NEW YORK — Maybe it was the honoring of hip-hop's first supergroup, or the potential clash of egos surrounding one of the hugest bands of the '80s, or even the induction of a group of alt-rock pioneers. Or perhaps it was the promise of appearances by Jay-Z, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha.
Whatever the reason, there was a buzz in the air on Monday night at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for the 22nd annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony — one that surged through the thoroughly amped crowd (filled with actual stars) and kept the packed press room humming throughout the night.
How successfully that buzz translated into magic moments was another matter. Because the four-hour ceremony — which was rife with taped in-memoriam pieces (to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, and Atlantic Records/R&RHOF co-founder Ahmet Ertegun), self-aggrandizing "retrospective" pieces and canned "classic performances" from HOF ceremonies past — had its fair share of confusing moments, although some certainly tried very hard to make it memorable.
Keith Richards — sporting a rather skeevy moustache ("I couldn't shave it off in time to get a tan on my upper lip," he sneered) and looking every bit like Jack Sparrow's sea-soaked dad — got things going in earnest, slumping over at the lectern and delivering a slurred, surprisingly sweet induction speech for the archetypal girl group, the Ronettes. And long-missing de la Rocha of the recently reunited Rage (see "Rage Against The Machine To Reunite For Coachella Festival"), who resembled an afro-sporting Adam Sandler, gave an impassioned speech honoring punk poetess Patti Smith, describing her as "fearless" and saying her words inspired him and a generation of musicians to "drop their textbooks and pick up Langston Hughes."
Then Smith, clad in nearly the same outfit she wore on the cover of her classic 1975 album Horses, took the stage, dedicated her award to her late husband (and MC5 guitarist) Fred "Sonic" Smith, and positively ripped through a set of tunes, including a cover of the Rolling Stones' anti-war screed "Gimme Shelter"; her biggest hit, "Because the Night"; and a stomping version of her "Rock N Roll N----r," which had everyone in the room — including the Reverend Al Sharpton, there to pay tribute to James Brown — wide-eyed and sort of headbanging. Oddly, Smith dedicated the song to her late mother, whom, she said, had told her it was "her favorite song of mine to vacuum to."
And while it would be tough to out-surreal Smith's appearance, the induction of Van Halen certainly gave her a run for her money. Ever since the 2007 class of HOF inductees was announced back in January (see "R.E.M., Van Halen, Grandmaster Flash Make Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame"), VH's enshrinement has been the subject of speculation: would feudin' frontmen David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar share the stage together? Will the long-rumored reunion tour actually happen? (The answer: probably not — see "Van Halen Reunion Tour Might Not Happen After All.") And after founding guitarist Eddie Van Halen checked himself into rehab last week (see "Eddie Van Halen Heading To Rehab"), who would show up to accept their award?
As it turned out, just Hagar and recently deposed bassist Michael Anthony appeared onstage, and anyone expecting fireworks was seriously disappointed. Both were humble and quite gracious in accepting their awards, both namechecked all of their former bandmates (even short-term singer Gary Cherone), and Hagar seemed truly touched by the honor.
"I can't tell you how much I wish everyone was here for this," he said. "It's hard for Mike and I to stand here and do this, but you couldn't keep me away from here with a shotgun. I am truly honored."
The Van Halen musical tribute consisted of a hardscrabble performance by Velvet Revolver on "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," followed by a surprisingly rocking Hagar/Paul Shaffer version of "Why Can't This Be Love." Apparently, efforts had been made to involve other Van Halen members in the performance. When asked after the show if Roth had been approached, Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland said, "We said that we would do [early Van Halen favorites] 'Jamie's Cryin' ' or 'You Really Got Me,' but he was pretty adamant about doing 'Jump.' But that song's not really us, and we don't have a keyboard player."
After Van Halen's spot, the house lights dimmed for Jay-Z, on hand to induct Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the first hip-hop group to be honored by the Hall.
Jay — who read his speech from his BlackBerry — started off by quoting the opening missive from the group's groundbreaking 1982 anthem "The Message" (which the crowd surprisingly began chanting along with him), then dubbed the Furious Five "hip-hop's first supergroup," groundbreaking artists who paved the way for the hip-hop stars of today.
"Thirty years later rappers have become rock stars, movie stars, leaders, educators, philanthropists, even CEOs," he said, making a clear reference to himself. "None of this would have been possible without the work of these men."
Then the group — minus founding member Cowboy, who died in 1989 — took the stage, pausing to acknowledge the moment and recognize the breakdancers, MCs and graffiti artists with whom they shared the early days of hip-hop. "There was a time when journalists thought this culture was a fad," Flash enthused, "so this is significant." Then they got down to bringing the black-tie audience the sound of the Bronx, circa 1979.
And Flash began cutting records back and forth, and the Five strutted and bounced about the stage, and the opening notes of "The Message" began to make their way from the sonic bombast, and for the first — though certainly not last — time in Rock Hall history, the white linen tablecloths in the Waldorf's main ballroom began to ruffle and sway under the sonic force of truly booming bass. Hip-hop had entered the building earlier in the night — but this performance, this rattling moment, was its clarion call.
Somehow, Eddie Vedder found it in himself to follow all that, delivering a mumbled, humble speech about his love for R.E.M., stating that he listened to the group's landmark 1983 Murmur album "1,260 times ... even though you can't understand a f---ing thing [frontman Michael Stipe] is saying."
Then all four members of R.E.M. — including founding drummer Bill Berry, who left in 1997 — took the stage, looking dapper and every bit the alt-rock elder statesmen they've been anointed (Stipe's old-man reading glasses certainly contributed to that impression). Only Stipe and bassist Mike Mills spoke — Berry and guitarist Peter Buck looked on like proud parents — and they were gracious and self-effacing as ever, thanking seemingly every person who had helped them during their 27-year career.
And they played hits from throughout that career: "Begin the Begin" (from 1986's Life's Rich Pageant), "Gardening at Night" (from 1981) and were joined by Vedder for the later hit "Man on the Moon." The five were then joined by Smith for a romp through Iggy Pop and the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (which Stipe and Mills later confirmed was a subtle lobbying effort directed at the Hall, which has rejected the Stooges' induction for many years — (see "So How Do You Get Into The Rock Hall Of Fame?"), and closed the night with a rousing jam of Smith's anthem "People Have the Power," joined by an incongruous trio of guests: Richards, Hagar and Stephen Stills.
And while it was a long night, it was also probably the coolest in recent HOF memory. It took them long enough to recognize punk and — more notably — hip-hop, so you can't blame anybody if they wanted to stay up late and revel in it all.