By Brian Ives
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony has come a long way, and its evolution has mirrored that of rock and roll itself: whereas it used to be a drunken, freewheeling event held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria that would stretch to all hours of the night, today it is an arena-rock spectacle that is (gasp!) open to the public.
Lots of people have lots of feelings about this. But the event last night (April 10) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn had stunning moments that won’t soon be forgotten. And, as it turns out, it still goes way past bedtime (or at least the initially scheduled 11:15 pm curfew).
When tickets for the ceremony went on sale they sold out within minutes, thanks to a star-studded list of inductees: KISS, Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Linda Ronstadt and Cat Stevens, as well as Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band. Also being inducted were industry legends Andrew Loog Oldham (former Rolling Stones manager, among other things) and the late Brian Epstein (who managed the Beatles).
Oldham was one of the people with a strong opinion about the annual throwdown: he declined to attend, saying at a recent public appearance, “I won’t be there. I’ll tell you why…. It’s a television show. Twenty years ago it was an incredible party in the Waldorf-Astoria where everybody could behave exactly as they could 20 years ago. And then it became a business.”
Chris Martin and Peter Gabriel (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Of course, some artists conduct their business on their own terms. When Peter Gabriel took the stage, he made that fairly clear by opening his set with “Digging In The Dirt” from 1992’s Us — not a song that counts among his biggest hits. On the other hand, he didn’t attend his first induction (back in 2010 as a member of Genesis), so at least this time he showed up.
Gabriel was introduced by Chris Martin of Coldplay, who noted his many achievements, including “He helped John Cusack get his girlfriend back in Say Anything!” Gabriel then made a gracious speech, thanking his musicians and engineers (remember, this is a guy who has taken up to a decade to put out an album) as well as his father. After that, he got behind his piano, accompanied by Martin, for another Us tune, “Washing of the Water.” Not that he’s totally allergic to his hits: after that, he sang “In Your Eyes,” accompanied by Nigerian singer Youssou Ndour, who sang on the original.
A lot of fans have argued the merits of KISS to their detractors over the years, but few with the zeal and eloquence that Rage Against the Machine leader (and current touring member of the E Street Band) Tom Morello did last night. “Impact, influence and awesomeness: KISS had all three in spades!” he declared during his speech introducing the band.
Despite the smack talking between bandleaders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley and their former bandmates Ace Frehley and Peter Criss (and also Simmons/Stanley vs. the Hall of Fame itself), the vibe during their portion of the evening was actually warm. Simmons was particularly gracious, saying “We are humbled.” He also spoke affectionately about the other founding bandmembers Ace Frehley (“his guitar playing has often been imitated but never equalled”), Peter Criss (“nobody else has that swing and style”), and his longtime partner Stanley (“You couldn’t ask for a better partner!”).
Cat Stevens (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Art Garfunkel was a surprise presenter for Cat Stevens, singing lines from some of his most well-known songs while extolling the man’s virtues as a singer and a person. Stevens accepted, laughing “I never thought I’d be sharing the stage with KISS!” And while the audience was stacked with KISS fans, he got a standing ovation for his performance of “Father And Son,” “Wild World” and “Peace Train.”
It’s easy to forget what a huge star Linda Ronstadt was in the ’70s; having retreated from public life in recent years (especially since learning she has Parkinson’s disease). But if you had forgotten that fact, a few iconic singers, whose star power extends from the top of the Billboard charts to the corners of the most NPR-friendly coffee houses, took the stage to remind you. Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Underwood, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks (with Ronstadt presenter and former backing guitarist Glenn Frey of the Eagles joining them) blew the roof off with a medley that included “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “It’s So Easy” and “Blue Bayou.” Ronstadt may not have been the artist getting the most media attention of this year’s inductees, but the tribute to her was one for the ages.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s concerts are legendary for many reasons, not the least of which is their longevity; as it turns out, these guys can talk for a while, too. Springsteen’s speech about the band, and their combined acceptance speeches went on for nearly an hour. To be fair: it’s a large band and all the members had the opportunity to speak. That included bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, guitarist Steven Van Zandt, guitarist Nils Lofgren, singer Patti Scialfa, former drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, former keyboardist David Sancious, the late keyboardist Danny Federici’s son and the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ wife, who, in a haunting moment, played one of his voice memos to himself on his cell phone; it was just him singing a riff, but it was as if the man himself was singing with happiness about his induction from beyond the grave.
The band performed an epic three-song set, which featured Lopez and Sancious with the current members. They opened with “The E Street Shuffle” then went into the slow “The River” and finished with a long jam on “Kitty’s Back,” the latter featuring solos from nearly everyone on stage.
By the time they wrapped, they’d almost broken the show’s 11:15 pm curfew, with two other honorees still to go.
Roots drummer Questlove can always be relied on to give a great speech, and he did just that for Daryl Hall and John Oates. “I’m gonna list all the duos of the rock and roll era that were more popular than Hall and Oates,” he said. “OK, I’m done! If you had a radio in the ’70s or ’80s, or you knew someone who did, you knew Hall and Oates!”
“Well, luckily for you guys, there’s only two of us!” quipped Oates, a line that got laughs from the increasingly weary audience. But he seemed glad to accept the honor, as did Hall. The latter also noted that they were the only born and bred Philadelphia act in the Hall of Fame, something he called on the Hall to change, citing, among others, Chubby Checker as an artist who deserves induction.
Hall and Oates started and then stopped their first song “She’s Gone,” with Hall complaining about his monitors, asking “Did Bruce blow them all out?” After that technical difficulty was fixed, their three-song set of “She’s Gone,” an extended “I Can’t Go For That” and “You Make My Dreams Come True” pointed out that this duo — and their excellent backing band — are still a potent force, four decades after they first met.
Finally it was time for Nirvana. Michael Stipe made an impassioned speech about the band, reminding everyone — as if you could forget — just how important that group had been. “They were singular and loud and melodic and deeply original. And that voice. That voice. Kurt, we miss you. I miss you. This is not just pop music. This is something much greater than that.”
Anyone expecting tension between former members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain’s widow Courtney Love would have been disappointed. During her speech, Love referred to the former bandmates as “brothers” and hugged both of them, in a poignant moment that seemed to melt away the years of sniping at each other in the press.
The late Cobain had always rebelled against machismo in rock music, so in a move of which Cobain would likely have approved, Grohl, Novoselic and touring guitarist Pat Smear teamed up with a series of female lead singers to perform four Nirvana classics. Joan Jett sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” giving new life to one of the most overly familiar songs of the past two decades; Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (a band for whom Nirvana had opened during the 1990s) sang “Aneurysm”; St. Vincent did “Lithium”; and the for an acoustic version of “All Apologies” they brought out Lorde.
Rumors circulated that there would be some sort of all-star jam to end the show, but as they broke curfew by about an hour, the show ended when the Nirvana/Lorde performance was done. A sure-to-be-edited version of the show will air on HBO on May 31.