If there really is a rock and roll heaven, there is probably a rock and roll hell, and the audience at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel got a foretaste of both last month during the third annual awards dinner for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On the one hand the rollicking 45-minute jam that wrapped up the evening produced moments of sheer, all-star transcendence. Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Bruce Springsteen shared a mike to belt out I Saw Her Standing There with backup from Bob Dylan and Billy Joel; guitar legend Les Paul laid down a sizzling solo on Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower; Julian Lennon joined the Drifters’ Ben E. King for Stand by Me.
But only a demonic mind would have cast Yoko Ono as the screeching backup to onetime Supreme Mary Wilson on Stop! In the Name of Love, or could have taken any pleasure in Beach Boy Mike Love’s rancorous attacks on his peers.
In fact it was Paul McCartney who got the pall rolling at the $500-to $1,000-a-plate fund raiser for the construction of a permanent hall of fame in where-else-but Cleveland. The Beatles were featured among this year’s inductees—which included the Supremes, the Drifters, the Beach Boys, Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Les Paul and Motown founder Berry Gordy. But McCartney, in a message received early in the evening, informed the gathering that because “the Beatles still have some business differences…I would feel like a complete hypocrite waving and smiling with them at a fake reunion.” That bit of pettiness seemed to inflame Mike Love, who launched into a venomous diatribe against presenters and inductees alike. Taking the stage to accept his own award, Love, who seemed to feel that only the Beach Boys work for a living, sneered at McCartney for hiding behind a “high-priced lawyer,” then proceeded to call Springsteen a shirker and Jaggar a “chickenshit” as he dared them to join him onstage. For a moment it looked as if all you needed was Love to start a riot among the 850 guests. Instead, Paul Shaffer wisely struck up the Letterman band.
Springsteen restored a sense of ceremony with his heartfelt tribute to Dylan. “The first time I heard Bob Dylan, his voice thrilled and scared me,” he said. “It reached down and touched whatever worldliness I possessed as a 15-year-old kid in high school in New Jersey. He had the talent and the ability to expand a pop song so it could contain the whole world.” Little Richard got the crowd back in an upbeat mood with a cheeky string of one-liners. (“I love the Supremes,” he said, “because they always dressed like me.”) Mick Jagger then presented the evening’s final award to the Beatles, admitting that when he first met his old rivals, in 1964, “they had long hair, scruffy clothes and a record contract, and the combination made me sick.”
But it was the music, finally, that pulled the evening out of the mire. Whether goaded by Love’s charges that they’d all grown fat and lazy or just relieved to have survived the speechmaking, rockers of all stripes crowded onto the stage for an exuberant musical free-for-all—Neil Young, Jeff Beck, John Fogerty, Dave Edmunds, Peter Wolf, Julian Lennon and Elton John trading licks and mikes with the other talent on some of the most memorable songs in the rock lexicon.
When Dylan invited Jagger to lay down a remarkably tight chorus for Like a Rolling Stone, the audience assumed that perfect match just had to be the last song of the night. But just as the musicians prepared to leave the stage, Neil Young mischievously struck the opening riff to Satisfaction, sending Jagger into his best rooster dance and the audience into delirium. Mick turned to the microphone, took off his shoes, hurled them into the sea of sequined evening clothes and tore into the song nose to nose with Springsteen. Just about everyone chimed in on guitar, and nobody needed a chord chart. Rock and roll never forgets.