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Despite plenty of strife in the past and behind-the-scenes, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was a virtual lovefest of forgiveness and reconciliation. There was also plenty of great music, some anticlimaxes and enough lengthy speeches in the five-and-a-half hour event to severely challenge HBO’s editors before its May 31 broadcast.
These annual events always hold the promise of great drama, and this year’s 29th edition was no exception. The inductees included Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, KISS, Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, the E Street Band and legendary band managers Brian Epstein of the Beatles and Andrew Loog Oldham of the Rolling Stones — and nearly every one came with an intriguing backstory.
The evening kicked off with Peter Asher inducting Epstein and Oldham, with the latter having apparently decided to skip the ceremony. The music began with Gabriel performing an intense rendition of “Digging in the Dirt,” featuring guitar accompaniment by the Meters’ Leo Nocentelli. Coldplay’s Chris Martin then gave a hilarious induction speech in the form of a mock reading from the “Book of Genesis” and lauding Gabriel for, among other things, “helping John Cusack get his girlfriend back in the movie Say Anything.” He then joined Gabriel for the relative obscurity “Washing of the Water,” followed by the classic “In Your Eyes” featuring soaring vocals by Youssou N’Dour.
After weeks of public sniping among the original and current members of KISS about who would play at the ceremony, none of them did — surely a missed opportunity since the show, open to the public, was being performed in the band’s natural arena habitat. After a fiery introduction by Tom Morello in which he described them as “one of the most iconic and badass bands of all time,” Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss took the stage to thunderous applause. Each was warm and gracious, with Simmons praising “the four knuckleheads” who had gotten together 40 years ago, “critics be damned;” Frehley saying, “you know the story, it’s all KISStory,” before proudly announcing that he’s been sober for seven-and-a-half years; Stanley wryly commenting, “Here we are tonight, basically being inducted for the same things we were kept out for;” and Criss declaring, “I am now seven years male-breast-cancer free” before making the public service announcement, “Early detection will save your life.” Morello and Simmons also took the opportunity to praise the other members of the band, past and present.
Inducting Stevens, who now goes under the name Yusuf Islam, Art Garfunkel scored consistent laughs. “If Paul and I hadn’t split up in 1970, there would have been no room on the charts for Cat Stevens to take over,” he declared. Reciting a long list of Stevens’ hit songs, he said, sotto voce, “This guy’s better than Paul.”
The honoree was equally amusing. “I never thought I’d be on the same stage as KISS, to be honest,” he said, before citing his many influences ranging from Beethoven (“The best pop song ever written was the 9th Symphony”) to Leadbelly. He lauded the organization for having the courage to honor him despite the fact that “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I only sleep with my wife.” And he teased the crowd by announcing, “Get ready for my new record. I haven’t stopped, guys, but that’s another story.” Looking and sounding terrific at age 65, he thrilled the crowd with gorgeously sung renditions of such classics as “Father and Son” (“I bet you didn’t think you were going to hear that one again”), “Wild World” and “Peace Train” that surely whetted hope for a comeback tour.
Ronstadt, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was not present, with presenter Glenn Frey explaining that she’s “retired and does not travel anymore.” After reciting a long list of her record sales accomplishments with the air of a statistician, he gave way to a gallery of female stars performing Ronstadt’s hits: Carrie Underwood using her booming voice to great effect on “Different Drum;” Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris delivering gorgeous harmonies on “Blue Bayou;” Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks handling lead vocals on “You’re No Good” and “It’s So Easy,” respectively; and the entire line-up, joined by Frey, finishing up with “When Will I Be Loved.”
Up to that point, the evening was moving at a brisk pace. But that ended with the induction of the E Street Band. First Bruce Springsteen delivered an effusive speech lauding members past and present, alive and dead. “I stand here with one regret…that Clarence and Danny aren’t here with us tonight,” he said, referring to the late Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. He also described an emotional conversation between him and Steve Van Zandt that occurred in 1999, shortly before he was inducted as a solo artist, without the band. “Yeah, I understand,” said Van Zandt after listening to Springsteen justify his decision to accept the honor. “But Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band…that’s the legend.”
Each member then gave an emotional speech, almost all of them extolling their leader and far exceeding their allotted time. Clemens’ widow Victoria accepted on his behalf, commenting, “He was known as the big man for many reasons.” The resulting laughter prompted her to chide, “You guys are so bad!” Van Zandt was the last to speak, lauding Springsteen for “continuing to write songs at an unnecessarily high level of quality.”
The crowd grew noticeably restless during the roughly 45 minutes of speechifying, but was quickly mollified when Springsteen and the band took the stage. Its current line-up augmented with past members Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez on drums and David Sancious on keyboards, they tore through “E Street Shuffle,” “The River” and an extended version of “Kitty’s Back” in which nearly everyone got the chance to solo. While the results were somewhat ragged — “How do the Allman Brothers do it?” joked Springsteen — it was nonetheless a musical highlight.
Inducting Hall & Oates, Questlove took the opportunity to sing snippets from several of their many hits, although he said it was unnecessary since we knew them all anyway. Accepting the honor, Hall got laughs by saying “luckily for you, there’s only two of us,” before decrying, “We’re the only homegrown Philadelphia band that’s been put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…that’s f—ed up.”
Although sound problems necessitated starting their first number over — “I got no monitors, what, did Bruce blow ‘em out?” Hall joked — the duo delivered funk-laden, elongated versions of “She’s Gone,” “I Can’t Go for That” and “You Make My Dreams Come True” that had the crowd dancing.
Michael Stipe delivered an emotional speech inducting Nirvana, declaring that they “captured lighting in a bottle” and somberly saying, “Kurt, we miss you…I miss you.” Surviving members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic paid tribute to their late bandmate Cobain, with the former also taking the opportunity to thank the four drummers who had preceded him in the band, including Chad Channing, who was in attendance. Courtney Love also made a brief but innocuous speech, receiving scattered boos even as she turned to embrace the other figures onstage, including Grohl, with whom she’s had a long contentious relationship.
The show’s truly historic moment occurred with Grohl and Novoselic, joined by guitarist Pat Smear and a succession of female vocalists, performing Nirvana classics for the first time since Cobain’s death two decades ago. Joan Jett brought her trademark vocal snarl to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon belted out “Aneurysm”; Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, handled the dynamic shifts of “Lithium” with ease; and Lorde brought a galvanizing intensity to “All Apologies.”
The evening then ended abruptly, sans the usual all-star jam session, with an announcer thanking the crowd for hanging in. But short of KISS suddenly having a change of heart and leading everyone onstage in “Rock and Roll All Nite” in full makeup and regalia, it was the only possible way to go.
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