The 10th annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held again at the swank Waldorf-Astoria, in New York, certainly had all the elements of a satisfying show: the stretch limos, the shrieking fans, the midnight-hour jam sessions and the misbehaving (for instance, Eddie Vedder gleefully spit grapes at photographers all night).
But one of the biggest Hall of Fame bonuses is witnessing the warm feelings the ceremony inspires among people, if only for a few hours. One year the feuding members of Cream made nice. This year it was the lads (well, once they were lads) in Led Zeppelin, who marked the festivities by occupying the same stage without throwing any punches.
That, however, was not the only highlight of the evening. Honorees Al Green, Neil Young, Martha and the Vandellas, Frank Zappa, The Allman Brothers Band, Janis Joplin, the aforementioned Led Zeppelin, the early pioneers The Orioles and influential Billboard journalist Paul Ackerman gave the glittery folks in the audience – among them Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Merchant, a reunited Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson and a gaggle of industry swells – plenty to talk about. For example, why did the Allman Brothers request Jimmy Carter to induct them? (He declined.) What was Jeff Buckley crying about? And why was Bruce Springsteen wearing leather pants?
The extravaganza, taped for broadcast for the first time by MTV, was kicked off by announcements that the Cleveland Hall of Fame will finally open its doors this – yes, this – September. Rolling Stone Publisher (and Hall vice chairman) Jann S. Wenner announced that the building’s main exhibition hall will be named after Atlantic Records CEO Ahmet Ertegun, who was genuinely surprised. “I had some words prepared,” said Ertegun, “but they’re meaningless because I hadn’t expected this.”
Then – somebody say yeah! – it was time for some music. The houselights dimmed, and the heavenly voice of the Rev. Al Green came from the wings. Up went the lights, and Green, clutching a hankie to mop the sweat from his brow, laid into “Take Me to the River,” deservedly receiving the first standing ovation of the night. Natalie Cole ushered in Green, saying, “He’s just baaad from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.” Green modestly said, “I never knew it would lead to all this. I just decided to write some songs about my little life. I don’t know about all this greatness. I just wanted to keep on keeping on.” (Later, Zappa presenter Lou Reed shook Green’s hand and then enthusiastically declared, “I’m never going to wash this hand.”)
After Ertegun inducted the late Paul Ackerman – an early proponent of rock & roll – Deborah Chessler, who discovered the Orioles in Baltimore and became their manager, was brought out to present the award to singer and bassist Johnny Reed, the only surviving original member of the group. A frail but distinguished Reed said, “Thank you very much for – what do you call him? – Oscar?”
After the laughter died down, Janis Joplin presenter Melissa Etheridge strolled onstage and powered into a spirited rendition of “Piece of My Heart,” complete with Joplinesque purrs, growls and high-pitched yelps, even quoting Joplin’s classic onstage line: “You might as well do it right now, baby, because there’s no such thing as tomorrow. It’s just the same fucking day.” After Etheridge gave a stirring induction speech, she presented the “Oscar” to Joplin’s brother and sister, Michael and Laura. Backstage, Etheridge speculated on what Joplin might have been doing today: “She probably would have cleaned up, done Unplugged, maybe a beer commercial. She would have been very cool.”
Cool indeed was the speech given by Lou Reed to induct Frank Zappa. Reed, speaking in a measured, respectful tone, trashed the long-circulating myths about how the Velvet Underground were sworn enemies of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention back in the ’60s. Representing Zappa was his daughter Moon, who gave a halting but emotional speech, often holding back tears. As she composed herself backstage, a weeping man swooped down on her. “Call security,” someone whispered before it was determined that it was Jeff Buckley, overcome by her speech. Later, Moon said of her father: “He was the truest person I’ve ever known. And he completely walked his talk. Very authentic. I’ll tell you, it makes dating very difficult.”
The night’s most colorful induction was for a sequined Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, brought on by B-52’s Kate Pierson and purple-suited Fred Schneider, who proudly displayed his original vinyl single of Reeves’ 1964 hit “Dancing in the Street.” As for the honorees, they barely made it to the ceremony after spending a harrowing day in airports when bad weather disrupted their travel from Detroit to New York. “I didn’t think we were going to make it,” said Reeves later. “Most of our luggage was lost, too,” including all the Vandellas’ fancy dresses. (Fortunately, Reeves, a veteran of the road, had a spare set of sparkly frocks in her remaining luggage for just this sort of emergency. “All of the Vandellas, in fact, are wearing my dresses,” she revealed.)
But let’s get back to the stage. Next up were the Allman Brothers, opening their segment with the locomotive strains of “One Way Out,” which clocked in at more than six minutes and featured all your favorite late-at-the-Fillmore East flourishes: drum crescendos, sweeping organ licks. After presenter Willie Nelson gave a pocket history of the band’s career, Dickey Betts remarked that “it was a pleasure to be on CNN today. The last time I was in New York on CNN, I was being indicted.”
Gregg Allman, who was, shall we say, very tired and sentimental, mumbled a few words of thanks before shuffling offstage. The night’s youngest presenter, Eddie Vedder, warmed up with “Some smartass put our table next to the Ticketmaster people. I predict a food fight. I’d recommend that the classy people like Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson get out of the way.” Vedder’s rambling but quite potent speech to induct Neil Young praised Young’s “dignity, commitment and playing for the moment.” “When I hear the speeches inducting Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa,” Vedder said of Young, “I’m just glad he’s still here.” Vedder signed off by calling Young “a great songwriter, a great performer, a great Canadian.” Young answered by thanking his mama and his band Crazy Horse: “Stand up. I never would have made it without you guys. Everybody knows that.”
For the final induction, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry bounced onstage to induct Led Zeppelin. Tyler began with a rock & roll yowl, prompting a stage side Robert Plant to whisper, “You wish.” Tyler talked about his old band Chain Reaction, which once opened for the Yardbirds, and how Jimmy Page returned the favor by stealing Tyler’s girlfriend at the time. But, Tyler hastened to add, “Jimmy was such a motherfucker onstage, I couldn’t hold it against him.”
Plant, Page, John Paul Jones and the late John Bonham’s kids, Zoe and drummer Jason, ambled out in a pack. “It was a wonderful time,” said Plant, adding slyly, “And I don’t remember a single television set going out the window.”
There was expectant silence as spurned, bitter bassist John Paul Jones stepped up to the mic; he didn’t disappoint, winning the evening’s award for Best Bon Mot in an Ongoing Family Feud. Jones noted obliquely that he had not been asked to join Page and Plant’s current Unledded reunion project, but at least they invited him to come to the Hall of Fame ceremony. “Thank you, my friends, for finally remembering my phone number,” he said, and the audience exploded.
Buzzing about that remark kept folks entertained until the night’s pinnacle: the jam sessions. Despite set changes (remember, it’s televised!) that upset the momentum of the performances, they were a stellar series of get-togethers. Nelson and Al Green teamed up for a steamy reading of Nelson’s classic ballad “Funny How Time Slips Away” and sounded like a pair of soul brothers.
Young brought on Crazy Horse for a 10-minute garage-metal pounding of a new song, “Act of Love,” before joining Vedder and Pearl Jam mates Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament for a ferocious run-through of “Fuckin’ Up,” virtually guaranteeing that MTV would have a world of trouble showing a bleepless version of one of the night’s genuine highlights (and one that featured some folks under 40). The Zeppelin portion of the show commenced with Plant, Page, Jones, Jason Bonham, Tyler and Perry revving up the Yardbirds staple “Train Kept A-Rolling,” then tearing through a 15-minute runaway-locomotive medley featuring “For Your Love,” “Bring It On Home,” “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call.” Out came Neil Young to join the surviving Zeps for the old Memphis Minnie song “When the Levee Breaks,” a barnstormer which was followed by a bluesy make-over of the Buffalo Springfield number “For What It’s Worth.”
Bringing the evening to a close were Martha and the assorted Vandellas, who rolled out a Motown-goes-to-church rave-up of “Dancing in the Street,” backed by Paul Shaffer’s band. Then, all too soon, on came the lights as a few hundred satisfied folks headed for the doors, including one Mr. Al Green. “I’m so happy,” he sighed, shrugging on his fur coat and flashing a grin as bright as his gold-sequined jacket. “I never, ever thought this would happen to me.”