It started with one of the finest bands of the past quarter-century covering one of the best from the previous generation. It went on to honor the founders of punk rock, reggae royalty and British Invasion sugar-pop, and gave the nod to one of the disco era's most gloriously awful ensembles. A great big mess, as it has been since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's first go-round back in 1988.
Rock has always been protean, able to stretch to accommodate whoever might have some valid musical discourse to offer, and so, rock's biggest night must by necessity be all over the place stylistically. Monday's gig in New York City's Waldorf-Astoria certainly fit that bill.
Perhaps the whole dichotomy that can't help but be inherent in the Rock Hall's very existence was best encapsulated by the one and only Iggy Pop, who took the stage following a stirring induction of his Stooges by Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong and greeted the assembled with a two-finger salute that was the antithesis of the peace sign.
"There's a lotta power and money in this room," Iggy sneered. "Music is life, and life is not business," he continued, and the message was driven home. More so when the Stooges -- now comprising guitarist James Williamson, drummer Scott Asheton and bassist Mike Watt following the death last year of founding member and guitarist Ron Asheton -- tore through a visceral pairing of "Raw Power" with "I Wanna Be Your Dog."
The latter found Iggy inviting anyone willing to jump up on stage. Takers included Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Mike McReady, as well as the entirety of Green Day. Iggy was his usual deliciously raunchy self, and his attitude cut through whatever pomp the event might have conjured (far less than the Grammys, American Music Awards, et al).
The high point of a night that boasted many -- Jimmy Cliff's humble acceptance speech and subsequent performance unquestionably being one of them -- was certainly the opening salvo that found Phish covering inductees Genesis' "Watcher of the Skies." The band's take on the epic piece was note-perfect and inspired, and frankly left everything that followed with a tough act to follow. Singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio's vocal ably echoed the sadly absent Peter Gabriel's original, and bandmates Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman and Page McConnell nailed the parts with authority.
Anastasio then inducted Genesis with a stirring speech delivered in the passionate voice of the erudite fan. Rightly, Anastasio pointed out just how radical was the invention of Genesis and just how singular the path forged by the group. He connected the dots among Genesis, Radiohead, Talking Heads and Phish. This was a tough line to delineate.
Little Steven Van Zandt offered a succinct thesis on the current state of rock before inducting the wonderful Hollies and then took the stage with them for "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress," following a kickin' "Bus Stop" bolstered by harmony vocals from a pair of Maroon 5 guys and guest slot from Train's lead vocalist.
Of course, all of this top-notch talent begged the question -- ABBA? Really?
The Swedish band was emblematic of its time, though, and its songs were well-crafted slabs of vapid pop. Yes, ABBA is pure cheese, but it's catchy cheese. Rock and pop have always allowed for this. Certainly, millions still love this stuff.
The Rock Hall is a museum and antithetical to the rebellious spirit of rock. But, as Little Steven noted, the annual induction celebration is a time to take stock of what the music has meant, means now and might mean in the future. There are still, as Jimmy Cliff so gorgeously emoted, many rivers to cross.