Nirvana, Then and Now

by: Michael Shields

Nirvana brazenly enters the annals of rock and roll history, pushing boundaries while staying true to their ethos….

A week ago this Thursday, Nirvana, along with Kiss, Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, Cat Stevens and Linda Ronstadt were inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremony, which took place at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, marked the first time that the remaining members of Nirvana would play Cobain’s songs together since his death, just over twenty years ago. While the fact that one of the most influential bands in modern rock history was being canonized amongst the rock gods is surely significant, the way in which they chose to do so was exceedingly inspiring.

Undoubtedly the question upon the tips of all the attendees tongues this momentous evening was who would fill Cobain’s shoes while the band performed. Earlier in the week Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl hinted on his Instagram feed that Joan Jett would join him on stage alongside Nirvana co-founder Krist Novoselic. Grohl’s promise rang true, and soon after mounting the stage Novoselic announced, “we’re going to have a few ladies joining us tonight,” prompting Joan Jett to take the lead on a rousing rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Jett’s interpretation of a classic Nirvana song while engaging, would only prove to be just the beginning of a statement-making performance.

Following Michael Stipe’s poetic induction of Nirvana into the Hall (“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.”), and after Joan Jett set the stage, Kim Gordon emerged in Cobain-esque stripes and passionately bellowed a spirited rendition of “Aneurysm.” Nirvana then tapped two younger performers, also both female, to join them in performing hits from their astounding catalog. Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, performed a stunning rendition of “Lithium” followed by Lorde who sang “All Apologies” ((With Kim Gordon on bass.)) with the appropriate dusting of heartache and vulnerability. Four songs, with four different frontwoman, and one powerful message ((Grohl and Novoselic also reached out to PJ Harvey to join them in the performance. She was unavailable.)).

Later that evening, after the induction ceremonies had concluded, Nirvana played a surprise, invite-only show at St Vitus, a 230-person bar and music venue in Brooklyn, where they were again joined by Jett, Gordon, and Clark, as well as Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and Deer Tick’s John McCauley. Commencing at 2:30 in the morning, the assembled musicians proceeded to play a 16-song set comprised entirely of Nirvana material. It was a pivotal evening for Grohl and Noveselic, and a resonating declaration of what matters to Cobain’s bandmates both then and now – equality.

Twenty-five years after releasing their first single (( “Love Buzz”, a cover of song by the Dutch group Shocking Blue, released in November of 1988 on the Seattle independent record label Sub Pop.)), Nirvana are still not only relevant, but making waves. A decision to helm the band with woman rockers for this momentous occasion spoke directly to the bands strong belief in feminism and equality. Nirvana, we must remember, maintained a vigorous contempt of the music industry, and were avid feminists, promoting women in music at any turn possible, championing bands such as L7, The Raincoats, Hole, and The Shaggs. In the early 90’s Nirvana inverted expectations and defied conventions on a regular basis, and in choosing to re-invent a handful of their most popular songs with female vocalists they, after all these years, continue to challenge perceptions, and to espouse the ideology of their fallen leader.

Unbeknownst to many, Kurt Cobain was far more than a gifted musician, he was an activist who rallied against sexism, racism, and homophobia ((“If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or woman, please do this one favor for us….Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” – Kurt Cobain)). In his lyrics and journals, Cobain often identified himself with women and minorities because he often felt alienated from the cultural expectation of masculinity. And in choosing to enlist the prodigious talents of Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, St. Vincent and Lorde – a group ranging in age from 17 to 60, each of whom has carved her own position in the punk and indie echelon and redefined what it means to be female, a rock and roller, and an icon, Nirvana continues to advance a cause near to their heart, and to further their already imposing legacy.

Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic ((Novoselic is currently Chair of the Board of Directors at FairVote, a non-profit organization which acts as a catalyst for electoral reform and voting rights through regular engagement with scholars, journalists, civic leaders, policymakers, and state and local reformers.)) could have chosen anyone to front the band. But they chose instead to make a statement rather than playing it safe. To many this gesture may be viewed as unnecessary, or out of place seeing as the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies reek of the stench of corporate intentions, rather than the blood, sweat, tears, and urgency of true-to-form rock-n-roll. But it is moments such as this, birthed by visionaries such as these, that forge us forward into a world one day free of outdated institutional confines. Nirvana could have coasted guardedly into the annals of rock history, gone quietly into that good night. But that isn’t who they are. Nirvana’s female-fronted reunion was an apt tribute to Kurt Cobain, and a reminder of what Nirvana – past, present, and future – is truly all about.

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