Dec. 8 2009 07:08 PM

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert embalms its subject


I was all set to write my first music column on an entirely different topic until I tuned in to HBO one recent evening, only to witness an abomination—Metallica's James Hetfield summoning Lou Reed to the stage at New York's Madison Square Garden for a heavy-metal rendition of The Velvet Underground's “Sweet Jane,” complete with unnecessary Kirk Hammett guitar solos and a bassist (Robert Trujillo) who apparently thought long shorts and white crew socks were appropriate attire for a televised broadcast.

Like much of the four-hour-plus Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert, the collaboration was a woefully misguided stab at relevance.

Not as if the thought of watching dad-rockers Crosby, Stills & Nash and James Taylor performing “Love the One You're With” was exciting from the outset, but internal bullshit alarms blared the second Tom Hanks graced the stage for an opening speech. I like Forrest Gump as much as the next guy, but what, exactly, qualifies Hanks for a rock concert cameo? I guess it's easy to appoint yourself host when you're part of the “creative team” that organized the thing.

This, undoubtedly, was part of the problem—celebrities and industry heavyweights like Hanks and his production partner Gary Goetzman, director Cameron Crowe, TV director Joel Gallen and Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner turned the event into their little pet project. Only one musician (The Band's Robbie Robertson) was named as part of this inner circle.

Which would be inconspicuous if the concert's collaborations were inspired, but most of them were obligatory at best and downright embarrassing at worst. Even the few bright spots—like Ozzy Osbourne's fiery renditions of “Iron Man” and “Paranoid” with Metallica—were neutralized by awkward pairings, such as a pointless version of “All Day and All of the Night” by Metallica and Ray Davies of The Kinks.

Stranger still was U2's take on The Rolling Stones' “Gimmie Shelter” with Mick Jagger and Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas. Along with John Legend, Fergie and bandmate had the dubious distinction of being the only three performers who've risen to popularity in the past decade, and their inclusion demonstrated just how out of touch this “creative team” really is.

Surprisingly, the best acts were those who've received the least popular exposure and acclaim. Brooklyn doo-wop quartet Little Anthony & The Imperials nailed a rendition of their late-'50s hit “Two Kinds of People” with tenderness and devotion and R&B singers Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) and Darlene Love were each invigorated by their separate songs with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.

Of course, there's never much to complain about with a Springsteen set—in his case, workmanlike is not meant to be pejorative. He looks to be in excellent health at 60, but The Boss can't possibly keep this up for another decade, which leads one to wonder: At what point is it time to call it quits?

It's a given that part of what makes a great artist is the insatiable desire to create, but for superstars—the ones who haven't released a relevant album in 20 years and still don't have to ever worry about money—the clock is ticking.

For some, time ran out a long time ago. Watching Jerry Lee Lewis stumble through “Great Balls of Fire” and Stevie Wonder butcher an entire verse of Michael Jackson's “The Way She Makes Me Feel” were low points. B.B. King's “The Thrill is Gone” was appropriate for all the wrong reasons.

If there's one cultural phenomenon that places such emphasis on the vitality of youth, it's popular music. Featuring no stars under 30, the concert represented the outdated ideals that rock 'n' roll is supposed to rebel against. Perhaps the Hall of Fame is in danger of suffocating a once-vital art form in its attempts to celebrate it.

Leave it to Bono—rock's de facto spokesman / smug asshole—to sum up the tragic irony. During U2's set, he addressed the crowd in his usual pithy manner, declaring, “It's a dangerous thing—this business of building idols—but rock 'n' roll is not at its best when worshipping sacred cows.” He continued, “For a lot of us here, rock 'n' roll means one word—liberation.”

Then could somebody please explain why it felt so oppressive?

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