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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; Struggling for the Soul of Rock


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Copyright New York Times Company Jan 14, 1995

by Neil Strauss

The Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is at a strange junction in its history. After 10 years of honoring rock's pioneers and innovators with a night of improvised jams, confessional speeches and other surprises, it is turning into a ritual that one day may be as formal, as rigid and as respected as the Grammys. The fact that in September a giant shrine of steel and glass called the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is to open in Cleveland will add more prestige and convention to the ceremony, which is scheduled to move from New York to Cleveland in 1997.

While an annual event like this is a positive achievement for rock-and-roll, it's important that the Hall of Fame's big night not lose the spontaneity and energy that defines the music it celebrates. In ceremonies past, the speeches were followed by jam sessions where anything could happen, and usually did. This year, perhaps because highlights of the event were being taped for an MTV special, the performances seemed planned and contrived, with long, momentum-killing pauses between each.

The music, however, was spectacular enough to overshadow everything other music awards ceremonies have offered recently. The highlight was when Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, one of the groups inducted into the Hall of Fame, performed together for the first time in six years, joined by the fellow inductee Neil Young on guitar.

The impromptu group added raw power to the Led Zeppelin song "When the Levee Breaks" and then segued into a version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." (Buffalo Springfield, a band Mr. Young used to perform in, was nominated for the Hall of Fame this year but did not make the final cut.)

Mr. Plant, Mr. Page and Mr. Jones were also joined by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith and, on drums, Jason Bonham, the son of the Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, whose death in 1980 caused the group's breakup. The sextet, five of them with long hair and wrinkles, performed a medley that included Johnny Burnette's "Train Kept a-Rollin,' " Led Zeppelin's "Bring It On Home" and the Yardbirds' "For Your Love." (Mr. Page was a member of the Yardbirds, who were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992, though the song was recorded before he joined the band.)

They also performed a medley that included two blues songs by Muddy Waters, "Long Distance Call" and "Baby Please Don't Go." Interspersed throughout were plenty of guitar duels between Mr. Page and his protege, Mr. Perry.

Other combinations included Mr. Young and Crazy Horse performing a song from the "Ragged Glory" album with Pearl Jam, Al Green singing "Funny How Time Slips Away" with Willie Nelson, and Martha and the Vandellas belting out their signature song, "Dancing in the Street," with Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52's.

Though the speeches were more scripted, and littered with more thank you's than ever, they still weren't as boring as those at the Grammys. In his induction speech introducing Neil Young, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam thanked the "smart aleck" who put his band's table next to that of Ticketmaster, with which Pearl Jam has had a highly publicized battle over ticket prices. With an apology to Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, whose table was also next to Ticketmaster's, Mr. Vedder proved himself to be the true inheritor of rock's mantle of youthful insubordination by threatening to start a food fight.

During Led Zeppelin's acceptance speech, the band's former bassist and keyboardist, John Paul Jones, made a snide comment about the fact that Mr. Page and Mr. Plant didn't invite him to join their reunion last year or their tour this year. "Thank you, my friends," he said, "for finally remembering my phone number." In introducing Led Zeppelin before their induction, Aerosmith's Mr. Tyler recalled the time he saw the woman he was living with walk out of a Led Zeppelin concert arm in arm with an amorous Mr. Page.

Though rock musicians flock to this dinner every year, most pretend to have come reluctantly. In his induction speech, Mr. Plant said: "I never wanted to do this. I always thought we'd be rebels."

While the ceremony was imbued with a spirit of fun and rivalry, showcasing both the greatness and the pettiness of rock stars, Mr. Plant's comment reminded the audience that the Hall of Fame is still a big pill for rock-and-roll to swallow. Rock music is supposed to be loud, rebellious and impulsive, and the notion of honoring it with a big, lavish party of tuxedo-clad record company executives seems antithetical to its original impulses. On the other hand, rock-and-roll has come a long way in the last half-century, evolving into one of the world's most popular and significant forms of music, so maybe it's time for it to accept adulthood.

As the Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun, a founder of the Hall of Fame, said in his speech on Thursday, it is important to recognize the people who created rock-and-roll as serious artists. But does serious recognition always have to take the form of a serious ceremony? How about something more appropriate to each artist: Led Zeppelin could be inducted by taking a public bath with their groupies; Martha and the Vandellas could dance in the streets around Times Square, and the Allman Brothers could stand at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel and play a long jam for commuters. That would be more in the spirit of rock-and-roll, especially since it would result in so many arrests.

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