By: Ben Johnson
In almost exactly the same way, it happened again. I was just watching TV. I was bored. I did not understand or care about or even, really, like most of the stuff I was seeing, but I kind of liked not liking it. It felt like the right thing not to like, if that makes any sense, like I was somehow supposed to currently not be liking this thing. And so I didn’t change the channel and I didn’t go do something else, because without knowing it I was waiting for something important to happen. And it did. Again.
This is how Nirvana first came into my life when I was an MTV-watching pre-teen weirdo, and this is how I accidentally saw the remaining members plus special guests perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, broadcast this weekend (and probably over and over again all summer, occupying an easy huge chunk of programming) on one of the HBO cluster of channels. My reactions, then and now, were similar. There was a pounding in my chest. There was standing up in front of the TV, nodding, eyes closed, wanting to shake my whole body or smash something or do something. There was unexpected weeping and unbidden catharsis. There was something guttural and unknowable and good. Both times.
I’ve never been to the actual physical place, but I’m fairly confident in saying that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as an institution, is a disaster. "Rock and Roll" can’t functionally have a "Hall of Fame" other than as band logos and lyrics and slogans scribbled on the back of some outcast kid’s notebook in detention. Any other authority structure which purports to determine the difference between good and bad, between “Hall of Fame” and “not Hall of Fame,” or between “Rock and Roll” and “not Rock and Roll” is trafficking in some enterprise far removed from the actual point of a Rock and a Roll. Business, probably. And “credibility” and “careers” and recognition for a best case scenario lifetime largely spent waiting around in cinderblock-walled rooms in some shithole in Oklahoma, picking at the remnants of a stale deli plate in order to, later, make and play music. These are worthy things to thank people for, maybe, but they are not in themselves Rock and Roll; they’re only the tangible, infrastructural echoes of that elusive concept. This actual Rock Hall is a shrine to these not-actually-Rock-itself but very nearly Rocklike, and therefore not at all Rocklike, major signifiers of Rock.
And so I sat, bored, watching these people thank each other for making music. I saw Peter Gabriel emit Peter Gabriel songs from out of his old bloated head. I saw a murderer’s row of twangy adult contemporary porch swing chanteuses and a lurking Bill Murray genuflect on the majesty of Linda Ronstadt songs, thankfully without homage to “Don’t Know Much,” a song I distinctly remember listening to at age ten and deciding that radio was somehow unreliable as a delivery method for things which I might enjoy.
I saw Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine induct and introduce Kiss, which was in a way a perfect encapsulation of that hallowed area of actual Rock and Roll which will endure forever in those detention notebooks: the bands you love as a kid but then are supposed to outgrow, but don’t ever really all the way even if sometimes you want to, because they are essentially embarrassing and clownish. Morello and the members of Kiss spoke a lot about critics, and about a validation for Kiss fans, who were and are the exact kind of single-minded mooks who get, to hilarious effect, all huffy when you denigrate their favorite band. Kiss may or may not be a great band, but, due to their self-imposed trappings and rapacious strategies for developing revenue streams, their fanbase devolved over time into more or less human troll-bait, and so it’s always been just as much fun to publicly dislike the band as it is to join in. And judging by their apparent seriousness in asserting that an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is just the topper their fans might need (formerly it was album sales) to finally end a lifetime of merciless teasing incurred within "best band ever" conversations which THEY STARTED, the band still wears their lack of self-awareness proudly on their sleeves. They’re still perfect in that way. They're the Rodney Dangerfields of Rock, except they don't know they're joking.
Kiss did not perform on the broadcast.
And then Art Garfunkel gave a very Art Garfunkel-centric speech which was nominally about Cat Stevens, and Yusuf Islam née Cat Stevens himself rightfully mentioned how inducting Cat Stevens into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite the fact that it’s Cat Stevens is a kind of Rock and Roll move, since a good half of his catalogue could equally qualify for the Acoustic Guitar Guy Currently Ruining A Campfire Hall of Fame. Then he performed some songs, so I made a sandwich and changed the laundry.
At one point Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham were talked about by a guy in a red velvet jacket who looked like Meatloaf, and there was a too-short collection of photographs of those dudes and zero fun stories told about them. And Hall and Oates were introduced by ?uestlove and much Philadelphia respect was thrown back and forth and Hall and Oates performed so I checked my email. There was a montage of all the recently dead people that made me cry when it looked for a long second like they might just show a picture of Lou Reed without the words “Lou Reed” appearing on the screen, because Lou Reed just getting a picture while everybody else needed some identification seemed like the perfect thing. But of course they ruined it four seconds later.
Then Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band performed, and then Bruce inducted his band into the Hall of Fame, and I teared up again, because why not tear up over that. The members of The E Street Band being inducted into any kind of a Hall of Fame that they genuinely really appreciate is tear-worthy. It’s like visiting the tomb of the unknown professional musician, only he pops up and says “thanks for coming,” and then dies all over again. Like James Brown's cape of great fatigue but in reverse. HBO mercifully edited all 19 acceptance speeches with an interstitial mercifully edited performance which seemed to come from what I assume was a three hour concert in the middle of the induction ceremony. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band can’t play for less than 3 hours. Anywhere. It’s in their rider. It’s in the Overwhelming Showmanship Which Indicates Transcendentally Earnest Music Clause. I do not really “get” the appeal of a three hour Springsteen concert. It seems unnecessarily arduous. But they sure are working hard, and as an American I suppose I must appreciate that.
Not to get all Klosterman on you guys, but “then Nirvana” among all of this weirdly compelling music industry dross, is exactly how Nirvana happened. The context of the dross is and was as important as the band and the music. It turns out the interminable grind of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony replicates, almost exactly, the early 90’s MTV dross that I felt drawn to sit through as a budding antisocial sixth grader.
There were the same legacy acts who rose to prominence through an unfolding of actual events I was not privy to and now were grabbing at relevance or doing celebratory victory laps or otherwise existing within an alien backstory and context. In the ceremony this was Hall and Oates and Linda Ronstadt. On MTV back then it was “Learning To Fly” era Pink Floyd and 80’s balladeer Rod Stewart in inexplicably heavy rotation where, pre-internet, I'd internally scream "WHY THIS" and nobody would answer me. The 80's were an impossible time to be curious about music while only having access to mainstream outlets. Even the best people sucked. It was an entire decade of Jagger and Bowie Dancin' In The Streets in flowy pants like they both had an anus full of cocaine.
There was also the strangely misplaced earnestness in Cat Stevens and the E Street Band, where on early 90’s MTV it took the shape of John Cougar Mellencamp smiling and leaning on Meshell Ndegeocello while covering Van Morrison as if to say “we are fully formed people with stories you don’t know and we are not telling you and it doesn’t matter anyway because you think this song sucks, but we’ll be damned if we’re not just smiling our fucking faces off right now and really really feeling something deep and essentially human which you will never understand.”
There was Kiss being Kiss, an echo of Mötley Crüe being Mötley Crüe. Neither of them making much sense, and both of them being very close to something I love but also untouchably far away from it. The end result is a band/song/video I like somewhat more than many other things not like it, and otherwise I'm just shrugging and saying “sometimes people dress like that, I guess.”
In both, then and now, is so much varied encoded information about the various glamorous and fashionable and pleasant and supposedly enjoyable things that are not you and you are not. Nope, not me. Different but also not me. Potentially interesting, but ultimately not me. And through this repetition, whether it's the first two hours of an induction ceremony broadcast you're spending a full grown adult lazy Sunday watching on HBO or if it's MTV music videos all day long for the entire shitty summer of 1991, just when you are fully primed for another minute or hour or day or lifetime of curious gawking at popular and perfectly nice-seeming things which are nothing and do nothing for you, THEN NIRVANA. Right as you're least expecting and most in need of it.
Michael Stipe gave a speech about how Nirvana mattered which managed not to sound like a complete lie, and managed to not be at odds with the emotions I felt, while watching the ridiculous display of flatulence that predictably comprises such a thing as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, of Nirvana actually having mattered and even still currently mattering to me in ways I did not expect and was not prepared for. I cried. And then Dave Grohl came up and said goofy Dave Grohl things and thanked his accountant. And Krist Novoselic mentioned the fans and seemed nice but kind of awkward and forgettable like how he always has seemed. And Kurt Cobain’s mom and sisters said something very short, and by now I was sobbing explosively, and Courtney Love went “baaaahhhhh” and hugged Grohl and Novoselic and some corner of my brain said the phrase “box set,” and then Courtney Love talked more and it was like running into the old crazy toxic friend you had to stop hanging out with and seeing that, yep, they’re still a mess, and you're happy for no reason even though they're asking you for money.
Then they played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Joan Jett sang it, and that was an inspired choice which fit perfectly, because the same gravelly voice and anger and nonchalance, plus a tip of the hat to that signature Cobain lack of gender bias, and otherwise all the same riffs and fury and pummeling drum beats were there. And I was lifted up, now as then, out of the couch to stand and just be there, an idiot in front of a TV set, standing in front of a pre-recorded program, as if to say “me too” to people who can’t see me and aren’t even there anymore. Then Kim Gordon came out. And Annie Clark, and Lorde. And then the broadcast was over and I was standing there with dried salt on my face not really knowing what happened or what was supposed to happen next.
Being an eleven year old is deeply unsettling. In at least my case, being eleven would have been worse if it weren’t for Nirvana. Being an adult isn’t all that much fun either. But it’s nice to know that I’m not an adult, that actually I’m an eleven year old boy with this weird ill-fitting adult encasing, and maybe all of us are too, and maybe Nirvana or some Nirvana-like think can still help every once in a while. I did not necessarily know that when I turned my TV on yesterday. But, you know, then Nirvana.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check out this Mudhoney band that people are talking about.