It was exactly midnight when Joan Jett walked onstage with the surviving members of Nirvana and tore into the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By that point, the capacity crowd at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center had witnessed a long evening full of miraculous moments only possible at the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: A beaming Peter Criss threw his arms around his supposed sworn enemy Paul Stanley during Kiss’ peaceful reunion, Cat Stevens led an arena full of Kiss and Nirvana fans through a sing-along rendition of “Peace Train,” Courtney Love embraced Dave Grohl in a huge bear hug after 20 years of nasty accusations and lawsuits and Bruce Springsteen played with two founding members of the E Street Band for the first time in 40 years.
But nothing could compare to the thrill of watching Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, St. Vincent and Lorde take turns fronting Nirvana. Dave Grohl, Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic hadn’t played a Kurt Cobain-penned song together in public since the frontman killed himself 20 years ago, and it’s quite easy to imagine they never will again. Jett kicked things off with a wild, thrashed-out “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that had men in tuxedos dancing on their chairs. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon kept the energy high with a faithful rendition of “Aneurysm” and Annie Clark (St. Vincent) belted out “Lithium.” It wrapped up with Lorde’s gut-wrenching take on “All Apologies.” She was born two and a half years after Cobain died, but she somehow had the wisdom and confidence to deliver those agonizing lyrics.
The evening began a little after 7:00 PM with a speech by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Chairman Jann Wenner. “We are thrilled to be here tonight in Brooklyn,” he said. “As Keith Richards has said so often, at this age we’re thrilled to be anywhere. We’re here to celebrate our youth, our music and that which keeps us forever young. Rock and roll offers hope and passion and joy and courage and love, a way to understand the world around us, and for so many of us, a way of life.”
Peter Asher handed out the first two awards of the night to Beatles manager Brian Epstein and Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham. “These are the first two managers ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said. “Each of them managed one of the most important ensembles in music history, let alone just rock and roll. And each of whom guided his band from anonymity to global stature, though in very different ways.” Epstein died in 1967 and Loog Oldham opted to skip the ceremony, so nobody was on hand to accept their awards.
Next up was Peter Gabriel, who delivered a hypnotic rendition of “Digging In The Dirt” before Chris Martin walked out to induct him. “He brings together sounds from all over the world,” said the Coldplay frontman. “At times it feels like he releases music at a snail’s pace. But one looks back now and sees this amazing cathedral of song. It was worth the effort and the time that it took. He’s always been an innovator and a seeker. He’s a curator and an inspirer. He also helped John Cusack get his girlfriend back in the movie Say Anything.
A very grateful Gabriel hoisted the award above his head Cusack-style before his acceptance speech. “Watch out for music,” he said. “It should come with a health warning. It can be dangerous. It can make you feel so alive, so connected to the people around you, connected to what you are inside. It can make you think that the world should and could be a much better place. It can also make you very, very happy.” He then sat at the piano and duetted with Martin on the 1992 obscurity “Washing of the Water” before bringing out surprise guest Youssou N’Dour for a long, euphoric “In Your Eyes” that brought everyone to their feet.
The vast majority of press leading up to the Hall of Fame centered around the never-ending drama of Kiss, so it was a little surprising to see their big moment come and go so early in the evening, though it did make sense because they were the only inductees in the house that decided not to perform. Longtime Kiss superfan Tom Morello gave a fiery induction speech for his heroes. “Kiss was never a critics’ band,” he said. “Kiss was a people’s band…The first Kiss concert I saw was the single loudest, most cathartic two hours of music I’ve seen to this day.”
Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley walked onstage together to thunderous applause, and each of them looked a little choked up by the moment. Simmons spoke first, and, against all odds, was the most concise. “We are humbled to stand on this stage and do what we love doing,” he said. “This is a profound moment for all of us. I’m here to say a few kind words about the four knuckleheads who, 40 years ago, got together and decided to put together the kind of band we never saw onstage, critics be damned.”
After speaking kindly about his two former bandmates, he yielded the microphone to them. Peter Criss thanked everybody from the group’s former managers to their truck drivers, while Frehley rambled a bit since he had trouble reading his own notes without his proper glasses. “I was 13 when I picked up my first guitar,” he said. “I always sensed I was going to be into something big. A few years later, there I was. I experienced the Summer of Love.”
Stanley has been the most vocal critic of the Hall of Fame in the long buildup to this ceremony, and he used the opportunity to take some parting shots. “The people are speaking to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said. “They want more. They deserve more. They want to be part of the induction. They want to be a part of the nomination [process]. They don’t want to be spoon-fed a bunch of choices. The people pay for tickets. The people buy albums. The people who nominate do not.”
Any hopes of a surprise Kiss performance were dashed when they walked offstage and Art Garfunkel stepped out to induct Cat Stevens, who now goes by the name Yusuf Islam. “If Paul and I hadn’t split up around 1970 there’d be no room on the charts for Cat Stevens to take over,” he said. “‘Bridge Over Troubled Water had to go away so that Tea for the Tillerman could arrive.”
Cat Stevens gave a long speech where he name-checked everybody from Bach to Bo Diddley to Leonard Bernstein and Bob Dylan, even pausing in the middle to ask for a glass of water. He won the crowd right back when he picked up an acoustic guitar and delivered a flawless “Father and Son.” He’s 65 years old, but since he’s taken decades off from touring and lived a very healthy lifestyle, he sounded absolutely amazing. Paul Shaffer and his band then came out for “Wild World” and a rousing “Peace Train” where they got some help from a large choir. It served as a nice preview for the American tour that Yusuf is supposedly plotting for sometime in the near future.
Linda Ronstadt has difficulty traveling due to her ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease, but many of her old friends were on hand to honor her lifetime of work. Glenn Frey delivered the induction speech, highlighting the fact that the Eagles would not exist had she not hired them as her backing group in the early 1970s. “She, more than anyone else,” he said, “helped form The Eagles.”
Carrie Underwood began the musical tribute with a stirring “Different Drum” and then Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris melded their voices together on a lovely “Blue Bayou.” Sheryl Crow was joined by Glenn Frey for “You’re No Good,” Stevie Nicks channeled Ronstadt on “It’s So Easy” and everyone came together to harmonize on “When Will I Be Loved,” an Everly Brothers classic that Linda famously covered on her 1974 classic LP Heart Like A Wheel.
People all over the crowd were rocking vintage Springsteen T-shirts, and cries of “Broooce” filled the room before he even walked onstage to induct The E Street Band. Unsurprisingly, he rose to the occasion and spoke movingly about each and every member, giving special attention to the late Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. “These are the people that built a place called E Street,” he said. “We struggled together and sometimes we struggled with one another. We bathed in the glory and often the heartbreaking confusion of our wars together. We enjoyed health and we suffered aging and death together.”
Many fans (and band members) were upset when the group wasn’t inducted alongside Springsteen back in 1999, and the speech ended with a stunningly honest account of the situation. “A few evenings before my own induction, I stood in my darkened kitchen along with Steve Van Zandt,” Springsteen said. “Steve was just returning to the band after a 15-year hiatus. He was petitioning me to push the Hall of Fame to induct all of us together. I listened and the Hall of Fame had its rules and I was proud of my independence.
“We hadn’t played together in 10 years. We were somewhat estranged. We were just taking the first small steps of reforming. We didn’t know what the future would bring. Perhaps the shadow of some of the old grudges still held some sway. It was a conundrum since we’ve never been quite fish nor fowl. Steve was quiet, persistent and at the end of our conversation he just said, “Yeah, yeah. I understand. But Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, that’s the legend.'”
It was at this point that the carefully plotted running time of the evening fell apart, and the organizers probably began sweating bullets thinking about possible overtime charges. Eleven members of the E Street Band were inducted and each was told to speak for just 30 seconds prior to the ceremony. Original keyboardist David Sancious, who left the group in 1974, spoke first. He talked for six straight minutes. It took nearly 40 minutes for everyone to take their turn, which included incredibly touching tributes to Federici from his son Jason and Clarence from his widow Victoria.
The crowd was getting fidgety near the end, but all was forgiven when they walked over to their instruments. This was a completely unique E Street Band lineup with Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez and Max Weinberg on separate drum kits and Sancious on the organ. They played “E Street Shuffle,” “The River” and an epic “Kitty’s Back” where nearly everyone got a chance to solo. Sancious was playing music he hadn’t touched since the Nixon administration and Lopez got the chance to play a song recorded six years after he left the group. It was all pretty amazing and the perfect way to honor the E Street Band.
Some people saw ?uestlove as a surprising choice to induct Hall & Oates, but the man is a music encyclopedia. Also, nobody knows more about Philly groups than he does. He ran through highlights from their long career, stopping occasionally to sing bits of “She’s Gone,” “I Can’t Go For That” and other hits. “I don’t need to list the hits,” he said. “We know them all. They single-handedly invented the Carlton dance for black people from the hood…Hall & Oates will cure any known ailment. H20 can heal you. There isn’t a person in here that didn’t sing along to the songs when they came on the radio.”
Perhaps aware of the ticking clock, Hall & Oates kept their speech very short, and even did part of it as a duo. “We’ve been doing this together for 40 years,” said Oates. “Why should we stop now? Also, lucky for you there’s only two us.” The crowd roared at the reference to the long E Street Band speeches, and they cheered even louder when they kicked into super funky renditions of “She’s Gone,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and “You Make My Dreams.” Hall was annoyed by monitor problems early on and stopped a song after about 30 seconds, but when the situation resolved itself he got in the zone and was simply stunning.
Inevitably, the night wrapped up with Nirvana. Michael Stipe gave the speech. “They were singular, loud and melodic and deeply original,” he said. “And that voice, that voice. Kurt, we miss you. I miss you. Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders, from the fags and the fat girls to the shy nerds and the goth kids in Tennessee and Kentucky, for the rockers to the awkward to the too-smart kids and the bullied. We were a community.”
Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic accepted the award alongside Courtney Love and members of Kurt’s family. Grohl pointed out that he was the fifth drummer in Nirvana and he sincerely thanked each of his predecessors. “Dale Crover from The Melvins is my absolute drumming hero,” he said. “And Chad Channing is somewhere in the house tonight.” Novoselic profusely thanked Nirvana’s fans. “People stop me every day,” he said. “They say, ‘Thank you for the music.’ When I hear that, that reminds me of Kurt Cobain. I wish he was here tonight. That music means to much to so many people. Kurt was an intense artist. He really connected with a lot of people.”
Courtney Love’s long history of beef with Dave Grohl and her general Courtney Love-ness made many people think she’d deliver some sort of nutty speech. That turned out to not be the case at all, and she talked for about a minute. “I have a big speech,” she said. “But I’m not going to say it. This is my family I’m looking at, all of you. Brother Michael, Brother Krist, Grandma Wendy, Mr. Grohl….David.” She then walked over to him and they hugged in one of the most moving moments of the night. “That’s it,” she said. “I just wish that Kurt was here to see this.”
The Joan Jett-led “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sent shockwaves through the arena, and it didn’t let up until the end of Lorde’s “All Apologies.” The entire Nirvana set probably go down as one of the all-time great moments in Hall of Fame history. In a break from tradition, there was no all-star jam at the end. It was a wise choice. What could possibly have topped Nirvana?