NEW YORK — Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has chosen to celebrate its rebel heroes with a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, the anarchic spirit of the form still permeated the air as the class of 2001 was inducted Monday night.
This year, the hall welcomed British pomp-rockers Queen, hard-rock stalwarts Aerosmith, sophisticated cynics Steely Dan, rock and soul kingpin Solomon Burke, doo-wop greats the Flamingos, veteran guitarist James Burton, powerhouse boogie-woogie pianist Johnnie Johnson and late Latino rocker Ritchie Valens. The hall also recognized singer/songwriter Paul Simon and pop titan Michael Jackson, both past inductees, for their solo work.
But while the industry elite supped on endive and goat cheese salad and veal chops in the Waldorf’s Grand Ballroom, the flash and gnash that is rock crashed the dinner party as well.
There was presenter Keith Richards, beautifully rambling in tongues, the way all rock gods should, as he inducted Burton and Johnson. There was inductee Burke, looking like a sultan pimp in a sparkling burgundy suit and fur-trimmed cloak. There was Kid Rock diving headlong into Aerosmith’s past excesses as he inducted the band, joking of their 1977 album, Draw the Line, “From what I understand they drew a line around the world and snorted the whole damn thing.”
There was Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, who jarred the crowd into awkward silence upon his band’s induction, saying, “Everything we’ve had to say about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame we’ve said on our Web site, so I’d just like to open the floor to questions.”
Even Paul Simon — returning to the Hall on the merits of his solo work after being inducted in 1990 for his work with Art Garfunkel — displayed some bite, saying of his former partner, “I regret the ending of our friendship, and I hope that some day before we die we will make peace with each other,” adding after a pause, “No rush.”
Of course, there was music as well. “Breakfast is over,” Queen guitarist Brian May shouted before opening the show with the band’s anthem “We Will Rock You.” While bassist John Deacon missed the ceremony due to illness, May and drummer Roger Taylor swapped verses made legendary by late vocalist Freddie Mercury. The band then dabbled in the type of musical cross-pollination that has become the ceremony’s calling card, enlisting the help of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins on a rollicking version of “Tie Your Mother Down.”
Grohl and Hawkins would later return to the stage to welcome Queen into the hall, with Grohl observing that “Queen changed styles more often than most of you people have changed management.” Adding that the band was “responsible for some of the most dangerous music in the history of rock and roll,” Grohl then welcomed May and Taylor to the stage. May provided one of the night’s more moving moments by inviting Mercury’s mother, Jer Bulsara, to the podium.
“Knowing that his mother was there was the only responsibility I felt,” Grohl said of his performance in front of Bulsara. “Everyone else can eat s—.”
Kid Rock invested himself in his induction of Aerosmith in a similar fashion, positioning himself as the heir to the band’s rock bad boy throne. Declaring that “Aerosmith are to rock and roll what Fonzie was to ‘Happy Days,’” Kid Rock welcomed “the greatest rock and roll band in American history” to the hall. Picking up his statuette, bassist Tom Hamilton joked, “Mom, my promise still holds. When I finally get this out of my system, I’ll go to college.”
The band then strapped on its gear and eased into a rendition of “Sweet Emotion” that featured Kid Rock working the turntables and trading verses with frontman Steven Tyler. The Boston rockers then passed on a planned performance of “Rattlesnake Shake,” opting instead to tease a verse of their current hit “Jaded” before jumping into the Johnny Burnette Trio’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” which Aerosmith have covered on record and live
“This is totally overwhelming,” Tyler said backstage. “To know that you’ve got a place next to Elvis Presley … what’s up with that?”
“Totally underwhelmed” may have better described the reaction of Steely Dan’s Becker and Donald Fagen as the duo entered the hall. Inducted by mainstream techno icon Moby (who later admitted, “I don’t know how or why I was chosen. I assumed they hated everybody.”), Fagen and Becker used their time at the podium to joke about the swipes they have taken at the hall on their Web site and discuss Mothers of Invention trivia.
Asked backstage if they had any feelings at all about entering the hall, Becker replied, “Apparently not.”
The duo were more spirited during their performances, rolling out a version of “Black Friday” and later teaming with May, who delivered an appropriately manicured solo on “Do It Again” during the jam portion of the event.
While Steely Dan were finally hitting the hall after four years of eligibility, Jackson and Simon returned Monday night with a bit of a been-there-done-that approach. Jackson, who entered the hall in 1997 as a member of the Jackson 5, was inducted for his solo work Monday night by ‘NSYNC. Jackson, hobbled by a broken foot, said, “The gift of music is a blessing from God,” before thanking key figures in his career, including Quincy Jones, Diana Ross and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.
Simon, meanwhile, took a tongue-in-cheek approach. Taking the podium from presenter Marc Anthony (who noted, “Nobody has embraced our world music quite like my friend Paul”), Simon thanked a string of influences, including “Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Sam Phillips, Frankie Lymon … and those two girls in Covington, Kentucky.”
Simon later dabbled in the annual rock hall jam session, bringing out Anthony to provide backing vocals on “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard.” While the jam was slow to warm (with the Anthony-Simon and May-Steely Dan partnerships providing relatively clean experiences), it reached its peak with a blues-boogie guitar blowout featuring Richards, Robbie Robertson, Burton, Whitford, Joe Perry and May trading licks while Johnson held the whole thing together on piano.
Contemporary hitmakers Ricky Martin and Mary J. Blige also turned out to bring their star wattage to the influential careers of Valens and Burke, respectively. Martin shook his way through a medley of Valens hits “Come on, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and “La Bamba,” while Blige yielded the stage to Burke, who delivered a sweltering version of “Cry to Me.”
The night also saw the spotlight fall on legendary sidemen Burton and Johnson, whom presenter Richards called “the best musicians in the world.”
“I never bought a Ricky Nelson record. I bought a James Burton record,” Richards said of the guitarist known for his work with Nelson and Presley, among others.
Influential doo-wop outfit the Flamingos (“I Only Have Eyes for You”) also had a moment to shine, as the group was welcomed to the hall by Four Seasons leader Frankie Valli, who hailed their 1959 album, Flamingo Serenade, as a masterpiece.