It’s always been a great irony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that induction ceremonies might be the least rock ‘n’ roll thing ever. But Public Enemy, Rush, Heart, Donna Summer, Quincy Jones, Lou Adler, Albert King, and Randy Newman took their spots in the canon last night — the actual ceremony happened at L.A.’s Nokia Theater in April, but HBO didn’t air it until a month later — it was clear that many of them must be big fans of irony.
Randy Newman kicked things off with his anthem “I Love L.A.,” which got the whole crowd of Los Angelenos (including Jack Nicholson) earnestly singing the refrain “We love it!,” even though the song mocks their hometown. Later, Dave Grohl noted that Rush were being honored despite the fact that they’ve always been ignored by the mainstream press, especially Rolling Stone, whose editor in chief, Jann Wenner, co-founded the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. The best moment of the night came when Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson managed to give his entire acceptance speech using only the words “blah blah blah.” Speaking in different intonations and using hand gestures, he was able to convey the whole story of the band, right up to the surprising phone call that informed them that they were being inducted (“Blah BLAH blah?”), and the thanks-to–fans-like-YOU! speech that followed. (“Blah blah BLAH!” he said, pointing at the crowd.) He somehow managed to send up every awards-show speech ever — and maybe the whole Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself — at the same podium where they’re so revered. If you ask me, that’s just as rock ‘n’ roll as any music that earned a golden statue that night.
You’d be forgiven for wondering how that speech went over with this crowd, which seemed especially serious. (This is, after all, a group of people who may or may not have spent considerable time trying to decode the Ayn Rand references behind Rush’s songs.) Oprah praised Quincy Jones for his generosity with “We Are the World,” and also for his ability to spot great talent — like Oprah herself, whom Jones tapped for her breakthrough role in The Color Purple. Spike Lee and Harry Belafonte called Public Enemy “radicals” and “revolutionaries,” while Chuck D lashed out at anyone who didn’t think a hip-hop group belonged in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, reminding everyone that “we all come from the damn blues.” One of the only real moments of levity came when Cheech and Chong pretended to do cocaine off the podium in honor of producer Lou Adler, who directed the Cheech and Chong stoner comedy Up in Smoke. “He made that movie so real that the government… put me in jail for nine months, man,” joked Tommy Chong. And Adler kept a sense of humor as well, noting that for all the ground he broke with groups like the Mamas and the Papas and the Monterey International Pop Festival, he’ll always be known as “the guy with the hat and the beard who sits next to Jack Nicholson” at Laker games.
If there was a theme to the night, it was rebellion, whether that meant blazing a trail for hip hop (Public Enemy) or just being brave enough to rock a kimono in public (Rush). In his tribute to Newman, Don Henley praised the songwriter for getting 2,000 Texans to applaud his song “Rednecks” in the same state that elected Rick Perry three times. (Though Newman later sent up his own legend by playing “I’m Dead But I Don’t Know It,” a song he said was about gray-haired guys like him who don’t know when to quit trying to be rock stars.) John Mayer pulled out his high school yearbook — which quoted King’s mantra, “The blues don’t change” — to show how much the iconic, Flying V-playing guitarist revolutionized the way Mayer thought about the blues. And Chris Cornell gave a heartfelt, if somewhat misguided, speech about how Heart advanced the cause for women in rock. “Somehow, it never occurred to us that Ann and Nancy Wilson were women in a world dominated by men,” he said — and apparently, he wasn’t kidding, because he definitely wasn’t thinking about them being women when he praised them for their “ballsy power” and “man-sized riffs.” What, woman-sized riffs aren’t good enough?
Still, even when the bands didn’t quite get the introductions they deserved, they killed it with their performances. Hollering her way through “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” while backed by fellow Seattle rockers Cornell, Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Ann Wilson proved that she can still hit high notes that so many indie-rock bands and American Idol contestants have failed to match. Usher danced to Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” which was produced by Jones, in sparkling red shoes that could’ve moonwalked off the stage all on their own. Jennifer Hudson took on Summer’s “Last Dance” with a sequined jumpsuit and a whole lot of attitude. Public Enemy stormed the stage in their classic military uniforms for “Fight the Power” and “Bring the Noise,” reminding everyone just how exciting it was to hear their music blasted from Radio Raheem’s boombox more than twenty years ago. And Foo Fighters dressed up in Rush’s famous kimonos when they joined the band to play “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of the Radio.” “When the f— did Rush get so cool?” Dave Grohl gasped, after reading off their album titles with all the vein-bulging enthusiasm of a WWF announcer. But by the end, he’d already given his own answer: They’ve always been and always will be cool. Mystery solved.
Whether Grohl could say the same about rock ‘n’ roll itself, it’s hard to say. As DJs overtake bigger concert venues and pop music continues to dominate on the radio, rock music has begun to feel less important to the culture at large. That’s not a good or bad thing–it’s just a truth that’s increasingly hard to ignore. At this point, it’s hard to say with absolute certainty whether rock will be part of our kids’ culture as well. Maybe that’s why the Hall of Fame still feels like an important institution, despite the fact that its sensibilities can sometimes feel old-fashioned. Watching Mayer talk about King, demonstrating the way that King’s followers bent their guitar strings to achieve different signature sounds, I felt like I learned something about the blues in the latter half of the 20th century. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether future generations will watch this “ancient” footage of Rush on some type of microscopic, semi-invisible iDevice and think that rock has been forever trapped in an earlier time as well. There will be so many questions if that happens. And there will be only one way to answer them. Somewhere, Lifeson will crawl out of his cryogenic chamber and explain everything with three simple words: blah blah blah.