I finally had a chance to watch the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on HBO. It’s more than four hours long, which for normal people would be nearly impossible to see in one sitting. However my current work situation avails me the opportunity to sit on the couch all afternoon and watch TV.
It’s a rare and fleeting thing. Judge me if you must.
Anyway, today’s project was to watch and digest an annual event that I hold in higher regard than most. I don’t know how much general prestige is attached to being a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, in that the accomplishments one would have to achieve in order to get to the hall should generally overshadow the induction itself. This isn’t like baseball, where your career isn’t completely validated until you’ve made the Hall of Fame; at least it’s not like that yet. But I would like to see that sort of thing come around. Like an actor who wins an Academy Award, I would like to see induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame become a truly revered honor. The music deserves that.
This year, the inductees were the Electric Light Orchestra, Joan Baez, Yes, Tupac Shakur, Journey, and Pearl Jam, while Nile Rodgers was presented with the Award for Musical Excellence (not much of a distinction, but worth noting). The theme for 2017 seems to have been something to the effect of righting wrongs/tying up loose ends/raiding the rainy day fund. Pearl Jam and Tupac were in on their first year of eligibility, but the other five inductees have long been members of the “Biggest Rock Hall Snubs” list. The rule is that artists become eligible twenty-five years after their first album, so that means Rodgers has been eligible for 15 years, Journey has been eligible for 17 years, ELO has been eligible for 21 years, Yes for 22 years, and Baez has been eligible since the very first class was inducted in 1986.
ELO kicked off the show with their rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” as a tribute to the lately departed Chuck Berry. Jann S. Wenner, the chairman of the Rock Hall Foundation, then took the stage first to welcome the audience and then to eulogize Berry.
If there is no other reason for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an institution, or for the annual induction ceremony, which has grown from an exclusive event in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria to a gigantic free-for-all in the 18,000 seat Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it is for moments like this. Berry, one of the true founders of Rock and Roll passed away in March, and while he was given respectful accolades in the press, it felt a little bit like we weren’t taking enough time to truly appreciate who he was, and whom we had lost. The Hall of Fame made that priority number one.
When the ceremonies began in earnest, the worthy inductees ticked off one by one. Jeff Lynne, the founder of ELO, played a short set with his current ELO touring band that did not include Roy Wood, the other founding member who attended the show. Jackson Browne inducted Joan Baez, an appropriate choice, given that both have chosen to build their careers on the foundation of political activism. Yes was the next band to be inducted. After a bit of a rambling acceptance speech that included a story about bumping into his dad at a strip club and a blow-by-blow recounting of his last prostate exam, Rick Wakeman donned his classic wizard’s cape and joined many of his old mates (along with Rush’s Geddy Lee filling in on bass for the late Chris Squire, yet somehow NOT including original Yes drummer Bill Bruford) for exuberant renditions of the band’s classic hits “Roundabout” and “Owner of A Lonely Heart.”
Tupac Shakur was next, and his old pal Snoop Dogg, gave the best induction speech of the night. Snoop shared some incredibly funny stories (Shakur handed Snoop his very first blunt, changing the course of hip hop for all time) followed by poignant stories of their friendship (Shakur’s mom comforted Snoop as they both sat at Tupac’s death-bed). Shakur, who was murdered at the age of 25 in 1996 has been portrayed in death as a Titan of street poetry and the world’s most important gansta. Snoop Dogg’s intimate speech, however, showed the rapper’s human side, giving further credence to his induction, and brought the tragedy of that night in Las Vegas a little closer to home.
Nile Rodgers’ induction followed and was highlighted by his emotional tribute to his late musical and producing partner, Bernard Edwards. Watching Rodgers fight through tears as he accepted his well-deserved award, it occurred to me that this likely means Edwards would not be enshrined in the hall. The duo’s band, Chic, has been nominated at least three times, if not more, over the past few years. Rodgers received the Award of Musical Excellence not just because of his work with Chic but also because of his success producing artists like David Bowie, Madonna and Duran Duran. The voters of the Hall seemed to be saying that Chic wasn’t enough. It’s a shame to think that a musician as influential as Edwards, who redefined the role of the bass in funk and dance music before he passed away in 1996, will not receive this final honor.
Lenny Kravitz appeared on stage at the end of the In Memoriam segment to pay tribute to Prince. Kravitz dazzled with a sensuous “When Doves Cry,” backed by a gospel choir and followed that up with “The Cross,” a deep cut from Prince’s landmark 1987 album Sign o’ the Times. When compared to the tribute Bruno Mars offered to the Purple One at the Grammys earlier this year, it is clear that Kravitz is the true heir to Prince’s throne.
The first of the two big “main event” inductions also offered one of the night’s biggest disappointments. Former Journey lead vocalist Steve Perry had not appeared with the band in over two decades, and has made few public appearances since leaving the group. Perry is considered by many to be one of the greatest singers in rock and roll history, but the band itself was not sure if Perry would attend the ceremony until shortly before the day itself. Rumors were rampant that he would join the band for the inevitable performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” but in the end, Perry chose not to perform.
Pearl Jam was the final inductee of the evening. Despite looking very much like elder statesmen of rock and not the baggy shorts wearing, NBA loving Seattle neo-punks of the early 90’s, I couldn’t help wrestling with the question “these guys are going in already?” It’s not that they don’t deserve to be in. It’s just that 1992 feels like it happened last week, not 25 years ago.
I have to say I was surprised that Andrew Wood, the late singer and founder of the pre-Pearl Jam outfit Mother Love Bone (featuring Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard), was not mentioned during the induction speeches. Just as Pink Floyd has always taken great steps to remember their fallen bandmate Syd Barrett, Wood’s memory has been woven into the foundation of the Pearl Jam story. It’s possible that he was a part of Gossard’s or Ament’s, or even Eddie Vedder’s, acceptance speeches but was edited out. Whether it was a poor technical choice or just a flat out omission, it’s a shame. Wood’s name should have been spoken from the stage that night.
After the speeches, the band ripped into a classic set, playing “Alive,” “Given to Fly,” and a soaring “Better Man.” Finally they were joined by every known guitarist in the building and, oddly, original Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar simply banging on a floor tom, for a beautifully ragged version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” to end the night.
It wasn’t the most memorable Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. There were no emotional reunions, no spine tingling moments like when Neil Young joined Led Zeppelin for a bedrock-shaking version of “When the Levy Breaks,” or when Prince played a jaw dropping solo during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And with the exception of Snoop Dogg, there were no truly unforgettable speeches. But it was a night that showed the Hall of Fame voters aren’t simply forgetting deserving acts and pushing forward. Seeing Joan Baez, Yes and Journey all finally receive their just dues gives us hope for other artists who have yet to be inducted but should have been by now (Warren Zevon, The Cars, Little Feat and Tina Turner just to name a few). In the end it was Vedder who had the quote most apropos for the night.
“Thank you,” he said, raising his Hall of Fame trophy in the air. “This is very encouraging.”