R.E.M. had a shiny, happy reunion for this headlining gig. Van Halen, not so much.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame swung open its doors Monday night to the latest batch of acts ticketed for music immortality, with the Georgia alt-rock icons and the dysfunctional Pasadena party band leading the way. They were joined by '70s punk pioneer Patti Smith, '60s girl group the Ronettes and the first hip-hop act to crash the party, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
The 22nd annual induction ceremony—which per tradition was held at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria hotel—felt like an I Love the '80s special, thanks to its two biggest inductees.
R.E.M. received a warm introduction from Eddie Vedder. The Pearl Jam frontman showered praise on bald-pated vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and ex-drummer Bill Berry for creating infectious pop with a conscience—even though, as Vedder joked, he had a hard time understanding Stipe's often inscrutable lyrics.
"He's a true poet. He can be direct, he can be abstract. He can hit an emotion with peak-point intensity," added Vedder.
One of the highlights of the night was seeing the band reteam with Berry, who amicably quit the Athens-based quartet nearly a decade ago after suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm.
"When we first put the band together, the only thing we really ever wanted to do is play New York City, and I would say we've done it tonight," said a humbled Stipe.
R.E.M. played a solid set of classics, starting with "Begin the Begin," flowing into "Gardening at Night" and ending with Vedder joining them on "Man on the Moon."
But while Berry was back in the R.E.M. fold for at least one night, the VH contingent was seriously lacking as Eddie Van Halen, his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, and original frontman David Lee Roth were all MIA.
Roth declined to attend after complaining that organizers wouldn't let him sing "Jump" with Velvet Revolver, which had been tapped to induct Van Halen and perform three VH songs in tribute.
Rock Hall organizers on Monday said they offered Diamond Dave "opportunities" to perform with the house band (led by Late Show with David Letterman's Paul Schaffer), his own guitarist or Velvet Revolver, but he refused.
As for Eddie Van Halen, he entered rehab last week shortly after news broke that his namesake group's highly anticipated summer reunion tour, with Roth on vocals for the first time in more than two decades, had been postponed indefinitely due to contractual snafus and Eddie's drinking. Alex Van Halen decided to skip the event to support his brother's recovery efforts.
So, ironically, it came down to original bass player, Michael Anthony, who was fired from Van Halen in the summer of 2004, and Roth's replacement, Sammy Hagar, who led the band in its successful mid-'80s to early-'90s incarnation, to represent.
But there was little acrimony on the podium.
"I'd like to say god bless you to Edward Van Halen. God bless you. He couldn't be here tonight. He had to get some help. I love you, man," said a grateful Anthony, who was due to be replaced on the scuttled summer tour by Eddie's 15-year-old son, Wolfgang.
Anthony also gave a shout-out to Van Halen's short-lived third singer, Gary Cherone, for his two-year contributions. (Cherone was not part of the inducted lineup.)
Backstage, Anthony and Hagar responded to the usual reporter queries about the state of the infamously fractured band and offered a kernel of hope for VH fans that the group may yet dance the night away.
"If we all can grow up, then maybe all of us can do it together," Hagar suggested. In a nod to his predecessor, Hagar then added that "the fans need a Dave reunion first" before the five of them could ever consider such an outing.
Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland also addressed the controversy over Roth opting not to sing with them, saying it came down to creative differences. While his outfit offered to play "Jamie's Cryin' " or the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," Roth insisted they play "Jump," but since Velvet Revolver doesn't have a keyboardist, they felt like they couldn't do the song justice. Instead, Revolver sans Roth went on to play "Ain't Talking About Love/Best of Both Worlds" followed by Hagar and the house band on "Why Can't This Be Love."
This year's dinner party kicked off on a relatively subdued note as folk icon Stephen Stills paid tribute to Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun, who founded the Hall of Fame and died earlier this year. Next up was the Queen of Soul herself, Arena Franklin, who performed "Don't Play That Song" and "I Never Loved a Man" which she dedicated to the iconic music executive.
The ballroom picked up energy quickly with the arrival of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who swaggering onto the stage, cigarette dangling from his lips, to mumble through the Ronettes induction.
The trio, led by Veronica Bennett, aka Ronnie Spector, was known for such bubblegum hits as "Be My Baby," "Walking in the Rain" and "Baby I Love You," all of which were produced by her former husband and "Wall of Sound" mastermind Phil Spector, now facing trial on murder in L.A.
Richards recalled first hearing the girls back in 1964 and thinking what a tough act they were for even the Stones to follow. "They could sing their way right through that Wall of Sound. They didn't need anything," the guitarist said. "They touched my heart right there and then and they touch it still."
Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha heralded Patti Smith for speaking truth to power and inspiring his own brand of political music, not to mention such bands as R.E.M., U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in her 1975 debut album, Horses.
The punk poet dedicated her induction to her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and then took the stage and for a cover of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," her 1978 hit "Because the Night," which she cowrote with Bruce Springsteen, and her mother's favorite song, "Rock and Roll N---er."
And in a Rock Hall first, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were on hand to be feted by Jay-Z as the first rap act to be enshrined for contributions to rock 'n' roll history.
"Thirty years later, rappers have become rock stars, movie stars, leaders, educators, philanthropists, even CEOs," said Jigga. "None of this would have been possible without the work of these men."
It all began with the Grandmaster's pioneering deejay work, sampling tunes from rock artists like Queen and Blondie to lay the foundations for what eventually came to be called hip-hop. While throwing underground parties in the Bronx in the late '70s, Flash joined forces with the Furious Five emcees to alter the face of urban music forever.
"It's a tremendous accolade to be acknowledged by rock's establishment and [for the industry] to honor hip-hop as a real genre of music—which it is," said Furious Five member Rahiem.
He and fellow rappers Melle Mel, Kid Creole and Scorpio paid tribute to their "bow-legged brother," the late Furious Fiver Cowboy, who is generally credited with coming up with the term "hip-hop" and died in 1989.
The Reverend Al Sharpton also led a tribute to the late great Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who died last Christmas and whose body was finally laid to rest on Saturday in his South Carolina crypt.
The Rock Hall ceremony, which was streamed live for the first time on AOL, was capped by the traditional all-star jam, featuring renditions of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and Smith's "People Have the Power."
To be eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, artists must have released their debut album more than a quarter century ago, which for this year's batch of honorees meant prior to 1982.