All it took to get started were the two biggest concert acts in the world. "The first calls," says Jann Wenner, "were to Bruce and U2. And immediately, they said yes. They didn't hesitate." The next call was to Mick Jagger, who said that the Rolling Stones wouldn't be able to get it together for the shows. But he agreed to at least leave the week open. Says Wenner, "He said, 'It's too early for me to talk about it.' I told him, 'I'll come to you with an idea that is going to really work.'"
Wenner, chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and also Rolling Stone's editor and publisher), recognized early on the opportunity that the foundation's upcoming 25th anniversary presented. "I knew the anniversary had potency," says Wenner, who began pondering the shows in mid-2008. "I thought that we had earned the right and the responsibility and the opportunity and the obligation to do this thing — and that if I decided I would put my energy and time into it, it was an opportunity not to be missed."
Taking on the role of executive producer and creative director, Wenner put together a creative steering committee — including Cameron Crowe and Robbie Robertson, plus CAA's top music agent, Rob Light; Hall of Fame CEO Joel Peresman; director Joel Gallen and Tom Hanks' production partner, Gary Goetzman — and began a year's worth of weekly phone meetings, sketching out an all-star concert unlike any held before. The massive scale of the events quickly took shape: two four-hour shows at Madison Square Garden on consecutive nights — a highly unusual format.
"We started discussing who would be great to have at this kind of event," says Robertson. "We made a big list. We had all kinds of ambitions." Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder signed on early, then the rest of the headliners came together: Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Paul Simon performing both solo and with Art Garfunkel. Metallica came in to represent the world of hard rock and metal after Led Zeppelin declined to re-form for the occasion.
For the artists, it was a major show of faith in the Hall of Fame, and a huge favor. They weren't being paid for the work — the concerts were meant to raise a permanent endowment for the Hall (they ended up raising around $5 million) — and many of them had to interrupt tours or vacations. Springsteen and U2 each came straight off the road. "I think it was probably an irresponsible decision," says Bono of his instant "yes," with a chuckle. "We were at the end of the road and out of gas."
The spirit of the event was modeled after the annual Hall of Fame induction dinners — loose, spirited, star-packed evenings where rock royalty revealed their mutual fandom and came together in megajams never seen in any other context. But the key to capturing the feel of those intimate dinners in a sports arena, the organizers decided, would be collaborations. "I'd been fighting all the way along, saying, 'Guys, if this is just miniconcerts of people doing their greatest hits, I'm already bored,'" says Robertson. "Because we can see that anywhere. What can't we see? What do we have to offer that you can't get anywhere else?"
Each headliner would serve as a house band, backing big-name guests, with the performances tracing the history and lineage of rock. "This is music for the ages," says Gallen, the show's director and executive producer. "People coming together for one simple purpose: to celebrate the greatest music of our lifetime. I think it's very doubtful you'll see a show of this significance, of this magnitude, of this long-lasting impact in our lifetime again."
There were arguments along the way: Some committee members made a strong push for a greater focus on younger artists. But the shows were overflowing as it was, and Wenner insisted that they stick with inductees as headliners, and include other guests that the artists and committee invited. But even with that rule in place, many artists — big ones, Hall of Fame inductees — couldn't find a place in the show, and there were inevitable hurt feelings.
The show took time to take shape. There was talk about Aerosmith joining forces with Metallica, but then Aerosmith took a multimillion-dollar gig in the Middle East. Van Morrison was in for a while, then dropped out. Both U2 and Springsteen were interested in Bob Dylan, but Dylan declined despite months of entreaties. Neil Young nearly joined up with CSN, but a family matter kept him away. The organizers would have loved to land Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino for the show, but Little Richard had recently undergone hip-replacement surgery, and Berry and Domino didn't want to travel to the event. In the end, Jerry Lee Lewis was the only rock pioneer who could make it.
To prevent the concert from devolving into a disconnected series of acts, the committee began focusing on details of the production, from the custom-built stage to the richly evocative films that would precede each act. Like the Concert for New York City following 9/11, and other major events, a turntable would be built into the stage — while Simon and Garfunkel performed on one segment of the stage, Stevie Wonder could be setting up on another. The massive stage would help make the arena intimate — U2's Adam Clayton would say that it felt like a theater — and the formal design, complete with a proscenium arch, would lend grandeur. The stage was decorated with a mural of the first class of the Hall of Fame — Berry, James Brown, Buddy Holly et al. "The idea was that it was like a Thomas Hart Benton mural that really evokes rock history," says Wenner.
Putting together the films was the fun part, with Crowe taking time from the production of his upcoming Marvin Gaye biopic to lend his sensibility: It was Crowe, for instance, who suggested the Beach Boys' haunting a cappella track "Our Prayer" for the California-rock film that introduced Crosby, Stills and Nash. Wenner scripted the films and scrutinized every frame of footage. ("Second Rosie the Riveter photo is weak — replace," he wrote in notes on the Springsteen film.)
Convincing HBO to air the concert was a major coup. Tom Hanks, who had given a roof-raising Hall of Fame induction speech for the Dave Clark Five in 2008, and his production company, Playtone, came in as production partners for the event. Playtone had an existing production deal with HBO, and the company eventually persuaded the channel to agree to a mammoth, four-hour prime-time broadcast — November 29th, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That would still leave Gallen with the task of cutting a full five hours out of the show. (Within three days of the event, he had narrowed it down to four hours and 25 minutes — but cutting those last minutes wouldn't be easy. "Now the really painful decisions have to happen," he says.)
The logistics of the show were overwhelmingly complex: 500 employees — from stagehands to the personnel needed to man 19 cameras for the broadcast — three rehearsal studios running at once, artists and their entourages in 16 different hotels. "The shows got bigger and bigger," says Hall of Fame CEO Peresman. "From a production standpoint, my end was kind of a panic, but it really turned out to be everything we thought it could be."
As the concert approached, trouble broke out. Aretha Franklin threatened to pull out and made elaborate demands of the organizers — her requests, as stated in firm voicemails ("I am sorry that it is going down this way," she said, "but that's the way it's going down"), included turning off all ventilation in Madison Square Garden for hours before her performance and covering all vents in her dressing room with cardboard. More seriously, Eric Clapton discovered that he needed gallstone surgery and canceled his appearance — suddenly, the concert had a gaping hole to fill. After a few panicked phone calls, one of Clapton's guests, Jeff Beck, agreed to step up as a headliner.
Live Nation vice president of special events Dan Parise — who worked on mega-events from Live Earth to the Concert for New York City — had never seen a production of this magnitude. "It's a monster," he says, touring Madison Square Garden two days before the first show. The arena is filled with the sound of saws and hammers as crew members frantically assemble the stage — which at the moment is in two separate pieces, each at opposite ends of the building. The crew he supervised began loading in the lights and sound equipment nearly a week before the first concert, and after a forced break for a Rangers hockey game, assembled the stage from scratch in just a little more than 24 hours, beginning at midnight.
"These acts are playing full sets at Madison Square Garden, where they've had the biggest moments in their careers," Parise says. "They're going to want a lot of control."
Parise's walkie-talkie crackles and his BlackBerry buzzes — there are more requests from Aretha Franklin: She wants Chinese food in her dressing room and space heaters onstage. Clearly, it's going to be a long week. Parise laughs and gets back to work.
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