By Leah Greenblatt
March 30, 2019 at 12:30 PM EDT
Kevin Kane/Getty Images For The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Every year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations bring fodder for specific grudges (still no Devo or Pixies or Kraftwerk? Where are Iron Maiden and Whitney Houston and Depeche Mode?) and generalized outrage at the institution (sexist! racist! irrelevant!).

But every year a few more icons are announced — this year’s class includes Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Roxy Music, Radiohead, Def Leppard, and the Zombies — and the ceremony feels like exactly what it is: a celebration of the songs we love and the artists who shape our shared pop-culture history. There are draggy bits and egos, but also great sweet moments and surprises. And many, many jam sessions.

And always a few new precedents, too: This year it was Stevie Nicks, the night’s earliest honoree at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and the first woman in the Hall’s history to be inducted twice: with Fleetwood Mac in 1998, and now for her solo work. She opened the show in a swirl of fringe and chiffon (her gold-flecked shawl, she told the crowd, was her original cape from 1983, and worth the $3,000 her mom thought was an outrageous price back then).

Bringing out Don Henley for “Leather and Lace” and Harry Styles to fill in for the late Tom Petty on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” hit pretty much every demo; nearly everyone in the room stayed on their feet. In his induction speech, Styles honored Nicks as “the magical gypsy godmother who occupies the in-between. She is both an adjective and a verb”; her own charmingly loopy speech touched on everything from John Lennon and learning to make tiny pizzas in Jimmy Iovine’s kitchen to the quality of tequila in Acapulco.

David Byrne’s introduction of Radiohead — the band named themselves after a Talking Heads song — lauded the “quality and creative innovation” of the quintet, though only drummer Phil Selway and guitarist Ed O’Brien were there to accept (the rest pleaded prior commitments).

Still, they worked hard to dispel the idea that the famously reticent group might not be grateful for the honor: “We may not be the greatest musicians around and we’re certainly not the most media-friendly of bands,” Selway said emotionally. “But we have become very adept at being Radiohead. And when that connects with people, it feels amazing. I’d never take any of this for granted, so thank you, thank you, so much.”

Roxy Music’s “pulp science fiction” got a delightful and anecdote-filled introduction from Duran Duran’s Simon le Bon and John Taylor — more compelling, honestly, than the honorees themselves, who mostly stuck to earnest thank yous and inside-baseball notes before launching into a set that included glam-rock bedrocks “Avalon,” “More Than This” and “Love is the Drug.”

Then came a segue for singles inductions — a relatively new addition to the ceremony— led by the E Street Band’s Stevie Van Zandt. Dressed in so many shades of purple he looked like a happy Raisinette, Van Zandt ran through classics like the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and garage-rock staple “Gloria” by Shadows of the Knight before yielding to one of the night’s most anticipated honorees, the Cure.

Trent Reznor, low-key in dark stubble and a leather jacket, talked at length about what the band had meant to him as a young man in “the big city” of Cleveland, and made a wry admission:

“I think it’s only right for me to admit that I’ve been, let’s say, ambivalent about the existence of certain award ceremonies. I’ve perhaps been in the habit of questioning their motivations with a certain degree of cynicism. In fact, I remember distinctly saying to myself, among other things, ‘How can I even take this awards ceremony seriously if they’ll open their doors to X, Y and Z and not acknowledge the Cure?’ Not so long ago I get a phone call I wasn’t expecting, and, well, here we are. Let’s just say I’ve never been as happy to eat my words as I was tonight.”

There weren’t many louder screams in the room last night than the roar that greeted Robert Smith and Co. on stage; Smith’s hands shook with nerves, and he admitted “I’m no good at telling stories. I’m a terrible communicator in general, really.” But he was endearingly gracious and clearly moved — and very grateful to be able to trade speech-making for songs in a hits-heavy set (“Forest,” “Friday I’m in Love,” “Boys Don’t Cry”) that included an opening salvo of “Shake Dog Shake” specifically dedicated to their former drummer Andy Anderson, who passed away last month.

Janet Jackson made it clear before the show that she, like Radiohead, wouldn’t be performing, only accepting her award. And after a spirited tribute by Janelle Monae (“She is the legendary queen of black-girl magic… a bold visionary, a rulebreaker, a risk taker, and a boundless visual artist.”) she came on quietly, patiently waiting out a sustained standing ovation.

In the recent shadow of the release of the brutal Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland, she made a soft-spoken point of thanking her “wonderful mother and father, my sisters and my brothers” and singled out her love for longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But she saved her strongest words for the institution honoring her at the end: “And Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020: Induct more women, please.”

A radiant Susanna Hoffs, (there was an audible gasp in the room when she happily said “I’m 60!”) professed her love for the Zombies. They were the evening’s most senior inductees — yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of their first American no. 1 hit, “Time of the Season”— but their harmonies on “Season” and “This Will Be Our Year” and “She’s Not There” sounded as sweet and clean as they did half a century ago. “To be honest,” said 73-year-old keyboardist Rod Argent, “it’s honor enough to have been nominated four times in the last five years. But to finally pass the winning post this time — fantastic.”

Def Leppard, the final honorees of the night, came in on a wave of praise from Queen’s Brian May, who lauded both their raw talent (“I’m hearing this amazing kind of clang, sort of an arpeggiated guitar, and I’m hearing amazing harmonies and these big juicy bass lines, these huge fat drums. And it’s not Queen, it’s these young, precocious boys called Def Leppard and the song is “Photograph”!”) and their name (“which apparently refers to some kind of aurally challenged cat”).

As the band took the stage, a good-humored Joe Elliott thanked the crowd effusively and told some fun stories —“let’s face facts here, if alcoholism, car crashes and cancer couldn’t kill us, the ‘90s had no f-ckin’ chance” — before singling out drummer Rick Allen, who overcame the loss of his arm in a 1985 accident and stayed with the band in part by learning to play with his feet.

Tears rolled down Allen’s cheeks as he held his hand to his chest for a sustained standing ovation, and the group paused to soak in the moment before launching into a raucous greatest-hits set: “Photograph,” Hysteria,” “Rock of Ages,” a “Pour Some Sugar on Me” heavy on the audience participation (the crowd were more than willing).

Then it was time for the requisite all-star jam session: Brian May, Ian Hunter, the Zombie’s Colin Blunstone, Stevie Van Zandt and Susanna Hoffs all pouring on stage for a grand finale of “All The Young Dudes.” And at just seven minutes past the five-hour mark, a lights out and a stream towards the exits, until next year.

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