NEW YORK — As Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies go, Monday night’s didn’t seem to promise much controversy, like Van Halen’s induction last year or the Sex Pistols’ the year before that , unless you consider the induction of dance-pop icon Madonna into the hallowed hall to be scandalous.
And apart from a handful of Eliot Spitzer quips, the evening — which also saw the inductions of John Mellencamp, Leonard Cohen, the Ventures, the Dave Clark Five, Little Walter and ’70s hitmakers Gamble and Huff — didn’t have much controversy either. That is, until Madonna opened her mouth.
After an innuendo-filled introduction from Justin Timberlake (during which he lauded Madonna for her “shapely body of work” and for how she’s “always been a woman on top” who “fully enjoys that position”), the sinewy singer ascended the stage and thanked seemingly everyone who helped shape her career, from her earliest dancing teachers to the critics who have blasted her over the years, and told her she was “talentless, that I was chubby, that I couldn’t sing, that I was a one-hit wonder — they helped me too, because they made me question myself and they pushed me to be better, and I am grateful for their resistance.”
(Check out 52 different music videos from Madonna’s long and legendary career right here.)
Then, Madonna clarified a story Timberlake told during his introduction. He’d recalled getting an injection of vitamin B12 in the butt from Madonna during recording sessions for her new album. Timberlake said that, during the sessions, he started feeling ill. That’s when Madonna proceeded “to pull a Ziploc bag of B12 syringes out [of her purse].” He said she then instructed him to “Drop ‘em.”
“I don’t know what you say to that, so I immediately dropped my pants,” he said. “She gave me a shot in my a– and looks at me and says, ‘Nice top shelf.’ That was one of the greatest days of my life.”
Madonna, however, remembered the incident slightly differently. “Everything he said is basically true, but I didn’t say ‘Drop ‘em.’ I said, ‘Pull your pants down.’ I like to be accurate because you know I am a control freak.”
After quoting from the Talmud, she called Timberlake — who’d said, “She became the biggest name on the planet the old-fashioned way: She earned it” — a “f—er.” Moments later, she blurted out the word “mother—-er” for no discernable reason.
Those words served as a fitting preamble for the punk-paced covers of Madonna songs from a leathery and topless Iggy Pop, who, along with the Stooges, paid tribute to the singer with covers of “Burning Up” and “Ray of Light,” during which Pop tossed out an F-bomb. At one point during that performance, the cameras panned to a horrified-looking Clive Davis.
(Check out this backstage footage of Madonna greeting Iggy and the Stooges — including bassist/rabid Madonna fan Mike Watt — after their performance.)
After Pop hobbled offstage, Billy Joel — there to induct his pal John “You’ll Always Be the Cougar to Me” Mellencamp — spit out a string of obscenities too, eliciting laughter from an audience that included Chevy Chase, Michael J. Fox, Meg Ryan and even Princess Firyal of Jordan.
The night got off to a much slower start, by comparison. After some opening remarks from Rolling Stone founder and Rock Hall chairman Jann Wenner, legendary R&B singer Patti LaBelle stirred the decked-to-then-nines audience with a towering rendition of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” which was written and produced by inductees Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
“You’ve been touching the world with your music for so many years,” LaBelle exclaimed, honoring the team responsible for ’70s-era soul hits from Lou Rawls, the O’Jays, Jerry Butler and many others. “You’ve touched my life. You’ve done a wonderful thing. Keep on touching, brothers.”
Also inducted — posthumously — was legendary blues harmonica player Little Walter, who died in 1968; he joined the hall in its sidemen category, as he was a frequent collaborator of Muddy Waters’. Ben Harper said of Walter, who helped pioneer the use of electronic distortion, that “he defined an instrument, he defined a sound, he defined a genre.”
Surf-rock icons the Ventures were inducted next, and followed up the honor by performing two of their biggest hits, “Walk, Don’t Run” and the theme from “Hawaii Five-O.” John Fogerty, who introduced the Ventures, praised the band for having recorded 250 albums over the course of their career.
“Nowadays, some of us would be happy to sell 250 records,” he joked, making a reference to the dire state of the music industry.
A pink shirt-sporting Lou Reed strutted onstage to induct revered songwriter Leonard Cohen. His often disjointed tribute to Cohen included a recitation of the genius musician’s lyrics — printed out on at least 30 pages Reed pulled from his pocket. “We’re so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is,” Reed noted, before Damien Rice delivered a rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“This is a very unlikely occasion for me,” Cohen, wearing a black tux, admitted. “It is not a distinction that I coveted or even dared dream about. So, I’m reminded of a prophetic statement of [music critic and longstanding Bruce Springsteen manager] Jon Landau in the early ’70s. He said, ‘I have seen the future of rock and roll and it is not Leonard Cohen.’ ”
After Madonna’s induction and Joel’s hilarious introductory speech, Mellencamp — sounding like he’d just downed a shot of molten steel — emerged to claim that “nobody put themselves behind the eight-ball more than I did.” He spoke of having surgery when he was just six weeks old, explaining that doctors had worried he’d be paralyzed below the neck. The 56-year-old rocker said he never knew of the surgery until his teen years, when a classmate asked him about the scar behind his neck. “I’m lucky to be standing here for any number of reasons,” he said, after snuffing out a cigarette as he mounted the stage.
Last came ’60s popsters the Dave Clark Five, whose singer, Mike Smith, died just two weeks ago. Clark admitted it was a bittersweet time for the English group. “We wanted it to be the five of us here, but we know he’s smiling down on us, knowing he’s a hall of famer,” Clark said, adding that he’s absolutely delighted that his band’s being inducted into the “American” rock hall.
Actor Tom Hanks inducted the band, and told stories about first seeing them on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Finally, Joan Jett, Fogerty and Mellencamp capped off the long night, playing the group’s “Bits and Pieces” and “Glad All Over.”