It has never been a public relations gaffe on the level of, say, United Airlines, but in recent years, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has not done too much to endear itself to the music-loving and music-making population it was created to serve.
Too often, it seemed that an exclusive club was making decisions on who gained admittance based solely on fairly cloistered personal tastes, placing anointed relative newbies like Green Day above long-serving and deeply influential artists much more deserving of the honor. A letter I received last year revealed in microcosm the crux of the Hall's tarnished image in the eye of much of the public: "Green Day is in the Rock Hall. The Moody Blues are not. Please explain."
So the Rock Hall needed a facelift, and it got one this year, with perhaps the finest induction ceremony in its history, or at least, the part of that history that has been televised.
As you'll see when HBO premiers its beautifully produced and smartly edited version of the induction ceremony at 8 p.m. April 29, the Hall got it right this year, beginning with its well-chosen class of inductees and honorees, and including consistently incisive and often moving induction speeches and performances that were a sort of anti-Grammys; rather than focusing on spectacle, the Rock Hall induction let profound music speak for itself.
This year's class was a diverse one, and included several artists who have been eligible for a decade or longer, and whose fans have long clamored for their inclusion in this sometimes venerated, but oft-mocked gallery of the greats. ELO, Joan Baez, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur, and Yes accepted trophies and a seat at the table this year, while Chic founder and uber-producer Nile Rodgers was granted the Hall's Award for Musical Excellence.
For this first time in recent memory, all of the honored artists were worthy of the honor.
There were moments during the show when I found myself getting choked up. I take this sort of thing much more seriously than is likely healthy, but still – feeling were running high throughout, on the stage, in the audience, and certainly among the inductees themselves. Here are a few highlights.
Even if you've cheated and watched snippets and performances from the ceremony on YouTube, take the time to watch this fully produced, sterling sound quality edition. Not a moment of your time will be wasted. And that's a first, in my experience of music-based award shows.
David Letterman's Pearl Jam induction was both heartfelt and hilarious
Looking like a cross between a cranky English professor at a storied New England liberal arts college, and your eccentric but lovable uncle – it's the beard – Letterman did what everyone who finds themselves in such a position strives to do: He kept it funny, poignant, informative and short.
His love for Pearl Jam, whose members have become his close friends over the years, was obvious, particularly when he shared the note singer Eddie Vedder had written to Letterman's young son, Harry, after appearing on the show. That note came tucked beneath the strings of a guitar Vedder had adorned with the younger Letterman's name in bold, painted letters. Kleenex, please.
Joan Baez totally rocks
If there was a more rock 'n' roll moment than 76 year-old, still gorgeous - and onetime Clarence resident - folk icon Baez singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" in front of a massive audience stuffed with seasoned rockers, hardened hip-hop artists, and the odd industry suit, I missed it.
And her acceptance speech connected music and activism as mutual imperatives in a more incisive manner than any other speech I've heard. Bravo, Joan.
Snoop Dogg inducts his late beloved friend Tupac
Snoop called his fallen comrade Tupac "a strong black man who stood up for his," "the greatest rapper of all time," and the man "who passed me my first blunt" way back when.
His speech masterfully blended the sacred and the profane, much in the manner that Tupac's finest lyrics did, and it moved with grace between humility and cool assertiveness. I rewound and watched it three times. You might, too.
Geddy Lee fills the shoes of his late hero, Chris Squire of Yes
After Lee and his Rush band-mate Alex Lifeson inducted Yes with a moving speech attesting to the British progressive band's significance in both Lee and Lifeson's own art, "Ged" – as Lifeson called him – hit the stage with an expanded Yes lineup and absolutely nailed "Roundabout." By this point, I was a weepy mess. Don't judge me.
Rick Wakeman dons cape, becomes first inductee to mention prostate examination in acceptance speech
Rick Wakeman is one of the funniest men in all of rock music, and he made sure everyone in the house knew it, turning his acceptance speech into a series of jokes and set-ups that hit home with the crowd. And, er, yes, prostate exams were mentioned. And they say prog-rockers have no sense of humor.
The velvet-throated Journey singer has spent nearly 20 years as the rock equivalent of J.D. Salinger – a master of his form who seemed to have willfully disappeared into the ether. Though he didn’t sing with the band, Perry delivered an emotional speech. It was nice to see him.
Lenny Kravitz honors Prince and teaches Bruno a lesson
Bruno Mars might've had the Prince outfit and the Prince guitar during his recent Grammy tribute to the dearly departed funk-pop icon, but Lenny Kravitz totally schooled him with a sensual, sultry take on "When Doves Cry," backed by his killer band and a massive gospel choir.
My wife reminded that I was yelling at the television during the Grammys, demanding to know "Why the hell didn’t they get Lenny Kravitz to do this?" They finally did.
Pearl Jam crushes it
They saved the best for last. If you've never understood why hardcore fans insist that Pearl Jam is the finest American rock band of its generation, watch this, and you'll get it.