At one point during his speech at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt referenced the fact that being inducted meant he was joining his heroes who had already been made immortal.
But for all its power, rock music is still made by human beings, and this year’s crop of inductees—E Street, Nirvana, Kiss, Hall and Oates, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Brian Epstein, and Andrew Loog-Oldham—and the presentations honoring their contributions to the pop world were defined by the various absences spread across the five hour show (which will be edited and presented on HBO on May 31).
The evening got off to a curious start. After Hall of Fame co-founder and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner welcomed everybody to the show (and was booed lustily, presumably by Kiss fans), the first inductions went to a pair of legendary managers: Brian Epstein, who took the Beatles from a club band to a worldwide sensation, and Andrew Loog-Oldham, who helped craft the Rolling Stones into rock and roll’s greatest anti-heroes. Producer Peter Asher drove home their importance and crafted a nice little narrative of the two of them as a piece, with the image-conscious Epstein working the long game (he struck the deals with The Ed Sullivan Show), and Loog-Oldham actively positioning his group in contrast to the Beatles (according to Asher, Paul McCartney was always upset that the Beatles had to wear suits on stage, per Epstein, and the Rolling Stones got to wear whatever they wanted).
Asher’s speech was lovely but in the end a little anticlimatic, as Epstein passed away over 40 years ago and the 70-year-old Loog-Oldham skipped the show in protest, telling the press, “I think those people basically hijacked the name rock and roll. I won’t be there. I’ll tell you why: It’s a television show. Twenty years ago it was an incredible party in the Waldorf-Astoria where everybody could behave exactly as they could 20 years ago. And then it became a business. I think it’s healthier to stay home.”
Even among the participants who did show up, there were a lot of shots taken at the Hall over the course of the evening: Darryl Hall demanded that more acts from Philadelphia get inducted, and Kiss’ Paul Stanley insisted that the fans have more say in who gets inducted because “The people who nominate do not buy records.”
There was none of that during Peter Gabriel’s induction, handled by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, who seems to be wearing his conscious uncoupling well. In the evening’s funniest bit, he told the crowd he would do “a reading from the Book of Genesis,” and laid out the story of “Phil the Collins” being visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him he would have to front the band because Gabriel was going solo. The part where Gabriel insisted Collins get to the “stu-stu-studio” got perhaps the biggest laugh of the night.
Gabriel himself was humble, as he always is, and encouraged young musicians to both “dream big” and “surround yourself with brilliance.” Having performed “Digging in the Dirt” earlier, he shifted gears and did a lovely duet with Martin on “Washing of the Water” before bringing out Senegalese legend Youssou N’Dour for a loopy, vaguely epic run through “In Your Eyes” that featured some top-shelf embarrassing British-guy dancing (which Martin noted has been passed on to both Thom Yorke and himself).
The tenor in the room shifted immediately with the announcement that Kiss would be the next inductees. Several weeks ago, the band announced that they would not be playing the ceremony because the Hall only wanted to induct the original four members of the band (Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, and Gene Simmons), and there was chatter over who exactly would show up to represent the band. In the end, the core four did share the stage together, though their acceptance speeches were mostly by-the-numbers and somewhat dour (Simmons seemed especially disenchanted with the whole endeavor).
Luckily, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello provided the Kiss-sized energy spark as their inductor. Morello described how difficult it was to grow up a Kiss fan, as critics and other kids were constantly telling him how much the band sucked. But that only made him love the band more, and his description of his first Kiss show, replete with pyrotechnics, costumes, lights, and blood, drove the Kiss-hungry crowd at the Barclays into a frenzy. Morello even laid out a new set of criteria for Hall of Fame bands. “It should be about impact, influence, and awesomeness,” he told the crowd, and expertly laid out the case for Kiss under all three categories (but mostly awesomeness).
In another jarring transition, the evening moved from Kiss to Cat Stevens. Art Garfunkel provided the first dud of an induction speech of the night, seemingly riffing randomly on Stevens’ sex appeal and whether or not he was better than Paul Simon. Stevens himself was fine (his opening line, “I never thought I’d be on the same stage as Kiss,” got a big laugh), and he paid tribute to his collaborators, his mother, and the fact that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was doing something awfully bold in letting in a guy who doesn’t drink, smoke, or sleep with anyone other than his wife.
Stevens’ doesn’t perform as much as he used to, and his run through “Father and Son” and “Wild World” were workmanlike. Only his set-closing “Peace Train,” which featured a gospel choir, elevated his material.
Linda Ronstadt was up next, and we were again presented with an inductee who was not in the room. The 67-year-old suffers from Parkinson’s disease and can longer sing and was not able to travel, so it was left to Glenn Frey of the Eagles (looking like a punch-drunk Huey Lewis) to present Ronstadt’s case. It’s a curious one, as Ronstadt never wrote her own material and always seemed to score hits thanks to the benevolence of her collaborators. But strangely, her absence may have driven home her case for inclusion.
Without Ronstadt to accept her award or perform, Frey turned the floor over to a handful of fellow female stars: Carrie Underwood began with “Different Drum,” and while Underwood is a fine performer, her theater-kid brassiness and buttoned-up professionalism robbed the song of the sex and grit that Ronstadt brought to it as a member of the Stone Poneys. Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris fared better on “Blue Bayou,” and Stevie Nicks did a pretty solid rendition of “It’s So Easy.” But only Sheryl Crow, who took the lead on “You’re No Good,” managed to truly tap into the dusty, rugged energy that Ronstadt brought to all those songs.
The evening was moving at a pretty solid clip, but then came the E Street Band. It’s vaguely absurd that they got inducted separately from Bruce Springsteen (who went into the Hall way back in 1999), as they’ve literally never done anything outside of the confines of Springsteen albums. As Bruce explained during his induction speech, this was more of a make-good, as Van Zandt told him back in ’99 that he should have fought for the inclusion of the entire band fifteen years ago. Springsteen’s speech was a little rambling, but he’s such a good storyteller that it was hard to get mad at him.
That was not the case for the rest of E Street, each of whom took at least several minutes to speak. Even though the E Street Band constantly got the biggest crowd pops of the night whenever they were mentioned (which made sense, since we were so close to Jersey), this segment completely lost the Barclays Center. By the time the band members got through telling stories about everybody who lived in North Jersey between 1971 and 1978, not even a jacked-up performance of “The E Street Shuffle” could bring the room back, and though the slow-burning “The River” perked everybody back up, they went and lost them again with a noodling jam through “Kitty’s Back” that turned into a nightmarish sub-Phish jam. The cheers at the end were that not of joy but of relief.
Roots drummer and The Tonight Show staple Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was out next to induct Hall and Oates, and he seemed to sense that the audience had drifted. In a brief, punchy speech, he drove home how important the most successful rock duo of all time were to kids like him from Philadelphia, and he ran through some of his favorite hits and what they meant to him. Hall and Oates themselves kept it brief (“Luckily for you, there’s only two of us,” Hall quipped), and seemed desperate to get to their performances.
Their first take of “She’s Gone” didn’t make it to the chorus, however, as feedback from Hall’s monitors forced him to cut the song off (“Did Bruce blow them out?” he joked). After a technical correction, they were back on, and they built their mini-set with grace. “She’s Gone” set the mood, then “I Can’t Go For That” built up a nice little funk base that was unfortunately derailed by a too-long sax jam. Luckily for them, “You Make My Dreams Come True” is a perfect song, and managed to end their bit on a high note.
At long last, the evening arrived at its main event. Dressed in a tuxedo (but with his bow tie loose, because he’s either a rebel or a Rat Pack member who just finished a show), Michael Stipe talked about the importance of Nirvana, which can seemingly never be understated. “It’s not just pop music,” he said. “It’s something greater than that.” He spoke of the band as a catalyst and a rallying point for all outcasts, and noted that they were so unique and powerful that the mainstream had no choice but to come to them.
Surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic represented Nirvana, as well as Kurt Cobain’s mother and sister, and in something of a surprise, Courtney Love. Grohl talked about how unlikely it was that he had made it to that stage (and for him, a second induction as frontman of Foo Fighters seems inevitable, doesn’t it?), gave credit to all the other Nirvana drummers that came before him (especially Chad Channing), and thanked his mom for letting him drop out of high school and for not discouraging him from listening to Slayer. Novoselic humbly shouted out the community that birthed Nirvana, including the bands they played with on Sub Pop Records.
Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor had the tear-jerkingest moment of the night when she took the microphone. “He would have been so proud,” she said of her late son. “He’d say he wasn’t, but he would be.” She then handed the stage over to Love, who got booed but didn’t let it affect her. She thanked everybody on stage and insisted that Grohl give her a hug, and shouted out her daughter Frances Bean who couldn’t make it. Then she left, in drama-free fashion, which is a minor miracle for Courtney.
Rumors had been swirling all week about who would fill in for Cobain when it came time for Grohl, Novoselic, and guitarist Pat Smear to perform. Novoselic told the crowd that they had recruited a handful of women to help them out, and so the crowd got a cavalcade of frontladies to help out: Joan Jett took the lead on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon fronted “Aneurysm,” Annie Clark of St. Vincent belted out “Lithium,” and in one of the biggest surprises of the evening, Lorde (who was born two years after Cobain died) took over on an acoustic rendition of “All Apologies.” While each woman brought a unique emotional energy (Gordon seemed particularly enthralled in the chaos of “Aneurysm”), they really did drive home something that Stipe had mentioned earlier: Kurt’s voice was a force of nature, so it’s difficult to hear these songs presented with anyone else’s pipes.
Nobody was outwardly terrible (well, Jett kind of was, though she also had the burden of carrying a generation-defining anthem), but nobody reinvented those songs either. (Honestly, it would have been awesome had Courtney Love taken the microphone and belted out “Serve The Servants” or “Breed” or something, though there are dozens of reasons why that would have been impossible. Still, the voice of “Violet” could have carried those songs.) And there was something genuinely nauseating about witnessing a sea of tux-clad dudes at the tables on the floor pumping their fists to “Lithium,” as though that was a thing that Kurt Cobain would have tolerated at all.
When Lorde intoned the final “All alone is all we are,” an announcer told us the show was over, and everybody shuffled out. It was a fitting anti-climax to a long, weird night of celebratory highs and curious lows—two extremes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to dole out with great gusto. With a healthy editor’s eye (especially on the E Street portion of the show), it should make for great TV — so maybe Loog-Oldham ultimately had the right idea.