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RockHall induction memorable despite absence of key performers

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It had all the makings of an unprecedented disaster, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

The once exclusive music industry black-tie dinner/awards gala, had gone the way of all such events, opening itself to the public and moving from its traditionally staid Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom setting in Manhattan to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center--to capitalize, no doubt, on inductees KISS, Nirvana and the E Street Band.

But luck was not on the RockHall’s side. Internal KISS squabbling culminated with the band’s announced refusal to perform. Nirvana, of course, couldn’t perform as Nirvana.

Meanwhile, inductee Linda Ronstadt, no longer able to perform due to illness, was not going to attend. Neither was initial Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who was being inducted with the Beatles’ Brian Epstein as the RockHall’s first artist manager inductees.

“I think those people basically hijacked the name 'rock 'n' roll,'” Oldham said in March. “I won't be there. I'll tell you why: It's a television show. Twenty years ago it was an incredible party in the Waldorf-Astoria where everybody could behave exactly as they could 20 years ago. And then it became a business.”

True indeed, yet surprisingly, at least in HBO’s three-and-a-quarter hour-long 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony presentation—which premieres Saturday night (May 31)--the event isn’t the total train wreck it might well have been, probably due in large part to the editing. All former and current members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band were inducted as recipients of the RockHall’s Award for Musical Excellence (formerly the Sidemen category) and reportedly took forever in their acceptance speeches; HBO wisely cut it down to short soundbites interspersed with Springsteen-led performances of “E Street Shuffle” and “Kitty’s Back.”

Nirvana survivors Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic commendably went with four gals to sing in place of Kurt Cobain—Joan Jett, who led with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and as Novoselic rightly introduced her, “a lady who I can’t believe is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”); Kim Gordon (“Aneurysm”), St. Vincent (“Lithium”) and Lorde (“All Apologies”). But they all showed just how hard it is for anyone but Cobain to sing his songs.

The similar KISS problem apparently could not be surmounted, as there was no performance in their honor shown on HBO. But the absence of Ronstadt was made up beautifully by a sensational superstar quintet of Carrie Underwood (“Different Drum”), who was joined by Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris on “Blue Bayou,” with Sheryl Crow coming out to take the lead on “You’re No Good” and then a surprisingly gutsy Stevie Nicks (she said that hearing Ronstadt sing “Different Drum” inspired her to sing) doing the same on “It’s So Easy” before Underwood took over the lead on “When Will I Be Loved?”—sounding so much like Ronstadt and essentially making her elders her backup singers.

In the other inductee performances, Hall & Oates were fine on “She’s Gone” and “You Make My Dreams,” same with Peter Gabriel, who was accompanied by Chris Martin on “Washing of the Water” and by Youssou N’Dour on “In Your Eyes.”

The most problematic performance—though no one made note of it, if they noticed—came from Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens, who turned in acoustic versions of “Father and Son,” “Wild World” and, vocally backed by a chorus, “Peace Train.” In an introductory film segment, Yusuf—the name he now goes by professionally—noted how he had slipped away from his Cat Stevens persona and assumed Yusuf Islam after converting to Islam.

“You can argue with philosophy, but you can’t argue with a good song,” he said, and Art Garfunkel, in inducting him, related how Yusuf “turned his back on money and acclaim and walked away from it all” as a “most sincere seeker, a loving man with an ever expanding embrace.” Beautifully put, but "Peace Train" or not, Yusuf never turned his back on his support of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, though it was never brought up.

In his disappointing acceptance speech, Yusuf professed his atypical rocker lifestyle of no sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, and seemed to make a gratuitous slap at KISS (“I never thought I’d be on the same stage as KISS!”). Of all the 2014 inductees, of course, KISS was the one that most lived up to the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, yet have long been dismissed by both critics and the RockHall.

The band was inducted by Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, who plays with the E Street Band. He said that KISS was his favorite band growing up, but that it wasn’t always easy being a KISS fan, what with being as “relentlessly persecuted in school” as the band itself was by the critics.

“But KISS was never a critics band,” Morello maintained. “KISS was a people’s band.” Declaring that the criteria for RockHall induction should be “impact, influence and awesomeness,” he noted that “KISS has all three in spades.”

“Critics be damned!” cried Gene Simmons in his acceptance. Paul Stanley thanked the Kiss Army and said, “This is vindication.”

Stanley added: “The spirit of rock ‘n’ roll means you follow your own path regardless of the critics and your peers. We’ve done that for 40 years. Here we are tonight basically being inducted for the same things that we were kept out for.”

Nodding again to the fans, he concluded: “Let’s not forget that these people make it all possible. We just benefit from it.”

Glenn Frey had an easy time in submitting the impact, influence and awesomeness of Linda Ronstadt—since she hired him and fellow future Eagle Don Henley to play in her backup band.

“From the first rehearsal I thought it was a style of music I’d never heard before, and a couple years later they called it ‘country rock,’” he said, adding that through everything, Ronstadt “remains nothing but authentic,” living “in a place where art trumps commerce, where hard work and integrity trump fame and failure.”

Questlove inducted Hall & Oates, and cited his Philadelphia compadres for “staying true to their soul roots.” Hall expressed his regret that he and Oates are now the only two Philly RockHall inductees, and listed Todd Rundgren, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Chubby Checker as equally worthy.

Michael Stipe predictably gave the most somber speech in inducting Nirvana, at first insisting that the role of the artist is something about “exposing the zeitgeist” and “waking us up and pushing us forward toward our collective and individual potential,” then invoking the Reagan years with their Iran-Contra, AIDS and whatever else that he felt Nirvana “blasted through” in “capturing light in a bottle”—though in Grohl’s memory, “we were in the f---ing van buying corndogs from t-shirts we had sold.”

Whatever. Stipe was no doubt right, though, in saluting the band for manifesting the development of an “outsider community,” and Grohl praised his parents who “never told me not to listen to f---ing Slayer because I was finding myself.”

Bruce Springsteen is never much of a public speaker, either, but he did give a nice summation of his E Street Band.

“Real bands are made primarily form the neighborhood--from a real time and a real place that exists for a little while and then changes and it's gone forever,” he said. The E Street Band “struggled together and sometimes struggled with one another…enjoyed health and suffered illness, aging and death together [and] told a story that was and is bigger and better than any I could ever have told on my own [and] that is the hallmark of a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

But Peter Gabriel, whose induction opened the program, threw down words that no one topped. Music, he said, “should come with a health warning: It can be dangerous. It can make you feel so alive, so connected to the people around you and what you really are inside, and make you think the world should and could be a better place--and just occasionally make you very, very happy.”

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