Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Night 2
30 October, 2009
Madison Square Garden
Featuring: Aretha Franklin, Jeff Beck, Metallica, U2
In the lull waiting for U2, the conversation went a little bit like this:
“Um, there’s a piano on the stage.”
“Who’s going to play that piano?”
“Or another bald-headed gentleman who seems to be missing.”
We looked one row in front of us. Roy Bittan was no longer in his seat. He had been in the 10th row. We had been in the 13th row, until Curtis King and Jake Clemons and their guests had moved.
“And those aren’t the Edge’s amps, either.”
I looked. They were tilted back, against the drum riser.
“And look who’s walking across the stage.”
There was Kevin, Springsteen’s guitar tech, ambling by.
In 30 million years, I honestly never expected it. Everyone was blah blah blah Mick Jagger, blah blah blah Bob Dylan, blah blah blah. We knew how early the Bruce setlist had leaked out the previous day and so stayed far, far away from the internet. Seeing Bruce with U2 was on the bucket list, but we didn’t know how it would ever actually come to pass.
However, I will confess to going completely numb when Patti Smith walked out onstage with Bruce Springsteen. I always explain that I have no coherent memory of the first time I saw key artists, because it was all one glorious blur of overwhelming emotion. I was starting to do that again, and even though I didn’t want to take pictures because I wanted to WATCH IT, taking pictures kept me present, kept me grounded in the moment.
Of course, there was a slight problem. Patti was singing her version, Bruce was playing his version, and U2 were playing what they believed to be a version of the song that they were familiar with. They stopped. They started again. They stopped one more time. Bono came over and sang in Patti’s ear. She looked nervous, and a little abashed, but she was also smiling from ear to ear, excited and happy.
I. am. freaking. the. fuck. OUT.
U2 were always okay by me, but that cover of “Dancing Barefoot” sealed the deal. Then there was Larry Mullen Jr. talking about the bands that were important to U2 at the HOF induction. There was Patti opening for U2 at MSG (which I missed because I was broke). But there is a straight line between one and the other. There was never any doubt.
And let’s take the other angle under consideration, which was PATTI SMITH AND BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN ON THE SAME STAGE, which is something I fantasized about ever since seeing the photos of the two of them onstage together in Rock Scene back in the day. Things I would have killed or died to be at.
This is the stuff that defines you. These are the things that fill in the colors and the shading, layer upon layer.
She was thrilled to be there. They were thrilled to have her there. I know she only got into the HOF because Michael Stipe put his foot down (or at least that is how I envision it). She should have been there all along.
The song finishes, Roy playing it out – oh yeah Roy Bittan was up there too!! – and then everyone is hugging Patti. But no one hugged her more than Larry Mullen Jr., who gave her a big kiss as well, and whose face looked like a little boy who just unwrapped a bright red tricycle on Christmas morning.
Bruce on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was beautiful. That song has soul. He still had his soul voice from the day before. The call and response between the two of them was nothing other than epic.
We will not discuss the Black Eyed Peas. I don’t care how much you like them or how fun they are or what Important Musical Person likes them or whatever inane argument you’re going to offer. They are not Hall of Fame material and it was a waste of a song. It was trivial. It was not relevant. The whole point of these shows were, “This is who we are and what we do” and then here are our influences and here are our tributes to other legends. That stupid song was none of those things. (Neither, just for argument’s sake, was “Vertigo,” but we’ll get to that.) In this regard, Metallica did a far better job than U2 did, but we’ll also get to that later as well.
I watch Fergie climb on the back of the drum riser and all I can think is, “Get away from him.” But then Edge hits a note and the look on my face registers with my companion and then we know that the rumors are all true, because there is no way Mick Jagger is not going to walk out on that stage if U2 are covering “Gimme Shelter,” and then before we have a chance to think about it too much, there is Michael Phillip himself, walking out onstage.
I was very glad to have the railing in front of me to lean on at that moment. It was all a little much.
I’ll start at the beginning: It went a little bit like this: On Thursday morning, while counting the hours until we got online for the first show, I started emailing links from eBay to the SO. Then he sent me a link to a pair of tickets on the floor, second section back, but the third row of the second section. We set a price, we bid, we won. (Not naming the price, but we did not pay face.)
I don’t want to say we didn’t belong sitting where we did but boy was it odd. Money does not indicate fandom; in fact, quite the opposite. People there for status, people there for no visible reason we could see (because they sat down and looked bored and annoyed the whole night). I ran into Nils Lofgren on my way to the ladies’ and stupidly blurted, “Hi Nils!” I say stupidly because it came out purely because I have seen the man so often lately that it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world to say hi.
We were in the 13th row, and then decided to self-upgrade up to the front row of the section right before U2, placing us in the 11th row. Before you think us greedy, if we didn’t upgrade, someone else would have taken those spots. And once we got there, we realized that the people who had been sitting there probably weren’t coming back, given the special guests.
I will start at the beginning, briefly. Tom Hanks once again gave an introduction which was boring, unnecessary and not very rock and roll; Jerry Lee Lewis was trotted back out, and while he seemed like he had a little more energy, him kicking the piano stool over at the end wasn’t cool, it was just a little sad.
I was ready to dance my butt off to Aretha Franklin. I do not want to tell you that she phoned it in, but she did. Her voice sounded fine, and she had 8 backup singers and a horn section and two keyboard players and a conductor (among others, all of whom she felt she had to introduce *individually* later in the set). Annie Lennox came out and was in fine spirits, as did Lenny Kravitz (who I could care less about). This was like John Legend coming out for Stevie Wonder. They are not Hall of Fame caliber artists and bringing them out for things like this does not make them so. (And I don’t mean to diss Annie Lennox, who I quite like, just the general principle.)
Jeff Beck was next, and while I realize he was filling in for Eric Clapton, and that he is a fine musician, he was boring. Everyone got up and walked around. The entire Garden was constantly in motion. Yes, he brought out Buddy Guy; yes, he brought out Billy Gibbons; yes, Sting came out to try to spice things up. I just question whether this was the best they could do given the short notice. (Which of course begs the question about where certain obvious candidates were, and brings up the contentious relationship many, many artists and their managers have with Jann Wenner and the Hall of Fame, and you wonder what could have been instead of what was.)
Metallica finally woke everyone up. The intro video set the playing field, as the roar came down from the upper level the first time their picture flashed on the screen. 40 year old men with bad mohawks were sneaking their way into empty seats in our section to make out with their girlfriends and give the devil horns at the stage and sing along at the top of their lungs. The hipster next to my SO felt the need to explain Metallica to him, because he was nicely dressed and not wearing an ironic tshirt; we got along much better with the 50-something couple wearing leather jackets sitting behind us who were so clearly fans and loving every second of it.
When we tried to rank the performances from both nights, there was a lot of debate about who was #2, Metallica or U2. And it’s definitely debatable. Metallica were rehearsed. They were excited to be there. James Hetfield was visibly nervous when he spoke. They played the songs that defined them: “One,” “Enter Sandman,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. The special guests may not have been chosen by them, but they embraced them wholeheartedly and god did it all make sense. Doing “Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat” with Lou Reed, “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night” with Ray Davies. But the Garden went absolutely apeshit from top to bottom when Ozzy Osbourne walked out onstage for “Iron Man”. It was absolute pandemonium. It was loud. It was raucous. It was PERFECT. “Paranoid” to finish was gorgeous, and I didn’t know how on earth Ray Davies was going to follow that. (His set succeeded because it was short and to the point.)
I will not mention the gratuitous video played during “Enter Sandman,” to which our response was to offer the state bird of New York.
So now we’re back to where we started. Do not get me wrong – U2 were U2. It is ridiculous that there were so many equipment problems (the crowd sang the first two lines of “Vertigo” until Bono’s mic got turned on). But if you look at the strongest sets from both nights, it was where the musicians played the songs that defined them, played covers of influences, brought on their influences, paid tribute to their roots. Yes, U2 did that with bringing on Patti and Bruce for “Because The Night”. But given that the intro filmed showed the entire CBGB’s roster, backed with that Larry Mullen Jr. speech, a Ramones cover wouldn’t have been out of place. The selection of songs seemed unfortunate. It wasn’t “We’re U2, and this is what we do.” Where was “Streets”? Where was “Bad”? “Magnificent” works great in a crowd of U2 fans who know every word. Last night was not a crowd of U2 fans.
I do not mean to seem nitpicky or ungrateful. It just seemed like a lost opportunity for a band capable of working a room such as MSG like it was a tiny theater. It seemed easy. It seemed almost unworthy of them. If I have high expectations it is because the band themselves set them.
And even with that, it was still one of my all-time best rock and roll moments, ever, and a night I will never, ever, ever forget. It accomplished what it set out to do, which was link our rock and roll past and our rock and roll present, to give the music context and deeper meaning. Politics aside, that is the whole point of the Hall of Fame, and with these two shows, for the most part, they succeeded.
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