“The incredible thing is that the people who created this music — the inventors of an entire half-century-old movement — are still around, alive and performing,” Bruce Springsteen says, sitting backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in a tiny dressing room just big enough for two chairs, a small round table and a clothes rack of identical gray shirts and grainy-black jeans. “People forget,” he declares with a preacher’s fervor, “that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right now, is a living history.”
It is late in the afternoon on October 29th, and Springsteen is explaining why it is an honor, a thrill and his obligation to be here. Tonight, he and the E Street Band will close the first of the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concerts, following sets by Crosby, Stills and Nash, Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, and Stevie Wonder, finally sending the ecstatic Garden audience home at 1:30 a.m. with Jackie Wilson‘s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Springsteen will be back on October 30th too, joining second-night headliners U2 for a pair of explosive cameos.
But right now, Springsteen is recovering from a soundcheck that was a show in itself. For two hours, he traded outraged verses on Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s “Fortunate Son” with the composer, John Fogerty, and showed off his rarely heard inner Sinatra as he and Billy Joel duetted on Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Springsteen also testified with Sam Moore of the Stax soul duo Sam and Dave, charged through the Clash‘s “London Calling” with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and conducted the E Street Band like a Phil Spector session orchestra for Darlene Love, the powerhouse voice on many of Spector’s great Sixties productions. As she and Springsteen walked offstage, Love told him, “I haven’t sung in front of a Wall of Sound for a long time.”
It was an all-hits essential-history dance party; Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, describes the previous day’s rehearsal at SIR studios as “40 years of music in four hours.” It is also a model of the peaks and crossroads that mark the best collaborations at both concerts: the sighing harmonies of Bonnie Raitt with CSN; Jeff Beck‘s Chicago-blues cutting contest with Buddy Guy; Metallica‘s heavy history lessons with Lou Reed and Ray Davies; Mick Jagger‘s raging, howling harmonies with Bono on the U2 ballad “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”; Springsteen’s own U2 moment, sharing choruses and resolve with Bono on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
“Really, these performers are jewels,” Springsteen says, speaking in a low growl to preserve his voice for showtime. “And it’s fun for our band, because we get to hear them the way I want to hear them. If I went to see Sam, I would want to see him with a band like mine.” In fact, that night, after he and Moore roar through “Soul Man,” Springsteen tells the crowd that much of what he knows about bandleading he learned at Sam and Dave club gigs in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
“Everything passes,” Springsteen goes on. “I regret that when I was young, having had the opportunity, I didn’t see Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters live, at a time when they were close to their prime. So to have these voices here, in the shape that they’re in…”
He shakes his head in awe. “In a perfect world, they would be in this kind of setting on a nightly basis. The world isn’t set up like that. But tonight, there’s an opportunity. And,” he adds with a big grin, “we get to be the house band.”
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.
On October 28th, the day before the first Hall of Fame show, John Fogerty arrives at SIR, the rehearsal-studio facility on West 25th Street in Manhattan, to work on his guest spot with Springsteen and the E Street Band. As he walks up to Studio 1, he hears “Soul Man” coming through the door at full blast. “It was Sam and Bruce singing with that wonderful band,” Fogerty recalls. “It sounded so freaking great.” Springsteen, in turn, gets a huge kick out of playing the Creedence hits “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary” with the guy who wrote them. “I covered John’s stuff,” Springsteen says, “in clubs when I was 18.”
Heavenly moments like these happen repeatedly at SIR every afternoon and evening for the four days leading up to the Hall of Fame Concerts, as singers and players move in and out of practice rooms and old friends bump into each other in the narrow corridors and at the makeshift coffee-and-snacks table at the front door. Dion, who turned up early in the week for his rehearsal with Paul Simon, is working on his 1961 hit “The Wanderer” with Simon’s band when he spots Springsteen in the room. “I noticed he was singing,” Dion says, “and I went, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Well, there’s a part on the record. . . . ‘ That’s how close to the arrangements he is. He was singing and using his hands, doing a part from the record that we weren’t playing.”
On the afternoon of the 28th, Springsteen’s caravan of soul and CSN’s Seventies-troubadour revue — featuring Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Jackson Browne — are simultaneously hammering out set lists as Jeff Beck’s crew sets up his gear in a third room, and Stevie Wonder’s big band and guests, which include Beck, are ironing out kinks at another rehearsal space uptown. By the time Beck is done with Wonder and makes it down to SIR to plug in with his own band, it is after 9 p.m. They play until nearly midnight.
Springsteen’s attention to detail — particularly the historical arc of his set and his own emotional connections to the songs he shared with the other singers — was in evidence before rehearsals started. E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt says Springsteen’s plan was simple: “Let’s just play with people we know.” Van Zandt had produced Darlene Love in the studio; Sam Moore was a frequent guest on Springsteen’s Christmas benefit shows in New Jersey. And Tom Morello had been on Springsteen’s radar since Rage Against the Machine cut a furious electric arrangement of Springsteen’s hushed, acoustic modern-Dust Bowl ballad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” for their 2000 covers album, Renegades. Last year, Morello did the song live with Springsteen and the E Street Band at a show in Anaheim, California — making it a natural for Morello’s spot in the Hall of Fame set.
David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash were practically in residence at SIR during rehearsal week. Crosby and Nash spent the first of CSN’s three days at SIR just working on harmony lines for Browne’s “The Pretender” and singing with Taylor on his 1975 single “Mexico” — Crosby and Nash’s choice. “We sang on it originally,” Crosby says. “It was a hit. And it’s a feel-good song. It makes people feel like having a tequila and kicking back.” He adds, “James has written some of the best shit of our lives. He plays and sings like God on a good day.”
Crosby describes the day, in the late Sixties, when he first met Browne, then 19, in a Southern California living room. Crosby was one of the biggest stars of the L.A. folk-rock scene; Browne hadn’t made an album yet: “He sang ‘Song for Adam’ and ‘Jamaica Say You Will,'” Crosby remembers, “and I said, ‘Oh, shit, here comes the next generation.'”
Crosby and Nash sang on Browne’s 1976 recording of “The Pretender.” But Stills and Browne had to spend two days at Stills’ home in L.A., prior to rehearsals, working on guitar parts. “Jackson is very exacting,” Stills admits. “He put us through our paces.” “‘The Pretender’ is unusual,” Browne says. “It’s not very rock & roll. But Stephen — the more he plays something, the more it becomes second nature. It frees him to play what he wants to play.” Indeed, by showtime, Stills plays lead guitar with a heat and cutting melodicism often forgotten in the emphasis on CSN’s eternal-boys-choir harmonies. His fuzzed whammy-bar flourishes and blasts of single-note staccato in “Almost Cut My Hair” have as much fervor as Crosby’s firebrand vocal, while Raitt, playing slide on a National steel guitar, slips and skids lovingly around Stills’ stabbing melancholy on acoustic guitar in CSN’s cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider.”
During CSN’s set, Bonnie Raitt notes that they were all together exactly 30 years earlier, along with Springsteen and the E Street Band, for the five No Nukes concerts organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy, the still-going nonprofit collective co-founded by Raitt, Browne and Nash. “No Nukes was a very passionate thing,” Crosby says during a rehearsal break. “You’re talking life and death — the human race.” The Hall of Fame Concerts, he adds, “is a celebration. This is more about haying fun.”
Jeff Beck was supposed to have it easy at the Hall of Fame Concerts, throwing some licks around with Stevie Wonder on the first night, then joining Eric Clapton as a special guest on the second, reprising the jamming finale of their co-headlining shows in Tokyo last February. But on October 22nd, Clapton announced that he would be forced to cancel his Hall of Fame Concert appearance. By then, Beck, who was quickly asked to step in as a featured performer, and his manager, Harvey Goldsmith, were scrambling to pull Beck’s band together — the group was between tours — and book special guests. Beck’s drummer Vinnie Colaiuta wasn’t able to get from L.A. to New York until show day, missing two SIR rehearsals. “He got the red-eye — got there at 8:00 that morning and was ready to go,” Beck says gratefully, a few days after the concert. “He went the whole mile for me.”
Actually, for a guy pulling his own show together at the last minute, Beck runs through his set list at SIR like he’s ripe to go on. He even looks stage-ready: tight black jeans, sleeveless T-shirt and a black-and-white-striped scarf draped around his neck; his legs bent in classic guitar-hero posture, his right hand pressing the whammy bar of his white Stratocaster with violent precision. He solos on “Big Block” and “Freeway Jam” with savage, slashing phrases and barking-dog harmonics, tapping strings up on the neck with his forefinger. This isn’t just practice — it is genuine performance.
Before winding up for the night, he wails through an instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Purple Haze.” Tomorrow night he’ll be joined by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, a last-minute booking, flying in from a European tour to help Beck with a Hendrix tribute. By the time they get to the Garden, though, Beck and Gibbons end up swapping solos on another Hendrix song, “Foxey Lady.” “I was so tired,” Beck says, “that by that point, I couldn’t tell one from the other.”
THE CONCERT: NIGHT ONE
At 74, Jerry Lee Lewis is still trouble — the kind that has made this whole party possible. Shortly after 7:30 on October 29th, after a whiplash film montage of excerpts from the first 24 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies — moving thank-yous, immortal one-liners and tantalizing bites from live performances — and a hearty welcome from Tom Hanks, one of the concerts’ executive producers, the stage lights fall on a pure primal riot: Lewis alone at a grand piano, singing his 1957 Sun Records smash “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and still making good on that warning, hammering the ivories with a solitary vengeance.
Crosby, Stills and Nash respond by formally opening the show with “Woodstock,” as if to show Lewis he has no monopoly on seismic cultural revolt. The trio temporarily retired the song on their latest tour — “We had to play it a few times to make sure we remembered it,” Crosby cracked at rehearsal. But he and Nash hold the long high notes in the “stardust and golden” chorus with gleaming, unhurried poise.
Each of the eight shows within the two big concerts is designed to highlight a seminal era and genre (“They used the word ‘pods’ in the proposal,” says Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich), starting with the introductory films that kicked off each segment — whirling capsule histories with classic images and interview excerpts, dedicated to each featured artist’s roots and branches. CSN’s tale is an honest seesaw from the Utopian determination of the late Sixties (the 1969-70 trinity of “Woodstock,” “Marrakesh Express” and “Almost Cut My Hair”) into the wounded idealism and retreat to introspection of Raitt’s and Browne’s songs. The finale is “Teach Your Children,” a song about hard lessons and responsibility, sung by the whole troupe with undaunted optimism. “Once that joyous, warm power hits you,” Crosby says that day after sound-check, “bad thoughts? You don’t think about ’em.”
Morello is in the house for much of the first night, taking in the music before he has to play with Springsteen. Asked later about high points of the first night, he immediately replies, “Simon and Garfunkel — breathtaking. The haunting beauty of what they did was jaw-dropping. When they came out with ‘The Sounds of Silence,’ the room just stopped dead.”
Art Garfunkel remembers that entrance — after Paul Simon’s set with his band, Dion’s cameo and an authentic shot of Brooklyn street-corner a cappella by 2009 inductees Little Anthony and the Imperials — a little differently. “I heard a balance of vocals that wasn’t quite right,” he says after the show. “‘The Sounds of Silence’ has my voice in the lead, and it sounded much softer than Paul’s lower harmony. I had to sing raucously loud to balance it. I thought, ‘We just have to do it bold and big. That’s a lesser choice, but it’s all I’m left with.’ Then came the second song” — “Mrs. Robinson” with a chunk of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” in the middle — “and everything started falling into place.”
Garfunkel says his five songs with Simon, which included “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” felt good and natural. They had toured the Far East last summer, “so we’re in gear. We’re comfortable with these tunes. Could have done the first verse better,” he admits of “Bridge,” ever the perfectionist. “Naturally, there’s another thing called ‘How do they like it in the audience?’ It went down great. I gave ‘Bridge’ a big finish. But only I know how good that can be — that’s all.”
Unfortunately, Stevie Wonder commences his trip through the Sixties and Seventies American revolutions in black pop with the real sound of silence. His mixing console fries before Wonder and his massive band — including brass, four backup singers, two additional keyboard players — hit a note, leaving him with a dead mike in his hand. There are several false starts before Wonder gets power to one mike and his electric piano, enough for him to upend his set list (“We’ll start it a little differently, until we get it together”) and begin with a rough, poignant take on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Wonder’s 1966 soul-church cover was a Top 10 hit, but this is a true congregation moment: He calls on the audience for the chorus, to help him raise the rafters. “That was an act of genius,” says Fogerty, who was part of that Garden chorale. “I told my wife, ‘That’s not what he’s supposed to be doing. He took it out of the air.'”
At one point, during a jubilant cover of Michael Jackson‘s 1987 Number One single “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Wonder clenches his fists to his face in despair, as if he’s about to cry. But he fights off the tears and comes back to the Jackson song in defiantly youthful voice, adding shout-outs to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. “I didn’t know I was going to play that,” says singer John Legend, who is at Wonder’s grand piano for that number. Legend came straight from Yankee Stadium — where he sang the national anthem for the second game of the World Series — to carry the Marvin Gaye tribute in Wonder’s set. But after Legend does “Mercy Mercy Me,” Wonder asks him to sit beside him and play on the Jackson song. “That was impromptu,” Legend says, “but I’m used to it. Whenever he brings me out at a show, I end up staying longer than expected.”
Despite the stress and distress, by the end rush of thumping funk — “Higher Ground” with Sting on bass and a detour into the Police’s “Roxanne” and “Superstition,” with Beck reprising his session-guitar role on the 1972 Talking Book recording — Wonder is in exuberant control. As Smokey Robinson, another of his guest vocalists, puts it after the show, “I can tell you that Stevie is blind, but he has never been handicapped.”
When Springsteen finally gets onstage, it is nearly midnight. He only drops two numbers from his running order — “No Surrender” and “Hungry Heart” — and after bringing the audience to its feet with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Springsteen gets right to the rock & roll high school: his duets with Moore and Love. “These are not household names,” Van Zandt says earlier. “And it’s a shame. As far as I’m concerned, Darlene Love should be as well known to fifth-graders as George Washington.”
Backed by an enhanced E Street Band — with a horn section and the extra backup vocalists from their current tour — Springsteen and Moore duet on “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” with Bruce growling the late Dave Prater’s parts.
Then Springsteen introduces Love and mentions that she’s a Hall of Fame nominee, adding, “So get those votes in.” Love sings a magnificent “Da Doo Ron Ron,” finding something deeper in its vintage teenage glee. Then Fogerty drags the E Street Band into the bayou for “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary,” and sings close harmonies on a passionate “Oh, Pretty Woman” with Springsteen — in tribute to their mutual hero Roy Orbison, the two men each finding unexpected purity in their rough voices.
Morello and Springsteen, meanwhile, catch the audience off-guard with a fierce hard-rock version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” with Morello’s guitar solo turning into an epic, unearthly squall. “If we had cut that tune for Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen says of the 1978 LP, “that’s the version we would have done.” Morello, Springsteen and the band later launch into the Clash‘s “London Calling” and Springsteen’s own “Badlands,” from Darkness — partly because of their similar march tempos, but also because, Springsteen says, “in 1977 and ’78, I went out to all the little record stores and bought all of the new English punk records that came in. All of the early Clash singles found their way into the subtext of Darkness.”
Springsteen brings on his final guest, Billy Joel, by claiming that Long Island and New Jersey were once “joined in one continuous land mass — that explains the similarities amongst the populace.” During rehearsals, they agreed on two upt-empo songs, “Only the Good Die Young” and “You May Be Right.” When Springsteen suggested “New York State of Mind,” from Joel’s 1976 album Turnstiles, Joel was skeptical, but Springsteen was insistent: “I said, ‘No, it’s going to drag things down,'” Joel recalls. “He said, ‘No, you gotta do that. It’s the World Series, it’s the Yankees, it’s New York.'”
The evening concludes with a blast of gospel joy: Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” with all of Springsteen’s guests back — plus Jackson Browne and Peter Wolf, who clambered onstage from the audience at Van Zandt’s urging. “All the way home,” says Fogerty, “that song was in my head.”
THE CONCERT: NIGHT TWO
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.”