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Who Will Front Nirvana If the Band Reunites to Play the Rock Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony?

Amid a week so steeped in Nirvana nostalgia that it’s begun to inspire incisive meta-commentary, something close to honest-to-goodness Nirvana news has emerged: Krist Novoselic sent a tweet that implies he’ll be performing his former band’s songs at next Thursday’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

As long as you don’t count the horribly nicknamed “Sirvana” — and you really shouldn’t — Nirvana hasn’t performed since Kurt Cobain’s copiously memorialized death 20 years ago. The project that teamed surviving Nirvana band members Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and touring guitarist Pat Smear with frontman Paul McCartney for a headlining slot at the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy relief concert and a gig the next summer in Seattle exhibited the restraint not to play any of Cobain’s hits. So there’s no understating what a big deal it would be for Novoselic, Grohl, and perhaps Smear (who, along with early drummer Chad Channing, won’t be among the inducted members) to not only take the stage together, but also play Nirvana songs.

Surely there are fans who would give their first pressing of Bleach to see this happen — and those who think Nirvana performing without Cobain would be a desecration of his memory. In truth, I’ve always been closer to the latter position, although I’ve come around to the idea that a onetime reunion that’s respectful of Cobain’s legacy is possible. There would be a million ways to screw it up: ugly merchandising tie-ins, Tupac-style holograms, the kind of cock-rock trappings that appeal to the Rock Hall’s target demographic but would have sickened the man who belted “God is gay.” But the most likely misstep would be to have the wrong person singing Cobain’s lyrics. So, here’s the question: assuming the performance happens, who might front Nirvana?

I don’t think Paul McCartney is likely; the presence of rock’s single biggest name would be too distracting to make a good tribute to Nirvana — not to mention that having a baby boomer icon fill in for the man many see as the voice of Gen X would be only slightly less awkward than the spectacle of a 71-year-old man singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Also, although Cobain loved the Beatles, he also supposedly once said he hated McCartney.) The other obvious choice is Dave Grohl himself, but I don’t think that will happen, either. Like him or not, Grohl seems aware enough of his place in rock ‘n’ roll history — and cautious enough about it not to want to ruffle feathers — to know that standing in for his dead former band mate would not be a good look.

No, my money is on Michael Stipe. Just two days ago, Rolling Stone reported that the erstwhile R.E.M. frontman would have the honor of inducting Nirvana into the Rock Hall. And that made perfect sense: Cobain and Stipe’s friendship is well documented — they’d even planned to work together. In a Newsweek interview Charles R. Cross quotes in his new book, Here We Are Now, Stipe said:

I know what the next Nirvana recording was going to sound like. It was going to be very quiet and acoustic, with lots of stringed instruments. It was going to be an amazing fucking record, and I’m a little bit angry at him for killing himself. He and I were going to record a trial run of the album, a demo tape. It was all set up. He had a plane ticket. He had a car picking him up. And at the last minute he called, and said, “I can’t come.”

Curiously, Nirvana are currently the only inductees the Hall has neither confirmed as performing nor announced a tribute act to celebrate (with the exception of KISS, who are apparently kicking up a fuss over which members the Hall has chosen to induct), which certainly suggests we have a surprise in store.

Whatever winds up happening, no matter what Novoselic has been practicing the bass in service of, it’s hard to imagine a better choice to front a briefly reunited Nirvana than Stipe. Not only is he a musician Cobain respected (R.E.M.’s Green even had a place on his list of Nirvana’s top 50 albums), but he’s one who Cobain clearly saw as part of his band’s future. Although there will clearly be no pleasing the fans who believe Novoselic and Grohl should never perform as Nirvana again, the rest of us should feel free to go ahead and be delighted if Michael Stipe steps off the podium to join them in a song.

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