Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concerts

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Jerry Lee Lewis is back on Friday night to open the show with a difference. This time, he plays his 1957 missile "Great Balls of Fire" and, at the end, kicks his piano bench back with his leg. Before he stalks off, Lewis picks the bench up — and throws it to the floor again for extra measure. Aretha Franklin makes her own baffling turbulence. She opens strong, with straight, full-length versions of her Atlantic classics "Baby, I Love You" and "Don't Play That Song," which she dedicates to Atlantic co-founder (and the song's co-author) Ahmet Ertegun. Franklin then detours into a grandiose ballad from the Broadway musical Ragtime, prefaced with a misleading dedication to "people who don't feel like you're getting any respect" (the actual "Respect" comes last in her set). And she follows a diva battle with Annie Lennox on "Chain of Fools" with a weird mix of soul-sister bravado and supper-club kitsch: "New York, New York." The show's organizers were disappointed with Franklin's choice of songs (she had promised a full set of hits) and her seeming unwillingness to collaborate with her guests, Lenny Kravitz and Lennox, during rehearsal.

Jeff Beck misses all of that. "I was quietly going berserk backstage, wondering whether we were going to live or die," he recalls. "I'm still not sure if anybody knew we were going to appear at all." Clapton is still listed as a Friday-night act in the programs handed out at the show, and Beck comes on like a dark horse. He creeps through Ray Charles' 1956 ballad "Drown in My Own Tears," emulating Charles' vocal heartbreak with wobbly anguished chords, then lets Sting have the spotlight in "People Get Ready," between spikes of train-whistle treble. Beck steps up for his cutting contest with Buddy Guy — the two swap brash metallic solos like a pair of electric-blues stags — and gets a standing ovation for his instrumental detonation of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." (He makes his own version of the record's orchestral crescendos with just six strings and extreme volume.) He confesses that during the show, "it was an absolute lunatic asylum inside my head," and gives big credit to his band. "Tal doesn't miss a trick — she wants to know every single detail of the chords and progressions," he says of his bassist, Tal Wilkenfeld, who is only in her early 20s. "If you have people like that, you're halfway there and more." Beck also thanks Clapton — for not showing up. "Good old Eric, backs down and gives me another chance," Beck says, laughing. "Have more operations, Eric. It's good for me."

"There's an element that feels like we're crashing someone else's party," Lars Ulrich says with a devilish grin, sitting in his bathrobe after sound-check, in a Garden bathroom doubling as Metallica's production office for their appearance. "But people know we can play. People know we can fire it up. And people know we're not going to start throwing up on Bruce Springsteen."

Ulrich, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo are in charge of the hard-rock section for the second concert. The 2009 inductees are boldly playing out of their comfort zone, backing Ray Davies of the Kinks and avant-rock icon Lou Reed — the latter on the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" and "White Light/White Heat" — as well as lovable metal hero Ozzy Osbourne. And Metallica, in the middle of a yearlong tour behind their 2008 album, Death Magnetic, take the job seriously. They rescheduled a show in Ottawa to make this gig and the rehearsal. And between their labor-intensive session with Reed, Davies and Osbourne on the 29th at SIR and a nonstop-TNT sound-check, Metallica can be heard in their small practice room backstage, honing their slam on guitarist Dave Davies' heavy-riff blueprint in the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and tightening the swing and chord shifts in "Sweet Jane," modeled on the arrangement from Reed's 1974 live LP, Rock n Roll Animal.

The show is a blast. "We're Metallica, and this is what we do," Hetfield says as they charge into "For Whom the Bell Tolls." He knows this is not Metallica's usual hardcore crowd, and they have some selling to do. But the collaborations, Hammett says earlier, "show a side of Metallica you wouldn't otherwise see. I can clearly draw a line from Ray and Lou to what we're doing now." Osbourne, who sings his Black Sabbath chestnuts "Iron Man" and "Paranoid," is right in the middle. At rehearsals, Hammett says, Reed kept asking him to take more solos on "Sweet Jane." Reed was stern and specific about what he wanted: "When he heard us play 'Sweet Jane' — James and I had heavied it up a bit — he goes, 'No, no, you need the hop in there. It sounds too militaristic.'"

"I told every one of these guys," Ulrich says of Davies, Reed and Osbourne, "'We're your backing band. We can go this way. We can go that way. Tell us what you would like.' But I also know we represent all of the other hard-rock and metal dudes out there. We're funneling all of that into this. And it says a lot about the Hall of Fame — that in 2009 there's a place for what we represent at this kind of party."

As U2 barrel toward the end of the evening's final set, Mick Jagger is in a private backstage corner of the Garden, going through an intense pre-performance routine. "It's what I always do — 15 minutes warm-up," he says. "Because otherwise, you get out there and you're all adrenalized, and you can easily pull a muscle if you're not warmed up."

A few minutes later, U2 — with the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie and Will.i.am on vocals and synth strings, respectively — grind into the apocalypse-sex groove of "Gimme Shelter." A murmur passes through the audience: Could it be? After a few tension-packed bars, Bono, the Edge and Adam Clayton glance toward the wings — and without warning, Jagger struts out, already in full hip-shake flight. "Weh-ell, a storm is threatening," he drawls. ("He sings like my uncle Joe!" Will.i.am marvels to Bono.) The crowd explodes — it's the kind of oft-rumored surprise appearance that never actually happens.

Bono takes the second verse and Jagger stands to one side, staring at him with one leg cocked and one hand on his hip, as if judging an aspiring student. "Bono's very generous with letting other people come up and do their thing with U2," Clayton points out. "Bono's secure in his own ability and position to do that."

Fergie moves to center stage next, taking over Merry Clayton's part from the record. She roars lines about rape and murder as she and Jagger face off, Mick-and-Tina-at-Live-Aid-style. "She stuck pretty close to the original," Jagger says of her singing, "which is a good way to do it. But you always gotta watch out for the girl's shoes. I think it was Tina Turner — she trod on me badly once, and I learned my lesson."

U2 had experimented with a hip-hop-influenced but faithful version of "Gimme Shelter" (arranged by Will.i.am), but they opted to fully U2-ize the song, straying even further from the original — the Edge even altered the chord structure, changing some major chords to minor. Jagger approved. "He, in fact, wanted us to come up with something fresh," says the Edge.

U2 and Jagger finished their collaboration with "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," the closest thing in U2's catalog to a Stones-y ballad (not coincidentally, Jagger recorded some unused backing vocals for the studio version). For Bono, hearing his own lyrics shot back at him in Jagger's accusatory rasp — "You are such a fool," he sings, right in Bono's face — was both hilarious and intense. "Something happened there," says Bono, after imitating Jagger's acid delivery. "It was comic in so many ways, but it was also quite truthful to the song, which is about two mates having a disagreement."

U2's set also includes their own songs — among them "Vertigo," "Magnificent" and "Beautiful Day" (with a shout-out to the show's organizer: "Jann Wenner right in front of you," Bono sings). They bring on both Patti Smith and Springsteen (plus E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan) to play "Because the Night," which was written by Smith and Springsteen, and was Smith's only pop hit. (They play it twice, after Smith misses a cue the first time.) The guests symbolize U2's role as a link between punk rebellion and rock classicism — and they are also simply two of the band's favorites. Smith's work, says Bono, informed "the romantic spirit that pushed our band out of normal punk subject matter, and took us to the poetry of Rimbaud or Verlaine, and then joined that with Irish poets. The sense that rock & roll was taken over by the sort of people who normally write books and make movies, and the sort of metaphysical questions that Patti Smith put in my head, are an important part of who we are."

As for Springsteen: "That fucker is half-Irish! People just dwell on the Italian side far too much, as far as we're concerned. He has that older kind of Irish lyricism. We never ran with the storytelling and the characters of Bruce Springsteen, but it always felt very familiar, it felt like Van Morrison, it felt very, very familiar indeed."

Springsteen exercises a rare privilege during his appearance, interrupting one of Bono's stage raps. "For a lot of us here, rock & roll means just one word: liberation. Political, sexual, spiritual liberation," Bono was saying, when Springsteen — waiting to duet on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" — jumped in: "Let's have some fun with it!" Springsteen says, embracing his friend as the song begins.

"That was a good moment," Jagger says. "That was a bar-band moment." But the truth is, Bono asked Springsteen to chime in: "I said, 'I'm going to start rapping here. Don't be afraid to keep it going if I go off-piece.' I think he just wanted to keep it fun, keep it light." Bono points out that Springsteen's cousin and assistant road manager, Lenny Sullivan, had died earlier in the week; the morning after his U2 cameo, Springsteen would attend the funeral. "He was in a very vulnerable place," Bono says. "That he turned up at all was very moving to us."

The evening's wild card is the Black Eyed Peas, who jump onstage during an ingenious mash-up that began with "Mysterious Ways" and go into "Where Is the Love," with a bit of "One." "This word, 'rock & roll,' now covers a spirit rather than a form, and that's a spirit that's gone into hip-hop," Bono argues. Adds the Edge, "We thought it was appropriate to have it not just be our generation and earlier. We've been around awhile!"

Will.i.am felt right at home on the stage: "There's many different types and forms of rock & roll. Michael Jackson told me, Any music that inspires people to have sex is rock & roll!'"

For Bono, the evening reaffirmed his faith in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution he once derided. "I saw what it meant to the unsung heroes to be inducted," he says. "This was the moment for their family to gather and see the art form that these people developed be honored at a fancy dinner in a fancy place with big stars standing up, clapping with tears rolling down their faces. I absolutely caved. It left me in a puddle so many times.

"It started out as a kind of novelty dance act — rock & roll," he says. "But now — this music has become sacred to some of us."

This story is from the November 26, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

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