The three acts were ushered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Thursday in a colorful induction ceremony at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. They were joined by the blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates, British rocker Peter Gabriel, 1970s folkie Cat Stevens and the absent Linda Ronstadt.
Nirvana was the emotional centerpiece. The trio rooted in the Seattle-area punk rock scene was voted into the hall in its first year of eligibility. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" hit like a thunderclap upon its 1991 release, but the band was done after Kurt Cobain committed suicide 20 years ago this month.
"Nirvana fans walk up to me every day and say thank you for the music," said Krist Novoselic, the band's bass player, who was inducted with drummer Dave Grohl. "When I hear that, I think of Kurt Cobain."
A subdued Courtney Love, Cobain's widow, was booed by some in the audience. She said Cobain would have appreciated the honor.
"Nirvana tapped into a voice that was yearning to be heard," said former R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, who described how the band made a community of the disaffected.
Joan Jett was chosen to sing "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, St. Vincent and Lorde each took turns at the microphone, with Lorde's version of "All Apologies" ending the night.
Kiss was responsible for pre-ceremony drama. The two original members still active, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, thought the replacements for ex-bandmates Ace Frehley and Peter Criss should perform at the ceremony instead of the original four. The result was Kiss's music went unheard.
Still, the estranged band members spoke warmly of each other when the quartet appeared behind the microphone. "In and out of makeup, I'll always be the Catman," said drummer Criss, referencing his makeup in the band. "You've got to forgive to live."
The band received a crowd-pleasing endorsement from Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, who said Kiss inspired him to play music. He said he had to fight off high school bullies who ridiculed him for liking the band.
"Tonight proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the high school bullies and critics were wrong," he said. "Kiss fans were right."
Springsteen's 1999 entrance into the Rock Hall without the E Street Band was a sore point for some of its members. They got their due Thursday in the sidemen category, although it was a posthumous honor for saxman Clarence Clemons and keyboard player Danny Federici.
Their leader recalled a kitchen conversation 15 years ago with his buddy and bandmate, Steve Van Zandt. Springsteen took pride in his independence and the band was only beginning to repair relations after a decade apart. He had no problem being inducted alone.
"Steve said, 'yes, I understand,"' Springsteen recalled, "'but Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, that's the legend."'
So the band, known for its long concerts, made up for lost time. Their induction took 85 minutes, as individual members ignored requests to keep their speeches short. Then they took the stage for performances of "The E Street Shuffle," "The River" and an epic "Kitty's Back."
"Lucky for you, there are only two of us," Daryl Hall said when he was inducted with partner John Oates. The duo was a mainstay on the radio during the late 1970s and early 1980s. They performed some of their hits -- "She's Gone," "I Can't Go For That" and "You Make My Dreams Come True" -- although hitting some of the high notes again was a struggle.
Hall said he was surprised to learn that his act was the only Philadelphia-bred band in the hall.
Ronstadt, the sexy siren of the Los Angeles country-rock scene of the 1970s, couldn't make it to her induction. Now retired, she suffers from Parkinson's disease and doesn't travel much. Glenn Frey, who played with fellow future Eagle Don Henley in Ronstadt's backup band, saluted her with an induction speech.
Ronstadt was saluted by some royalty of female country rock. Carrie Underwood sang "Different Drum," Ronstadt's first hit with the Stone Poneys. Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt joined for "Blue Bayou." Sheryl Crow and Frey made it a quintet to sing "You're No Good." Then Stevie Nicks came out to lead them in "It's So Easy" and "When Will I Be Loved."
Nicks said hearing "Different Drum" when she was in high school made her want to get into music. "I didn't look that good in cutoffs, but that's what I was going to do," she said.
Peter Gabriel wasn't around for his last induction in 2010, for his work as a member of Genesis. "It feels better when you're here," he said backstage.
Gabriel said aspiring musicians should surround themselves with brilliance and, noting his early failures as a drummer, shouldn't be afraid to try different things.
"Dream big, and let your imagination guide you, even if you end up dressing as a flower or a sexually transmitted disease," said Gabriel, known for his theatrical outfits during early Genesis days.
Coldplay singer Chris Martin credited Gabriel with creating a cathedral of sound and "he helped John Cusack get back his girlfriend in the movie 'Say Anything."' That movie's climactic moment featured Gabriel's song "In Your Eyes," and Gabriel performed a soaring version to celebrate his induction.