Induction Ceremony, 12:47 a.m.— It’s the end of the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony, and Ringo Starr is strolling around the stage wondering what the hell is going on. He just finished performing a cover of the song “Boys,” and was eager to continue a musical set that would cap off the evening. Instead, the proceedings have been seriously derailed by a lengthy tech setup in between songs. As a result, the roaring crowd—rather than being treated to a rousing medley of all-Starr favorites—are faced with a befuddled Ringo, vamping and killing time with some obvious frustration.
“All right,” he says, meandering around the stage as the crowd settles down. Everyone realizes they’re not in for a scorching set of tunes, so much as a guy extemporaneously speaking, punctuated occasionally by a song. Starr looks into the audience and sees Steven Van Zandt among the many other music stars littering the front of the stage. “Steven Van Zandt!” he crows. Looking around, he makes eyes with another celebrity, points at them, and then shakes his head. “No idea,” he says with a laugh. Some eager women convince him to come to the front for a quick embrace. “Hugs are fine, just watch the crazy eyes,” warns the drummer for the most famous rock band in history. It’s not unlike watching your uncle search for the piece of paper on which he wrote his toast for your parents’ wedding anniversary. Eventually, the stage is set, and Starr launches into a version of “It Don’t Come Easy,” featuring Eagles guitarist and Starr’s brother-in-law Joe Walsh. Then, more vamping. It’s a mess. Thankfully, the eventual closing tunes, “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” are rollicking fun, and an undeniable cavalcade of musical talent.
This is an apt summation of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony as whole; it’s a big, chaotic mess, all meant to try and make something borne of rebellion and artistry into a highly regimented schedule of institutional respectability. But the fact that it fails to do so, and in such obvious ways, is more a sign of health for the music than weakness of the organization. It’s corralling people who have made it their jobs to try to escape being corralled, in one form or another, and for all the posturing and faux-rebellion on display tonight (warning: there will be a lot), there’s an irresistible kernel of fun to the proceedings. The Rock And Rock Hall Of Fame is like the Oscars of the music business, a bloated, self-congratulatory parade of ridiculousness that nonetheless manages to sporadically find something beautiful and celebrate it. After all, that’s what awards shows are for—why should one for rock ’n’ roll be any different?
I have come to Cleveland, along with three other writers, to bear witness to the bacchanalia of promotion and appetizers arranged in the shape of guitars that is the 2015 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony. The trip includes several days in advance of the ceremony itself, in which we are given a chance to explore the surroundings in which the event takes place. It’s a little odd, because the others are all travel writers, so they take lots of notes on all the restaurants we eat at, the various bureaus and businesses promoting Cleveland, and generally have their own separate mission. I, in turn, feel like an asshole, because I’m here on behalf of The A.V. Club to cover the Rock Hall Of Fame, and no matter how amazing the Cleveland Museum Of Art is (and it is very amazing indeed), I already know I won’t be writing much about it. So here I am, leeching off of the goodwill of this city and its boosters at Destination Cleveland, your one-stop shop for all things wonderful and located within a narrow region of Ohio.
The first night in town, we are taken to a wonderful and wonderfully out-of-my-price-range restaurant called Lola, operated by celebrity chef Michael Symon (co-host of The Chew, lots of Food Network stuff). While we’re there, eating food I could probably describe to my grandchildren 40 years from now because it tasted that good, Symon’s director of fine dining comes over and begins telling us the history of the restaurant, of the neighborhood, even of Symon himself. Everyone else seems to be assiduously taking notes, likely because it’s going to make a fascinating separate feature in its own right. I, meanwhile, try to write down a few things he says, until I realize that my pan-roasted sturgeon is getting cold, at which point the desire to savor one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever eaten takes precedence over everything, including this man’s story. The hell with this story, I think, and toss my notepad aside. My brother could be lying in the street, hit by a car, and I would not cease consuming this dish.
Like many of the other people I meet over the next few days, it’s all very interesting, what this man is saying, in the way that listening to anyone who’s extremely passionate about a subject is often interesting. I’ve met stamp collectors who left me spellbound with their tales of devoted philately. And this trip is filled with people happy to share the best stories they’ve got in their arsenals. I hear tales of classical-music insanity from members of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. I meet the owner of Happy Dog, one of the nicest proprietors of a hot dog establishment who has ever existed. I befriend the guy working behind the counter at a pressed-juice place in Cleveland’s West Side Market, because he is friendly and a fan of art and I don’t know what else to do for the hour we are given to wander about and presumably concoct hard-hitting exposés on how this is the most delightful indoor market that has ever graced the Earth. It very well may be the best. Maybe my travel-writer companions know if that’s true.
Induction Ceremony, 7:45 p.m.—Joan Jett has finished kicking things off with a trio of her tunes, which it is basically impossible not to love, because it’s Joan fucking Jett. If the Hall Of Fame people were hoping to buy some goodwill right out of the gate, this was definitely the right move. She’s joined for a couple of songs by Dave Grohl, who I met minutes before he bounded backstage to get ready, and whose handshake is just as effusive and cheerful as you might expect. I regret not bringing earplugs—less because of the music, and more from the shrieking of excited fans in the balcony, all of whom are surely setting decibel-level records with their fanatical screams. Jett ends with “Crimson And Clover,” and when Miley Cyrus comes out to assist, it’s like an air-raid siren has been triggered. I don’t begrudge anyone their enthusiasm; I just wish it didn’t remove my ability to still hear sounds when I’m older.
Rock ’n’ roll often seems larger than life, especially when you’re right there in the midst of musical royalty. However, given the placement of our table, it doesn’t quite ovewhelm. We’re as far away from the stage as a table can possibly be and still be considered in the building, which seems fair for a group of writers who are basically kryptonite to the superstars occupying the front tables. If they are glamorous, we are the children of Cletus from The Simpsons.
From this vantage point, when the music starts up, the guitar riffs begin, the crowd roars, and onto the stage comes… this teeny-tiny Joan Jett. Maybe three inches high. It gets better once the ceremony starts and you realize that it makes sense to ignore the actual stage way off in the distance and focus on the jumbotron screens broadcasting the action to the cheap seats.
Unfortunately, by the end of the first inductee round (for Joan Jett And The Blackhearts), we all realize we’re going to be here for a very long time. The thank-yous and speeches are endless. From the time the “Bad Reputation” singer and her bandmates take the stage to give acceptance speeches, to the time they shuffle off, almost 45 minutes have elapsed. At this rate, we should be ready to head back to the hotel around the same time my student loans are paid off.
Miley Cyrus’ induction speech for Jett is pretty great. She reminisces about the first time she “wanted to have sex” with Jett, and it turns out Miley and Jett are pretty tight. They have backyard new-age ceremonies, smoke weed together, and generally seem like dear friends, which may puzzle those who mainly know Cyrus as a sentient twerk-bot. But, really, is this purveyor of hyper-produced, tightly regimented pop music following any more of a formula than the mohawked, three-chords-and-an-attitude of hundreds of punk bands out there? The latter may be sloppier, but were they to switch places with Cyrus on that stage, it might not be an improvement. Trying to suss out who’s “performing with heart” versus careerism is a futile exercise, because the better artist is often less someone who is truly soulful than one who is good at performing the impression of being truly soulful. Tonight, Cyrus and Jett both have soul.
The city itself seems to have an ambiguous relationship with the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. By and large, everyone seems pretty psyched about the actual ceremony. Not everyone, of course. During a Saturday afternoon stop at the Beachland Ballroom, a.k.a. Cleveland’s answer to the bar you wished was on your street corner, we watched a Cheap Trick cover band named “Why Isn’t Cheap Trick In The Rock Hall Of Fame?” perform. Even some folks in attendance didn’t seem to have much use for the ceremony, although the ribbing was mostly in good fun. Still, wherever I go, almost every person mentions that they are looking forward to it. Which turns out to not be much of an exaggeration, because something like 15,000 people attend the event, and only a small percentage of them appear to be from out of town.
Unlike New York or Los Angeles, where such events are commonplace, a gathering of this size, with such luminaries in attendance, is rare for the city. For all the talk throughout the weekend of how cosmopolitan Cleveland is becoming, it’s still an uncommon moment to have such a large event take place here. I am told repeatedly throughout my trip that Cleveland is a city on the rise. I am plied with promotional pamphlets and brochures informing me of the many ways that this town has developed, is developing, will continue to develop with bigger and brighter days ahead. They tout just how big a player Cleveland is becoming, how Manhattan better watch its back. But not quite yet: Here, when a member of the Eagles crosses the street, everyone within his radius loses their shit.
Induction Ceremony, 8:27 p.m.—Thankfully, the awards for The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Stevie Ray Vaughan pass by more quickly. The Zac Brown Band and Tom Morello perform a Butterfield Blues number, and afterward, when the surviving members of the band take the stage to accept their award, their rambling reminiscences are genial and warm. Elvin Bishop, dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt (a look that caused a lot of people to snap selfies with him during the black-tie dinner beforehand, despite many of them seeming to have no clue who he was), gets the kind of warm reception that should be accorded a man who swears, talks crap, and repeatedly uses the phrase “butt-kicking” to describe his own band.
It’s all very endearing, if somewhat derailed by the loud drunk guy holding court at the table in front of ours. He seems to have commandeered a table belonging to some local sales reps, and everyone is too polite to tell him to shut up. He looks eerily like Stephen Root. (I make the Destination Cleveland social media manager, who is sitting next to me, rather nervous when I point all this out, because she would very much prefer it if I didn’t write about loud drunk local sales reps. She is extremely nice, and I understood her desire to paint over any locals demonstrating obnoxious behavior that may reflect badly. At one point, she actually says “I don’t think Cleveland would do that…” which is a funny sentence.) I don’t begrudge drunk Stephen Root-lookalike his fun—everyone should be allowed to get drunk at six-hour awards shows—but his voice carries too well, and his anecdotes are boring.
I go to the bathroom while John Mayer is talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan, for obvious reasons, and Alice Cooper is standing in the bathroom, amicably taking selfies with excited attendees. In front of the toilet stalls. And he’s being an absolute saint about it. Person after person comes up to put their arm around him and snap a photo, and he couldn’t care less. We could all stand to be as uncaring about life’s little indignities as Alice Cooper. The rest of Vaughan’s induction is very nice, but my brain is still reeling from the Alice Cooper situation, so it mostly passes me by.
The performance of Vaughan’s music is also perfectly fine, but I find it tough to get into. Growing up in the ’90s, this type of electric blues-rock always seemed repellant, the music of people who were assholes during weekend football games. However, something surprising does happen during this act. How to put this without losing all credibility: John Mayer brings the fucking house down with his guitar solo. I mean, he just annihilates the place. People lose their minds. I lose my mind. Without even realizing it, I find myself applauding, because the vibe in the room is crackling with energy and Mayer’s playing is that spirited. It’s insane. I look forward to the televised event, where I will no doubt be unable to explain just what made this moment so great, and will receive mocking texts from friends.
Did I take a picture with Alice Cooper? Of course I did.
No matter how badly it wants to fashion itself as something a little more dangerous than the usual awards ceremony, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction is exactly like other awards ceremonies. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Because the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is a museum much like any other. It’s a genre of art that has its own history, traditions, and legacies, all of which can be found in the museum located in downtown Cleveland. Walking through it is a chance to step back from a style of music still very much alive, but also nearing its centennial. (Or its terquasquigenary, depending on what you think constitutes the “birth” of rock music.) Most people don’t have a deep knowledge of contemporary visual art—at least not compared to how many people fancy themselves rock music fans—so this Rock HOF Museum is a chance for the larger world to experience a sense of its own culture as a part of history.
Walking through the museum gives you a sense of what it must be like seeing kids walking through an exhibit of World War II memorabilia when you’re the grandfather alongside them, seeing your own cultural history as though it were preserved in amber. It makes you deeply aware that you, too, will soon be metaphorically preserved in amber, and that’s if you’re lucky. You realize quickly that debates regarding what is still culturally relevant versus what young people consider to be “old person stuff” are meaningless. As far as history is considered, there is a steady and connected chain of art, and Screaming Females are part of the same lineage as Jelly Roll Morton, and Pops Staples, and Bad Company, and R.E.M., and Metallica. Those distinctions we care so much about in the present are rendered laughably unimportant by historical assessment. Because whether you find the linking of all these disparate artists specious, sensible, or appalling, it doesn’t matter—history has already done it for you. That’s what museums do.
There are touch screens in the museum where you can press buttons to learn how “musicians are influenced by the music that came before them.” This includes Sonic Youth (Stooges, Glenn Branca), Blondie (The Ronettes and Roxy Music), and Marvin Gaye (The Five Keys, Clyde McPhatter), among others. There are walls of TVs showing clips of old people protesting rock music, calling it evil, from the ’50s up through Tipper Gore. There’s an entire room dedicated to Elvis, with an insane three-wheel motorbike, because that is Elvis, I guess. (Seriously, the Elvis room is sparse, so to have that be literally and metaphorically the biggest item is weird.) Various cities—Seattle, Detroit, Memphis—have their own sections, and there’s an entire Paul Simon exhibit brought to you by Sony, a nice reminder of the tension inherent in memorializing the living.
It’s interesting to gauge how much space is allotted for the different acts and genres. There are, wholly unsurprisingly, enormous rooms dedicated to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, respectively. There’s a theater that shows a short film detailing the history of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and its influence on American popular culture. By comparison, an exhibit called “Rapper’s Delight: The Story Of Hip-Hop” takes up slightly less space, in its entirety, than the section set aside for Beyoncé’s outfits. It’d be fascinating to see the process that decides which contemporary acts have items placed on display. Right now, there’s Katy Perry’s pinwheel outfit, a suit from Janelle Monae, and Taylor Swift’s silver dress and guitar; bizarrely, Chvrches has a hat, a jacket, and a lyric sheet on exhibit. There’s a quote from Ed Sheeran, of all people, on the wall.
The whole place is a testament to how today’s tchotchkes and outfits are tomorrow’s relics. The museum is essentially a vast collection of rock memorabilia. In a weird way, the fetishization of all these knick-knacks and remnants makes sense—it’s just the tendencies of the average serious record-collector nerd writ large on the world-historical stage. Think about that the next time you’re crowing over that colored vinyl you just ordered; you’re a miniature museum curator unto yourself. Your home is your museum of you.
Induction Ceremony, 9:54 p.m.—Green Day is now being inducted, and the very rafters of Cleveland Public Hall reverberate with excitement. Did you know people love Green Day? People love Green Day. This makes the insanity for John Mayer’s solo seem like it was dosed with lithium. Fall Out Boy introduces the group, and if you want to feel old, listen to Fall Out Boy talk about Dookie in the same way you’d hear a rock critic talk about Beggar’s Banquet. Patrick Stump makes a fair point, though, when he argues that the silhouette of Billie Joe and his guitar has become an instantly recognizable image, a generation’s rock music equivalent of the Michael Jordan dunking image. (It seems less plausible now that I’m trying and failing to find the image in a Google search, but at the time it sounded utterly realistic.) Then, of course, Billie Joe takes the podium and says that Green Day stretched power-pop “into places it’s never gone,” which is an insane statement.
They give good speeches, to be sure. Drunk Stephen Root is still loudly holding court at the table in front of me as the band talks about the importance of Gilman Street, Lookout! records, and their own journey. Billie Joe is dressed like a flamenco dancer. Mike Dirnt looks like a politician. Tre Cool looks like Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games. It’s great, though, because in the 30 seconds between accepting their awards and strapping on their instruments to play a rousing (and crowd-rejuvenating) set, Dirnt has ripped the sleeves off his suit. It’s the most culturally relevant act of the night, and the group feeds off the audience’s energy. I’m surprised it wasn’t chosen to be last, but I guess the name Ringo Starr still holds some sway in this world.
The Rock Hall Of Fame red carpet is a pretty lackadaisical affair, maybe one of the few ways it’s notably different from other big awards ceremonies. Unlike movie and TV stars, bands can often be mostly made up of anonymous faces, save for the singer. Once you walk down the carpet and through the doors, you’re faced with an army of assistants and greeters the likes of which are rarely seen outside of, say, being a Lannister. Downstairs in the Cleveland Public Hall, you pass through an almost comically elaborate setup of both servers and spreads; before the place fills up, there’s a good stretch where it feels like there’s roughly a ratio of one server for every attendee. I tried to surreptiously film my walk through the halls, to give you a sense of what it was like. Here is some very poor-quality iPhone footage:
There are four different major rooms, and a central ballroom, all of which offer an absurdly decadent array of foodstuffs. There’s a jazz room, a disco room, a hip-hop room, a rock room, and all of them feel about a half-step away from launching into some sort of Eyes Wide Shut-style shenanigans. At this point, everyone begins drinking except for me, because I’m worried about spilling on my notebook. I decide to sample the ostentatious food displays before the crowds really arrive, so I strike while I can, practically shoving old men out of the way to get at the more enticing-looking items. I get sushi, fresh polenta, salmon. A man drizzles basil oil on my polenta cake for me. Much like some of the outfits here, this layout is ridiculous.
Luckily, I blend in well, because there are a lot of iPhones snapping pictures and gawkers gawking, even though the truly famous people are few and far between. Everyone wants to ogle the rock stars—except, oddly, the staff here, who are uncannily professional. They all treat everyone equally, and don’t even let their jaws drop when Karen O or Pat Smear walk by, like the rest of us. There is one staff person whose entire job is just standing there, like a golem. Eventually, I realize he hasn’t moved in over a half-hour. I walk by just to make sure he hasn’t died standing up. This ceremony has been described as a back-patting event, but like the Oscars, there’s a real fannish element to it as well. It seems mainly like a chance for the well-connected and wealthy to reward themselves with a picture standing next to Paul McCartney.
But again, it’s a hunt to find the faces that you might connect with. Everyone nearby could be famous, or no one—rock bands, even famous ones, tend to be populated by guys who would be tough to pick out of a lineup. Part of the vibe and the awkward appeal of the evening is the sense that anyone around you might be in the club. It’s somewhere even you might be someone of note. I’ve never seen so many people in one place all consumed with FOMO about who’s in the next room over. No wonder everyone keeps circulating. Eventually, however, the ogling must stop, because show time must begin. And in case you were worried you wouldn’t know when the show time began, the Rock HOF has you covered:
Induction Ceremony, 10:49 p.m.—Pity The “5” Royales. They are inducted immediately following Green Day, and it lasts approximately 14 seconds. (It may have been longer, but that’s what it felt like.) It doesn’t help when they’re immediately followed by the Rock Hall Of Fame’s “In Memoriam” tribute. Actually, this whole section is dominated by sadness, as Lou Reed’s induction immediately follows, and both Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson deliver moving, heartfelt tributes to him. Karen O and her Yeah Yeah Yeahs bandmate Nick Zinner come out to perform a solid take on “Vicious,” followed by Beck doing “Satellite Of Love.” It turns out Beck does a mean, if softer, Lou Reed, which no one saw coming.
Bill Withers’ induction is one of my favorites, and not just because “Use Me” was a song I loved as a child, dancing around my parents’ living room to his sultry sex jam. Stevie Wonder’s introduction is promptly followed by his knockout take on Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” arguably the high point of the ceremony, unless you count Ringo Starr’s dithering. John Legend comes out and just crushes “Use Me,” starting a dance party among the drunk locals at the tables in vicinity. There’s something singularly doofy about older, wealthy white people, dressed in expensive clothes, dancing drunkenly to songs that have a real potency. Which is totally unfair of me, because they love this music too, and someday I will likely be older and still white, if sadly not wealthy, and want to dance to great music myself. But it’s still somewhat akin to seeing the impromptu dances at the Democratic National Convention, and I hope I’ll at least have the decency to be mildly embarrassed for myself.
Which brings us back to where we began, with Ringo Starr standing onstage, looking puzzled. His songs are great, but also a bit hard to fully enjoy, because it’s the end of the longest awards show I’ve ever attended in my life, and frankly I do not have the constitution to pretend I’m still full of energy. Which makes me an embarrassment, here. Bill Withers has more energy than I do at this point in the night, and he needs assistance walking around. I am a one-man Rock And Roll Hall Of Shame. It’s been over six hours, twice as long as the Oscars, and despite Dave Grohl doing his best to telepathically inject everyone in the auditorium with his high-voltage vivacity, some of us are immune to even the most easygoing ebullience.
My table saunters downstairs to the reception dance floor, where the drinking and dancing continue in earnest. I half-heartedly execute some bad disco maneuvers, then make my apologies and hop on a shuttle back to my hotel. Cleveland may be able to rock and roll all night, but the rest of us can barely muster up a party for a few minutes a week, let alone every day. But that’s ok, and this isn’t for me. It’s for the people in this industry, or the ones adjacent to it, and their moment of celebration.
Awards shows, after all, are not about the best and the brightest, or the most artistically important, or anything like that. But neither are they mere glad-handing exercises in self-congratulations. There are elements of both, and the truth resides somewhere in between. It’s a massive waste of time and a laudable practice of recognizing greatness. It’s a trashy process of closed-room politicking and a chance to give long-overdue respect to worthy people in the twilight of their careers. It’s KISS and Bill Withers, Beyoncé’s outfits and Les Paul’s first guitar, the best song the Beatles ever wrote and the hat somebody pulled out of Madonna’s used clothing pile. But it’s ultimately noteworthy for just how much rock ’n’ roll is exactly like any other art and culture on the planet. It may fashion itself the rebellious younger brother of art, but it’s been a long time since that was a special exception, any more dangerous than any painter, or poet, or novelist. It’s just as common, which is to say just as unique.
The moment that best seemed to encapsulate the experience came during Anderson’s tribute to Lou Reed. One of my tablemates decided to tuck into their dessert at that moment, and grabbed a slice of chocolate cake, decadently embossed with a thin sliver of gold on the top. As they spoon the minuscule shred of tasteless, odorless precious metal into their mouth, Anderson says the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is “all about turning people into names.” I get a little choked up thinking about Reed, and simultaneously a little nauseated at whomever decided eating tiny flecks of gold wasn’t completely tasteless, figuratively as well as literally. Emotionally stirred and sick—that seems rock ’n’ roll enough.