and playing those songs. It takes a little bit of musical preparation, and a lot of emotional preparation."
Once they decided to give it a shot, the obvious next issue became finding guest singers. "That was a matter of finding people that we respected and that shared the Nirvana aesthetic," says Grohl. "Whether that's musical or otherwise." The group reached out to a handful of A-list male rock stars, but none wanted to take on the challenge. "Some of them were nervous," says Grohl. "I think some of them were maybe apprehensive because of how heavy the whole thing is."
The first person to agree was Joan Jett. "She took it on like it was her calling," says Grohl. "She got really excited and sent me this flurry of e-mails. She learned every song on Nevermind. She's everything that Nirvana stood for. She's a powerful, rebellious, musical force of nature. We couldn't think of anyone better to join us."
After Jett signed on, they reached out to PJ Harvey. "Kurt loved PJ Harvey," says Grohl. "We had always imagined playing our song 'Milk It' from In Utero with her. It's a twisted song, almost like something that could have been on her record Rid of Me, which was also produced by Steve Albini. It just seemed to pair up so well. Unfortunately, she couldn't make it."
But the conversation gave Grohl an incredible idea. "We thought, 'Wait, it has to be all women,'" he says. "'Don't even ask anyone else. If we can fill the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance with these incredible women singing Nirvana songs, then we'll have achieved our own revolution.' It also added a whole other dimension to the show. It added substance and depth, so it didn't turn into a eulogy. It was more about the future."
Things moved very quickly from there. "Dave just started rattling off names," says Novoselic. "He was like, 'We should get Kim Gordon! And then someone up-and-coming…Annie Clark from St. Vincent!' I didn't even know who she was, but now I'm her biggest fan. Then we asked Lorde."
The goal was to present the guest singers in chronological order. "Joan Jett, who formed the Runaways, changed rock & roll for women," says Grohl. "Kim Gordon, from Sonic Youth, was this beacon of light in the predominantly macho, male underground punk rock scene. St. Vincent is a wicked musician that's pushing boundaries now. And Lorde has an incredible future ahead of her as a writer, performer and vocalist."
The group came together with Nirvana's former touring guitarist (and current Foo Fighter) Pat Smear at Gibson Guitar's rehearsal space in New York City a few days before the induction ceremony. "We said 'Hi' to everyone and launched into 'Lithium,'" says Novoselic. "I picked up a Nirvana tab book a week before to re-learn my parts, but we weren't up to speed at first. But then it started to flow and it got better and better. Then it hit me and I got kind of somber. I was like, 'Oh my God. I'm playing these songs again.'"
It was equally intense for Grohl. "The first time we played together, it was like seeing a ghost," he says. "The second time, it was a little more reserved. And the last time we played it was like that fucking Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze pottery wheel scene from Ghost. We usually got the song by the third take. It started to sound like Nirvana. Our road crew and some friends were in the room when we launched into 'Scentless Apprentice' for the first time. There were jaws on the floor.
"I hadn't played in that band in 20 years," he continues. "Hearing what it sounded like when we played 'Scentless Apprentice' legitimized it for me. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to be in a room full of Nirvana. That first day back really legitimized it. I was like, 'Oh, that's right! We sounded like this, and that's why people paid attention. Oh, okay! It wasn't just the book and the movie and the Behind The Music. It was the sound in a room, like this, that makes people go, 'What the fuck?' It was pretty fuckin' great. We began with Krist, [guitarist] Pat [Smear] and I just getting our stuff together, and then Kim came by and then Joan."
Things lightened up a bit when Novoselic realized the rehearsal hall had a keg of beer for the group. "That beer was so good," he said. "We really loosened up and after a few hours, we were a well-oiled machine."
Rehearsals stretched over two very long days. "I haven't played those drum parts since I was 25," says Grohl. "I'm 45 now. We played for 10 fucking hours each day. After the first night of rehearsals, I limped home, had two glasses of wine, three Advil, took a hot shower and slept for 10 fucking hours. That's a coma for me, because I never sleep."
At some point during rehearsals, the group got the idea of playing an unannounced club show somewhere in Brooklyn after the ceremony. "Dave got so excited about the music," says Novoselic. "We almost had to calm him down. He was like, 'We should do a show!' I was like, 'Absolutely! Let's do it after the gig!' He wanted to bring in J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. and John McCauley from Deer Tick. He's such a big fan that he has a Nirvana tribute act called Deervana."
It's no secret that Grohl and Courtney Love hadn't had the best relationship over the past 20 years, and the induction ceremony marked the first time they were even in the same room in a very long time. "Early on in the evening I just tapped her on the shoulder," says Grohl. "She turned around and I just said, 'Hey.' She said, 'Hey.' Then we gave each other a big hug. I said, 'How are you?' She goes, 'Good, how are you?' I said, 'All right.' And she said, 'Let's do this. Let's rock this tonight.' And I said, 'Yes.' That was it."
When it came time to give her speech on behalf of Kurt, Courtney abandoned her prepared remarks and briefly spoke about the fact that everyone on stage was a big family. She wrapped it up by engulfing Grohl in a huge bear hug. "She's right," says Grohl. "We're family, no matter what. And we all love each other, no matter what. It's a lot bigger than a paragraph or a picture. It's real. So it was a reunion, and we were there for Kurt. It was a beautiful night. It was good."
The group's four-song set of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with Joan Jett, "Aneurysm" with Kim Gordon, "Lithium" with St. Vincent and "All Apologies" with Lorde was the clear highlight of the entire evening. "All my apprehension was unfounded," says Novoselic. "I was just trying to hit the bass as hard as I could."
Grohl says the set is just a blur to him right now. "I had my tearful acceptance speech," he says. "And then I had to run behind the curtain and put on shorts because I can't play drums in jeans. I'm fumbling with the trophy and trying to get on the drum stool. I knew everyone was waiting for me. I don't remember much of it, but I know I beat the shit out of the drums. The whole thing was exactly what I hoped it would be. It was a heavy night and we were all very nervous, and we were so relieved when it was over. I mean, it was more than an awards show and a trophy. It was a big deal to us, personally and emotionally."
The original plan was to end the night with an all-star jam on AC/DC's "Highway To Hell," but the E Street Band went long on their speeches and the night had gone past curfew. "They expected Nirvana to learn that song," says Grohl. "It's hard enough for Nirvana to learn a fucking Nirvana song."
For Novoselic, not having to play "Highway To Hell" after Nirvana's set was a big relief. "I wasn't into it," he says. "I love AC/DC and I love Bruce Springsteen. I grew up listening to them. But we kept saying, 'We have the big finale. We have our finale!'"
The night ended with Lorde's amazing take on "All Apologies," but for Nirvana, things were just getting started. As soon as it ended, they drove five miles to Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn for one of the most amazing after-parties in the history of New York City. The lucky few at the tiny bar saw Nirvana play a killer 19-song set with Joan Jett, J Mascis, St. Vincent, John McCauley and Kim Gordon. (Lorde had to fly to California for Coachella.)
The show was a Nirvana fan's wet dream, featuring everything from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "Very Ape" and "Moist Vagina," the latter a track from the In Utero sessions they'd never previously played live. "Before they opened up the show space, the bar area was so packed, you couldn't get a drink," Deer Tick's John McCauley told Rolling Stone. "You couldn't take a piss. The show started and the bar area was completely deserted for the whole thing. Everybody was in there watching. It was cool."
They played nearly until dawn. "It felt like when you're a kid and you sleep over at a friend's house and you become part of your friend's family for the night," says McCauley. "Even though they haven't been a band in 20 years, they felt just like a band to me."
Cameras were rolling the entire time, but the group refuses to say what's going to happen to the footage. "I didn't even see the cameras," says Novoselic. "I think they were bolted to the ceiling. I don't know what Dave is going to do with it. But he's a film guy. He'll figure it out and make something good."
So, was this a one-night-only deal, or might Nirvana surface again at some point in the future? "That's a good question," says Novoselic. "I mean, there's Foo Fighters and Dave has some other projects going on. And I have some commitments. But you never say never now. We did it. I sure won't say no. Maybe we can even do some new music one day."
Grohl isn't so sure. "We haven't even talked about it," says Grohl. "We looked at that evening as a night that may never happen again. That's what made it so powerful and beautiful and meaningful. And it may never happen again, so we made the most of it. And it was fucking great."