Midway through Howard Stern’s uproarious speech inducting Bon Jovi into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the King of All Media took a brief break from cracking jokes about Richie Sambora’s penis and Tico Torres’ farts to make a serious point about the evening. “If I can be emotional for a second, yes, rock & roll musicians, what they do are really important,” he said. “I love most of the bands being inducted tonight. Bands like the Moody Blues, the Cars, Dire Straits. These guys comforted me through many lonely days in high school.”
Within 30 seconds he was back to making fun of Jon Bon Jovi's failed attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills, but it showed that even the guy that spent the past month bitching to his nationwide radio audience almost daily about having to schlep to Cleveland for the ceremony – the guy that loves nothing more than to ridicule every aspect of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment once he finally got there.
The feeling was infectious throughout the four-and-a-half-hour evening as the parade of inductees, performers and special guests took the stage at Cleveland’s Public Hall, though many of them expressed it with a single word: “Finally.” For even though this year’s class was open to acts that began making music in 1992, Bon Jovi (who kicked off their career about a decade earlier) were the freshest faces in the place. Everyone else had been waiting for this evening for a long, long time, though they were in luck since the Hall of Fame in recent years seems to be more focused on taking in neglected acts of the 1960s and 1970s than heroes from more recent times.
“I’ve been writing this speech since I first strummed the broom and sang at the top of the stairs of my childhood home,” said Jon Bon Jovi, who has made no secret of his irritation that his group waited a decade to get in. “I’ve actually written it many ways, many times. Some days I write the 'thank you' speech, other days, I write the 'fuck you' speech.”
There were no “fuck you” speeches at the ceremony, though there were some very, very long speeches that sent the night veering wildly off-schedule. It began with unannounced performers the Killers honoring the late Tom Petty with a euphoric rendition of “American Girl.” It was a nice contrast to the rather downbeat Petty tributes at the Academy Awards and the Grammys. Shortly before that, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Greg Harris delivered a quick welcome speech. The thunderous applause that erupted through the hall when he merely said “Bon Jovi” showed that the only act on the bill still filling football stadiums had, without a close second, the most die-hard fans in the place.
They usually save the most popular group of the evening for the grand finale (as was the case with Pearl Jam last year), but as soon as the Killers were done, Howard Stern walked out to induct Bon Jovi. It was certainly the first Hall of Fame speech in history to reference “Harry Chapin’s jizz” (it’s what he imagined Jon cleaning up during his days as a janitor at the Power Station) and it concluded with Jon Bon Jovi walking onto a stage with estranged guitarist Richie Sambora for the first time since their sudden split in 2013. Any tension that might remain from that break wasn’t evident as they stood together, grinned and sucked in the moment.
Up first to speak was original bassist Alec John Such, who left the band in 1994 and hasn’t been seen anywhere since a one-off guest spot at a 2001 Bon Jovi show. “We had so many great times together, and we just wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those,” he said. “Love 'em to death, always will.” He graciously passed the mic onto his replacement Hugh McDonald and then Richie Sambora, who didn’t have any prepared text in the teleprompter and spoke straight from the heart.
“The hardest thing to do, I believe, is to find four guys with yourself that will go through anything, that will work hard, that'll go crazy, whatever it took,” he said. “And we did that for a really long time. But boy, was it fun. If I wrote a book, it would be the best time I ever had.”
Drummer Tico Torres and keyboardist David Bryan's words were also short and sweet, but Bon Jovi himself had a different plan. Not a fan of brevity, he became a one-man Wikipedia and walked the crowd through the entire history of the band from their first meeting up until their most recent record. It took over 18 minutes, testing the patience of even his most dedicated fans that couldn’t wait another second to finally see him play with Sambora.
All was forgiven when he finally wrapped it up, walked with the band to the center of the stage and launched into “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Current guitarist Phil X and touring percussionist Everett Bradley joined the inducted members, creating a one-time-only super lineup of Bon Jovi past and present. The group also performed “It’s My Life” and their 2016 song “When We Were Us,” one of the few times in Hall of Fame history that a group has played a new song. It might have been a little awkward for Sambora since it’s from the only album they’ve cut since he left, but he gamely strapped on a double neck guitar and seemed to be having a blast. They ended with an inevitable “Livin’ on a Prayer” singalong, with Such putting down a guitar and taking over bass from Hugh McDonald. Whatever the future holds for the band, this was almost certainly the last time this particular group of musicians will all play together.
It was a tough act to follow, but nobody really had to since Dire Straits were up next and Mark Knopfler’s refusal to come (or address the honor in any significant public way) meant they simply got a video montage and no presenting speech. Founding bassist John Illsley did his best to address the situation. “I know there’s been a lot of speculation about why Mark’s not here,” he said. “But I assure you it’s just a personal thing. He’s got his reasons. Let’s just leave it at that.”
Taking the evening in a different direction, Brittany Howard then came out to welcome Sister Rosetta Tharpe into the Hall of Fame as an Early Influence. Instead of a traditional address, the Alabama Shakes singer narrated a video about Tharpe’s tremendous importance to rock history, featuring vintage testimonials by the likes of Johnny Cash and Robbie Robertson, before strapping on a guitar to play Tharpe's 1938 classic “That’s All.” A supergroup of late night television musical directors – Questlove on drums and Paul Shaffer on piano – backed her. Shaffer’s longtime guitarist Felicia Collins stepped up to the mic to wrap up the set with “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day.” Collins has been a quiet mainstay of Hall of Fame performances for decades, so it was wonderful to finally see her take the spotlight.
Brandon Flowers of the Killers was waiting by the podium when they were done to induct the Cars. He spoke passionately about how hearing the Cars as a teenager completely transformed his life. “The Cars were the first band I fell in love with,” he said. “And you never forget your first…They achieved greatness and left a comet trail behind them, writing and recording songs that have transcended into classics.”
The Cars may have been a Boston band, but the core of the group actually came together in Cleveland in the late 1960s when local star Benjamin Orr met Ric Ocasek. They bonded over their shared love of music and began playing together. Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000 and his bandmates spoke about him with incredible affection. “His incredible voice, solid bass playing, and good humor was such a huge part of the band's success,” said guitarist Elliott Easton. "Cleveland was Ben's hometown, and I know whenever he is, he's so proud of this special occasion and even more so that we're here of all places.”
Outside of an extremely brief reunion tour in 2011, the Cars haven’t really played together since they split in 1987. On the 2011 dates, they played as a foursome and replicated Orr’s parts on keyboard and guitar. This time around, Weezer’s Scott Shriner sat in with them on bass. This is not a band known for their live performances, and even with Shriner’s help, they sounded a bit creaky on opening songs “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “You Might Think.” But then they kicked into “Moving In Stereo” and it was absolutely magical. They ended with “Just What I Needed” and by that point, many fans were dancing on their chairs. As they took their final bows it was hard to shake the feeling that it was the last time they’d ever perform together. If that’s the case, they went out on a high note.
The mood in the house went more dour when the triumphant Cars reunion gave way to the death montage, and this has been a particularly devastating year due to the loss of Malcolm Young, Tom Petty, Glen Campbell, Gregg Allman, Fats Domino, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, among many others. Every one of those people could have justified a tribute performance, but they decided to go with Cornell and a stripped-down “Black Hole Sun” featuring Heart’s Ann Wilson with Jerry Cantrell from Alice In Chains on guitar.
Nobody quite knew what Steve Van Zandt was doing when he took the stage afterwards, but it turned out he was making a surprise announcement that the Hall of Fame would begin to induct single songs from rock history. “We all know the history of rock and roll can be changed with just one song, one record,” he said. “This year, we are introducing a new category to the Rock Hall. We’re calling it The Rock and Roll Singles. It’s a recognition of the singles that shaped rock and roll, a kind of Rock Hall jukebox by artists that aren’t in the Rock Hall, which is not to say these artists won’t ever be in the Rock Hall. They just aren’t at this moment."
The new category was effective immediately and Van Zandt read off a list of the first six singles: “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner’s King’s of Rhythm, “Rumble” by Link Wray, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procul Harum and “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. It will be interesting to see how this new category develops over the years, though safe money is on “Hang on Sloopy” and “Gloria” getting the nod at some point.
Up next was Mary J. Blige to induct Nina Simone. She warned the crowd that she was about to deliver a long speech, but actually wound up delivering one that was as concise as it was moving. “Nina was bold, strong, feisty and fearless, and so vulnerable and transparent all at the same time,” she said. “Her voice was so distinctive and warm and powerful; I never heard anything like it. She knew who she was and she was confident in what she did and why she did it. But it was often the lack of confidence in herself that people could relate to. Nina sang for all her pain, her joy, her confusion, her happiness, her sickness, her fight. She fought through all the stereotypes. She fought for her identity. She fought for her life.”
Simone’s brother Nyack Sam Waymon accepted on her behalf. He delivered a disjointed, impromptu speech about his sister - along with his own accomplishments in music and the civil rights struggle - that stretched out for over 12 minutes. It seemed like he was ready to go much longer, but Blige ultimately found a nice moment to take him by the arm and escort him backstage. It allowed the Roots and guest singer Andra Day to begin Simone’s musical tribute with powerful takes on “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and “I Put A Spell on You,” the latter punctuated by a killer guitar solo by Captain Kirk.
Lauryn Hill then took over the stage for “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” "Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and the climactic “Feeling Good.” Judging by how often Hill was tapping her in-ears, it was apparent she was having problems with her monitors. Despite that issue, Hill sang beautifully and it was great to see her back on the big stage and absolutely crushing it. Maybe at some point in the future, she’ll be back up there accepting a Hall of Fame statue with the rest of the Fugees.
The evening wrapped up with the Moody Blues. “In 1967, The Moody Blues made a record that changed the face of popular music and influenced an entire generation of progressive musicians, including Yes, Genesis, ELO and many, many others,” said presenter Ann Wilson. “For the first time, mellotron was introduced to the rock and roll mainstream and rock married classic orchestra. There was no progressive showboating or self-indulgent, mathematical noodling; just great, classy music that expanded your mind, sang to your heart, took you inward and lifted you higher.”
Perhaps realizing the show was ridiculously past schedule, the band delivered very short induction speeches. (Added together, they spoke for about half the time that Nina Simone’s brother did on his own.) “This is the home of my heroes,” said singer Justin Hayward. “And to be celebrated, even in the same street, in the same building, in the same town even as Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers and the woman who showed us all how it should be done, that's Nina Simone.”
Their set began with their 1972 hit “I'm Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band).” It’s not a song you often hear these days, but it was appropriate for the occasion. More familiar to the crowd was their 1986 comeback hit “Your Wildest Dreams,” which introduced them to a whole new generation when it came out. It seemed like a soaring “Nights In White Satin” was going to close out the evening, but then came 1968's “Ride My See-Saw,” their longtime encore.
The only real bummer of the night was Knopfler’s no-show, as the Hall of Fame is the one place with the power to bring feuding factions of bands together and reunite the un-reunitable. But in the end, nobody walked out of there looking remotely unhappy. Even Stern was probably happy he went against his “never go anywhere” instincts and traveled to Cleveland.
As the Moody Blues walked offstage to end the show, a group of beaming fans unrolled an enormous handmade banner down from the rafters with one word that could have doubled as the theme for many of tonight's inductees: “Finally.”