By Ken Tucker
May 05, 2012 at 03:47 PM EDT
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Tonight’s 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony special had been scheduled to air on HBO well before the death of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch yesterday, but the show, which also features new inductees including Guns N’ Roses, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Donovan, and Freddie King, will inevitably turn into a timely eulogy for Yauch. The sight of his fellow Beastie Boys Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond making their acceptance speeches, and reading a statement written by Yauch especially for the Hall of Fame because he was too ill with cancer to attend, gains emotion and force this evening.

The two-and-a-half-hour production is typical of these sorts of affairs, with uneven performances (ZZ Top, Joe Bonamassa, and Derek Trucks are earnest but don’t do much to capture the precise slash of Freddie King’s blues, for example) and a long, tediously edited montage of past Hall of Famers. But there are surprises, and I’m not talking about the Axl Rose no-show amidst the Guns N’ Roses presentation. Who’d have thought, for example,  John Mellencamp would claim Donovan as a prime influence? Yet Mellencamp makes his case pretty decisively, and Donovan is on-hand to recite an enjoyably awful new poem (“a shaman am I”) as well as to sing “Season of the Witch.”

I was never much of a fan of Laura Nyro’s pop-jazzy, humorlessly discursive albums, but there’s no denying the pop fizz of a few of the songs that became hits for others, such as “Wedding Bell Blues.” But I was moved by Bette Midler’s emotional, eloquent speech at the Hall of Fame about the late singer-songwriter who died at age 49 in 1997. Midler expresses her immense admiration in a manner that transcends differences of taste: You cannot help but agree with Midler as she frames her enthusiasm for artistry so ardently.

Similarly, the Chili Peppers’ Flea has a wonderful moment when, in the middle of his speech, he spots George Clinton in the audience and gives the great funk master a shout-out, choking up with admiration. Now there’s a genius I can get behind.

But it’s the Beastie Boys segment that now carries the most weight. Chuck D and LL Cool J present the award, with Chuck D going so far as to say that “artistically, they are [Public Enemy’s] role models,” and LL Cool J revealing that he “owes his career” in part to the Beasties, who brought one of LL’s earliest tapes to the attention of  producer Rick Rubin. A medley of Beastie hits are performed by a variety of admirers ranging from Kid Rock to Questlove; the great way they tear though “Sabotage,” to take just one example, demonstrates what craftsmen the Beasties were and are.

Ultimately, Horovitz and Diamond makes clear how much their group owed to New York City’s polyglot music culture, particularly in the late 1970s, when the boys were coming up steeped not only in rap and punk but also rock and salsa and disco and the entire hiphop scene, including its visual-art component. To hear them read Yauch’s statement to the Hall of Fame, expressing his love for family, friends, and music, is tremendously poignant. The great strength of Ad Rock, Mike D, and MCA is that they embodied paradoxes — tough-minded softies; rigorous goofballs; spiritual secularists. The full flower of Adam Yauch and his colleagues comes through loud and clear this evening.

The 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony airs tonight in HBO at 9 p.m. EST.

Twitter: @kentucker

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