wenty-five years ago, when Ahmet Ertegun and I first began talking about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we could only dream that it would lead to what went down in Madison Square Garden on October 29th and 30th. It’s only been a few days since the shows happened, but they already feel like a part of history — not the history of textbooks and monuments, but the living, breathing kind of history that lights you up with a sense of possibility and shared purpose.
It was in part the once-in-a-lifetime gathering of artists — Bruce Springsteen, U2, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, B.B. King, Sting, Billy Joel, Metallica, to name a few. It was also something much bigger: all these performers giving their time, their energy and their love to pay tribute to this world-changing art form that has brought us all so much inspiration, so much comfort and so much joy.
For me, it was a total thrill and a great piece of luck to be working behind the scenes to assemble and produce these shows. I knew I had the opportunity — and honor — to put together what I thought could be one of the greatest rock & roll shows of all time. It began 18 months ago, when Bruce Springsteen and U2 each agreed to headline one of two planned concerts to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hall of Fame.
I didn’t want a greatest-hits-style revue. To me, rock & roll has always been about soul and community; these shows had to tell a story, and they had to come from a place in the heart that we had seen at our annual induction dinners.
I was joined in the enterprise by Robbie Robertson. Robbie’s exquisite taste and deep knowledge of rock & roll history informed every performance at the Garden.
Another old conspirator was Cameron Crowe, the director of movies like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. With Cameron, we created a series of short films that introduced the acts. Another key member of the team was Joel Gallen, who has worked on the induction dinners for many years and who is producing and directing HBO’s November 29th broadcast of the shows. Shout-outs also go to Joel Peresman, Rob Light, Dan Parise, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Ellin Delsener and Debbie Fife. Thanks, everyone.
The history of Rolling Stone, the Hall of Fame and the artists who appeared at the shows are intimately bound up in each other. Since the Hall of Fame Foundation itself is based in our offices, what’s normally a biweekly magazine turned into a satellite concert-promotions operation, which gave us special access to the shows. Reporters David Fricke and Brian Hiatt documented the rehearsals and soundchecks. Photographer Mark Seliger slipped behind the scenes for his intimate portfolio.
Everyone had their own favorite parts of the shows. It’s a matter of taste as to what you liked most. Tom Morello’s solo on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was an out-of-body experience; Art Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” brought me to tears; “Higher and Higher” was ecstasy. Mick Jagger singing “Gimme Shelter” proved he’s still the greatest rock star in the world. Hands down.
After the shows, I had days of exhilarated phone calls and e-mails; one from a dear friend, Patti Scialfa (who came both nights, performing at the first show with her husband, Bruce Springsteen), read as follows: “The sense of community and the common thread that connects us all was alive and vibrating. A world of limitless possibilities dancing before us to the heartbeat of rhythm and blues and rock and soul. We collectively shook the dust off the dream!!!”
In 1967, I wrote in the very first issue of Rolling Stone that I believed in “the magic that can set you free.” I still do.
Jann S. Wenner
Editor and Publisher
November 5, 2009
P.S. To check out some of the legendary induction-ceremony performances, I urge you to pick up Time Life’s nine-DVD set, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Live.
This story is from the November 26, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.