Rush Dominates Rock Hall of Fame Ceremony; Heart, Public Enemy Mere Opening Acts?

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

Is it really possible that it's been Rush's world all along and the rest of us are just living in it?

That was the feeling you might've picked up from Thursday night's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. A star-studded list of performers, speech-givers, and fellow inductees all came off as mere opening acts to the glory of Rush, at least when it came to the affections of the rowdy paying audience, at least 80 percent of whom appeared to have come strictly to see the Canadian prog-rock trio get their due.

Oprah Winfrey? She's no "Tom Sawyer." Winfrey was among those giving introductory speeches for the inductees, along with Spike Lee, Kelly Rowland, Dave Grohl, John Mayer, Harry Belafonte, and Don Henley. The evening's salutary performers included Usher and Jennifer Hudson. The list of inductees themselves was hardly short on star power, with Heart, Public Enemy, Randy Newman, Quincy Jones, and the late Donna Summer also being honored.

But as far as the singularly minded crowd was concerned, these other luminaries all might as well have been fly-by-night (sorry) operators, standing in the way of history's most overdue coronation.

The imbalance among the audience became apparent in the nearly four-hour show's opening minutes, when Rolling Stone founder and Hall of Fame head honcho Jann Wenner was the first to take the stage--to considerable booing and yelling, especially from the Nokia's balcony and rear orchestra sections. That seemed a little harsh, if not inexplicable, but the reason for the rudeness became evident a couple of minutes later.

After Wenner ran through brief mentions of most of the evening's inductees, he finally said, "And from Toronto..." And with those three words, most of the crowd rose to its collective feet for a minute-long standing ovation. At last, the reason for the catcalls moments earlier became clear: Wenner was being held personally responsible for having locked out Rush all these years.

When the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins offered Rush's introductory speech as the midnight hour approached, they echoed the crowd's sentiments, with Grohl saying Rush had made it big "without any help from the mainstream press." He then mock-coughed before and after quickly muttering the words "Rolling Stone." Grohl and Hawkins asserted the Canadians' eternal essentiality "no matter how uncool they may have seemed to anyone...It is our honor to FINALLY induct Rush into the Hall of Fame."

Stepping to the podium to accept the honor after another earth-shaking roar from the crowd, drummer Neil Peart said, "We've been saying a few times this isn't a big deal. Turns out it kind of is!" He compared the acts who proceeded them into the Hall to a great constellation, adding, "Among them, we are one tiny point of light, shaped like a maple leaf."

Added singer Geddy Lee, "I have to say, this is a little overwhelming for a nice Jewish boy from Toronto," before he thanked his two cohorts for "the great pleasure of their mostly pleasant company for the past 40 years." Guitarist Alex Lifeson stole the show, though, with a speech that consisted solely of the words "blah blah blah" repeated in dramatic and comedic intonations for several minutes as he mimed his way through the history of the band leading up to that very moment.

For their part, the Hall of Fame organizers didn't seem to shy completely away from the long-running controversy over Rush's supposed snub in past years. The filmed reel that preceded the induction included a clip of Stephen Colbert interviewing Rush and referring to them as "yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Is there any chance your next album will be called This is Bulls***?"

The three and a half hours leading up to Rush's appearance were hardly without note, although the two longest speeches--a moving one by Quincy Jones and a thoroughly disjointed one by Public Enemy's Flavor Flav--tested the patience of the Rush-craving crowd.

Chuck D was pretty impatient himself, as he repeatedly motioned that Flav should move things along. When he finally got a shot at the mic himself, Public Enemy's leader said, "In the last 27 years, I've seen longer speeches," as if to suggest that he really hadn't. "Give me 120 seconds and I'll give you a performance," he promised the restless crowd, although he took a bit longer than that himself before Public Enemy indeed shifted from speech mode to concert mode.

Flav kept alluding to some warnings Chuck had apparently given him beforehand--all of which were in vain, as it turned out. "Chuck said, 'Yo, man, share the moment.' What the hell do you think I'm doing?" He credited Chuck for keeping him in the group even when--he alleged--Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons wanted to drop him as they signed Public Enemy to Def Jam. Flav quoted the deep intonations of some of the rappers who'd preceded him before noting, "I came out with this real high, peaky, annoying voice. Fellas was like, 'Chuck, yo, we just want you.' Chuck said, 'You gotta take my man, too, or this can't go down'...I'm glad y'all took me, because I ended up becoming the most sampled voice in the history of rap music!"

Chuck might've been regretting it by now, as Flav acknowledged. "I'm sorry, Chuck, this is taking me a long time. I know you want me to hurry up. I got nothing but time, man," he asserted, pointing to the clock hanging from his neck. He then said he'd been wearing that same clock since 1997 and had vowed to not stop wearing it until they were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Now, he said, he could finally take it off--although he would replace it with another, because "You know me...This will be the last night that you see me wearing this particular clock, though."

Public Enemy seemed aware of the Rush-centric crowd. After saying they planned to devote the DJ-focused part of their set to honoring fellow honorees like Albert King, Donna Summer, and Quincy Jones, Chuck D added, "Same thing goes with Rush. We'll get 'Tom Sawyer' and f*** it up!"

Heart also briefly played to the Rush-loving audience during their acceptance speech, as original guitarist Roger Fisher looked to the balcony and pointed out, "Heart was born in Canada!"

After accepting their award, the six members of the classic 1970s lineup of Heart reunited to perform for the first time since Fisher exited the group in acrimonious circumstances in 1979. The well-known bad blood didn't seem to be completely past everyone, though, as the reunion only lasted for one song, "Crazy on You." Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson then played an acoustic medley as a duo before being joined by their current lineup of backing musicians, plus Seattle rock scions Chris Cornell and Jerry Cantrell, for "Barracuda."

Christina Aguilera was supposed to join Jennifer Hudson in saluting Summer, but she was a no-show, so it was up to Hudson alone to perform a medley of "Bad Girls" and "Last Dance" in a very form-fitting, highly glittery bodysuit.

Usher saluted Quincy Jones by doing a Michael Jackson tribute act, doing "Rock With You" in a black-and-white, leather suit with tiny red bow tie and red shoes, a la the pre-military-garb Jackson.

"I didn't want to get in too early, too young," joked Jones, echoing a joke that seemed to resonate with several of the inductees and their presenters, even if Rush fans surely felt the unrewarded passing years most dearly.

"It's shamefully overdue," Don Henley said in inducting Randy Newman. "But I'm not going to dwell on that because the inductee would not want me to." He did a little more dwelling anyway. "Randy was nominated for an Oscar 15 times before he won, so he is a man who is accustomed to waiting." He also mentioned the truth in Newman's song title "Life Isn't Fair," saying the acceptance of that maxim "is why Randy is perfectly okay with being inducted into this peculiar, perplexing organization a full 20 years after he became eligible."

When Newman took the stage, he allowed that "I did think I was gonna have to die...It's hard for me to express a genuine emotion, as you can tell from my writing. I hope the fact that I rushed my own song earlier ["I Love L.A."] doesn't make you think I thought I'd get kicked out on my first night in."

At the end of the evening, most of the performers and inductees--minus Newman and Flav--participated in the traditional closing jam, which this year was on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads." John Fogerty, Gary Clark Jr., Grohl, and Ann Wilson were among those trading verses, while Chuck D chanted, "The blues gave birth to rock 'n' roll." Naturally, though, heeding the affections of the crowd, the very last verse of this blues standard was given to no less a bluesman than Geddy Lee.