Well, the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is now in the history books. Since I was in Singapore, rather than Brooklyn, I had to rely on a generous periscoper to see what was going on. Although I had to step out during Pearl Jam’s speeches to buy some quesadilla supplies for a party that afternoon, I was able to catch most of the ceremony.
Was it successful? Well, the Rock Hall wouldn’t be the Rock Hall if there weren’t at least a few screw-ups and indefensible choices, but at the very least, it was better than the near-shit-show we saw last year. Nobody publicly berated the Rock Hall a la Steve Miller; the closest we got was some fairly gentle statements of regret about non-inducted bandmates. (And there were a lot of them this year- from longtime members of Yes, to Nile Rodgers’ Chic bandmates, to a litany of Pearl Jam drummers.) Nothing happened that was as puzzling as NWA not performing or as regrettable as Peter Cetera not showing up. We learned a fair bit about rock and roll, too- which for me is the #1 outcome of any ceremony. Strong cases were made for the importance of folk music in giving rock and roll a social conscience. Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys made a great case for 2pac’s musicianship and artistic vision. I hope at least some of the mostly-classic rock and grunge-oriented crowd in Brooklyn got something to think about. And I, in turn, gained renewed respect for ELO, which I had largely written off as something of a very listenable guilty pleasure.
If I had to pick out a few great performances, I’d say Lenny Kravitz and a full choir performing “When Doves Cry” was the best of the night. But seeing a reconstructed Yes pull off “Roundabout” and Pearl Jam’s tight “Better Man” were also contenders.
Some random observations from the show:
- Dhani Harrison gave a warm, funny, and heartfelt speech for ELO. His enthusiasm and almost fanboy demeanor made him a good choice for inducting the night’s first act. We now have all five Wilburys in the Hall!
- Really great segue from the Chuck Berry tribute to ELO. It made perfect sense, in hindsight, to start the show by paying respects to one of rock and roll’s most important founders.
- In sharp contrast to earlier years, it seemed like the ceremony ran smoothly and people respected time limits in their speeches. Joan Baez was a bit long, but I’m willing to excuse it because 1) her speech was so damn good; 2) there was only one of her; and 3) she’s waited longer than the rest to get in the Hall. She was eligible, actually, for the Rock Hall’s first class, and should have been inducted twenty years earlier.
- People know that I’m a big advocate of folk music and women in the Rock Hall. So my appreciation for the Joan Baez segment shouldn’t surprise my longtime readers. Both Jackson Browne and Baez herself made a strong case for how important folk music was in encouraging rock and roll to more directly engage with the big issues of the 1960s. And I was struck by how powerful it was to see a woman in her mid-70s, alone with a guitar, on the Rock Hall stage. And what a great choice it was to bring her tour-mates, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls onstage with her. My wife, who watched the first hour of the show with me, ended up buying us tickets to see them all at Tanglewood this summer.
- The order of the show was wisely considered, staggering the three 70s classic rock acts with the others: Chuck Berry tribute/ELO, Joan Baez, Yes, 2pac, Journey, Nile Rodgers, the Prince tribute, and finally Pearl Jam and the jam session.
- They (mostly) reunited Yes! Rick Wakeman’s speech was rude and boorish, but I couldn’t stop laughing. When I’m in my 70s, I want to be an overweight guy with a beard, telling bad jokes, wearing a cape, and playing keyboards in a progressive rock band.
- My God, Jon Anderson is a short little fellow.
- The 2pac tribute was lovely, with Snoop Dogg giving a heartfelt speech, and Alicia Keys doing some great R&B renditions of some of his songs.
- Well, they got all the guys from Journey on stage, they just couldn’t get them all to play together. Although Gregg Rollie and Aynsley Dunbar joined the band on “Lights,” they couldn’t cajole Steve Perry into joining the group for a performance. That’s a great shame; if they can’t make it work here, it probably means it will never happen. Perry did give a great speech though, and I did learn that Journey’s keyboardist survived a massive Catholic school fire when he was a boy.
- Nile Rodgers’s speech was fairly short, but a bit self-promoting. I’m happy to give him a pass, though. He has every reason to be pissed about Chic not getting in as a group, and given how often Rock Hall voters rejected him, he’s entitled to make a case for his legacy. Still- shocking that he didn’t perform. With Pharrell Williams in the house, doing a quick version of “Get Lucky” seemed like a no-brainer.
- Having David Letterman sub for Neil Young to induct Pearl Jam was probably a net positive. I actually don’t like Young as a speechmaker; his speech for Paul McCartney is the single worst Rock Hall induction that I can remember off the top of my head. Letterman’s was, by turns, funny and endearing, talking about Eddie Vedder giving his son a guitar, and poking fun at their feud with Ticketmaster.
- The All White Guys finale- featuring Geddy Lee and members of Pearl Jam and Journey defeated the purpose of the entire evening. I am judging this based on periscope coverage and couldn’t see the whole stage clearly- but Kravitz, Baez, Jeff Lynne, Pharrell, Niles, the Indigo Girls, Alicia Keys, and others should definitely have been on that stage.
- If I were in charge, the finale would have been either Rodgers leading a song he produced- “We Are Family”- or else Baez bringing everybody on stage for “We Shall Overcome”- maybe a more poignant message in these troubling times than “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”
If I had to rate the show in comparison to recent years, it was significantly better than the 2016 ceremony. And it was slightly better than the 2014 ceremony (some great Hervana performances tempered by KISS not playing, Ronstadt not being able to attend, and the E-Street Band clogging the running time). The 2015 ceremony, however, stands as the recent gold standard. A mini-Beatles reunion, a speech by Patti Smith that made me finally “get” Lou Reed, and two virtuoso blues performances via Jimmy Vaughan and the survivors of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. That year, the performances were great, the speeches were mostly in good taste, and one learned a great deal about the breadth and significance of rock and roll. This ceremony, even at its best moments, just didn’t come close to those heights. Maybe they need to hold this thing in Cleveland every year.
So now, we enter kind of a fallow and seemingly dormant season in the Rock Hall calendar. It won’t be until early fall that we start to hear some buzz about how next year’s ballot will shape up. There are lots of potential first-year nominees like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, and Letterman’s earnest support tips the scales further toward Warren Zevon. Between now and then, I hope to make my first ever visit to the Hall of Fame in Cleveland this summer and continue a project researching the Rock Hall- and why we argue about it. Stay tuned, as always, for my annual predictions for the Rock Hall nomination ballot and ceremony.
In the meantime, if I can set aside my Alex Voltaire persona for a moment, and talk as my true self, my book is out! University of Massachusetts Press has published My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity. If the 1970s, social justice, and the role of religion in public affairs are of interest to you, I hope you’ll check it out!