It’s Only Rock And Roll!

New York Times
April 15, 2012
A Ceremony in the Midwest Honors Rock Legends From the Coasts

CLEVELAND – The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, a gleaming glass pyramid on the shores of Lake Erie, has become a proud symbol of this city. And Cleveland’s rock fans turned out in droves for the hall’s 27th induction ceremony on Saturday, only third time it has been held here.

But this year much of the show’s music was rooted squarely in the country’s entertainment capitals of New York and Los Angeles. Guns N’ Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers represented two branches of California rock in the 1980s, metal and punk. And the Beastie Boys and the mercurial songwriter Laura Nyro, if they have anything in common, were celebrated as but two slices of New York’s huge, multifaceted musical culture.

The ceremony, at the incongruously stately Public Auditorium – a 1920s Beaux Arts monolith a few blocks from the museum – also honored Donovan; the blues guitarist Freddie King; the linked British invasion bands Small Faces and the Faces; the music executive Don Kirshner; and an array of sidemen and backup groups.

And in between blistering jams, encomiums and shaggy dog stories about rockers’ early years, musicians spoke of their home cities as inspiration, common ground or hell.

“The opening riff of ”˜Welcome to the Jungle’ is a descending trip into the underworld of Los Angeles,” said Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day as he introduced Guns N’ Roses, which was being inducted in the first year the band was eligible. “Of misfits, drug addicts, paranoia, sex, violence, love and anger in the cracks of Hollywood.”

“It was a breath of fresh air,” he added, with a smirk.

Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, only the third hip-hop act to make it into the hall, thanked New York as muse almost as many times as they thanked family members and business associates.

“Thank you, new York City, for basically raising us and giving us all the music we love and grew up on,” Mr. Diamond said, as he recalled the sonic exhilaration of riding through the subway and hearing “punk rock, New Wave, salsa – it was all there.”

Bette Midler, wiping away tears as she inducted Nyro, who died of cancer in 1997, portrayed her as an earth mother of the Upper West Side and a chronicler of a New York on an elevated poetic plane.

“She was the very essence of New York City,” Ms. Midler said, “Not in a gritty, real sense, but in a passionate, romantic, ethereal way. She would take ordinary people in the most ordinary situations and spin them into heroic figures.”

No Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony would be complete without some backstage drama to underscore the raw feelings of the music (as well as the music industry’s continual clash of millionaires). This year Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses filled that role, declaring in a public letter that he would not attend, and therefore would not reunite with his estranged band.

“I strongly request that I not be inducted in absentia,” Mr. Rose wrote, “and please know that no one is authorized nor may anyone be permitted to accept any induction for me or speak on my behalf.”

Not all performers had to do with New York or Los Angeles, of course. But many made reference to the complex politics of the Rock Hall itself. Artists become eligible for inclusion 25 years after the release of their first recording, and are voted on by about 500 industry executives, journalists and previous winners.

Donovan, the Scottish-born singer of folk and psychedelic hits like “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow,” called the award “the grandest searchlight on my music that the world could ever beam.” But in reciting a nearly two-minute poem in thanks, he also seemed to make a veiled nod to the political process behind the Hall of Fame, which keeps some artists in a nomination limbo for years.

“I thank you for this bright green laurel resting now upon my brow,” Donovan said. “I thank you, goddess, and I thank you, muses, and I thank my fellow artists all.”

As always, the night featured performances by seemingly as many rock stars who could fit on the stage at once. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played with Slash of Guns N’ Roses, George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic and Ronnie Wood of the Faces and the Rolling Stones. For a tribute to the Beastie Boys – whose third member, Adam Yauch, has cancer and did not attend – Kid Rock, Black Thought of the Roots and Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes rapped in old-school green Adidas jump suits. The show was being taped for broadcast by HBO.

When the Rock Hall inductions began in 1986, it was a pantheon in need of a home. Most ceremonies – even after the museum in Cleveland opened in 1995 – have taken place at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. But the organization says it plans to cycle the event through Cleveland every three years, a welcome move for the city’s rock fans.

Cleveland had 10 days of events leading up to the inductions, including public concerts and the opening of the hall’s new Library and Archives, a repository of documents and memorabilia by hundreds of musicians and industry figures.

After more than a quarter century of enshrinements, the hall of fame has begun to fill in gaps and tie some of its more awkward loose ends. This year Smokey Robinson inducted players from six classic rock and soul groups whose more-famous frontmen had long since made the cut: James Browns’ Famous Flames; Hank Ballard’s Midnighters; Bill Haley’s Comets; Buddy Holly’s Crickets; Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps; and Mr. Robinson’s own group, the Miracles.

The hall of fame was careful to induct those musicians as performers, not sidemen. But in his speech at the beginning of the night, Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone and chairman of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, called them “backup groups.”

“We overlooked you years ago when we first inducted your well-known leaders,” Mr. Wenner said, “but we’re very glad to have you in the Hall of Fame at last.”

Robbie Robertson of the Band inducted three virtuosos of the recording studio: Tom Dowd, the Atlantic Records engineer who earned the trust of Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton and Ray Charles; Glyn Johns, who recorded the Who and the Rolling Stones; and Cosimo Matassa, whose New Orleans recording studio captured key performances by Fats Domino, Little Richard and Irma Thomas.

The Rock Hall’s museum, which was designed by the architect I.M. Pei, covers a wide swath of pop music in its exhibits and collections, paying particular attention to rock’s origins in R&B and the blues. That respect for the music’s roots also found expression in the induction speeches.

Wanda King, accepting the award for her father, Freddie King, who died in 1976, recalled the time that Stevie Ray Vaughan visited her dad as a teenage aspiring guitarist and asked him, “How do I play the blues like you, man?”

“You got to feel the blues,” Ms. King remembered her father saying. “You can’t get to rock ”˜n’ roll unless you can play the blues, baby.”

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