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Unraveling that circular guitar signature of “Sweet Child” brought the grown-ups to their feet, wine glasses sweeping the night, as they remembered when danger wasn’t something to avoid, love was consumptive and lust was the thing that saved you.
PLAYING THE FAME GAME
HITS' own Holly Gleason Reports from Cleveland
A special HITS report by Holly Gleason
 
“Get off your fucking asses,” commanded Billie Joe Armstrong in gruff bark, as the band thrashed loud and proud.

Anyone who doubts Cleveland’s claim to the Rock Capitol of the World only needed to look to the wrap-around balcony at Public Hall to understand: those local people, turned out in their vintage concert T-shirts, old flannel, faux leather finery, to be part of something they believe in. Paunchy parents with sullen kids, middle-aged guys 30 years past their prime, women who thought there was more to life than what they saw their parents end up with make up the faithful.

At a time when records aren’t selling, radio is brokered and most hit acts are more interested in being famous than having their music say something or mean more, the fans abide. They believe in the volcanic insurrection of Guns N' Roses, the industrial funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the brat-rap grown truly cultural force of the Beastie Boys.

Yes, there were local business interests down on the floor. Those music industry weasels who had a vested interest in being in Cleveland. And obviously, the inductees and their families, friends, advocates and such. But most importantly, there were the fans. Six thousand strong, loud, proud and believing in what rock and roll can mean in lives where the prospects are narrowing in a town with growing unemployment, factories closing and an exodus of people under 40 that no one likes to talk about.

“I believe in the magic of rock and roll,” Rolling Stone founder/Rock & Roll Hall of Fame driving force Jann Wenner offered as he welcomed attendees and praised the night’s inductees. “And tonight you’re in a place where magic happens. And I wanna say this to the people of Cleveland: you have our home.”

It’s easy in a declining business to find excuses, but listening to the fans, it’s not the passion that’s a problem. Aggressively booing when something did not meet their satisfaction (Axl Rose’s decision was a betrayal of their faith, Governor John Kasich’s name, for his not-friendly-to-blue-collar governance), they came to be heard.

And for the 40- and 50-somethings in attendance, the induction of the Peppers, the Beasties and the Gunners was recognition of their music, the bands that came of age as they did. Yes, the glory days of rock and roll are not debatable, but these three bands showed that the thrust of rock, rebellion and youth wasn’t lost after hair metal and Brtitish foppery dominated MTV.

Though Donovan got a polite response, even with John Mellencamp, who gave a powerful witness to the folk-rock conjurer’s impact on the Hoosier rocker’s attack on life, joining him for a spooky “Season of the Witch,” the decidedly Midwestern crowd hung on Bette Midler’s fan fervor-matching testimonial to the impact of Laura Nyro on her own life.

With tears, the Divine Miss M spoke of the way Nyro connected from the first needle drop: “In those days, you really felt things: to be young and alive and in love. And love WAS the MAIN thing--and how it dazzled her into being more." Later in her witness for the woman who wrote “Stoney End,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Save the Country” and “Wedding Bell Blues” among many, many others, and influenced Rickie Lee Jones, Kanye West, Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell and Elton John, Midler the audacious declared of the unlikely, but deserving inductee: “I remember her sailing down Columbus Ave. in full gypsy regalia, long skirts and shawls flowing… She was what everyone in this business would be if we only had the guts.”

That same potency defined Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill’s induction of blues guitarist Freddie King, who “taught us to play as a band.” Though many in the room would never listen to the blues as a source of inspiration, this was a root-of-it-all moment...and the homage to the seeds and the soil that cultivated much of what the Rock Hall is supposed to honor wasn’t lost on the assembled.

With next-generation blues players Derek Trucks and Joe Bonnamassa flanking the ZZ Toppers, they ground out a nasty “Goin’ Down” that was as incendiary as anything that would be played that night. Burning close to the wick, as only true blues can, it was the perfect reminder of what hath wrought all that truly is.

Carole King was wry and dry inducting Don Kirshner, and yes, Letterman main man Paul Shaffer did reprise his famous Saturday Night Live caricature of the macho, Rock Concert host-era Kirshner. But what was more resonant was the savvy way Kirshner was looking to heighten the creativity, recognizing (let’s be honest) better songs meant bigger returns.

Business didn’t have to be the enemy of great songs, or good music. Even The Monkees, his manufactured Beatles-templated TV band, benefited from memorable hits that have endured. Endured, indeed, because of how good they were, not merely “Davey’s the cute one” or fois gras force-feeding via AM radio.

When Darlene Love, all melted caramel poured into a tomato red slinky, one-shouldered dress, emerged to sing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” it was one of those moments of true eroticism: the quiver of doubt, of want, of surrender.

They don’t make that sort of innocence stretched over a canvas of frank sexuality. What isn’t said is everything, and that is what makes that era so haunting.

Like Springsteen’s much-trafficked South By Southwest keynote speech, E Street compadre Steven Van Zandt struck many of the same chords in his induction of the Faces/ Small Faces. Beyond invoking the reality that few bands get two genuinely different lives, in part that they were blessed with “having two of the greatest white soul singers,” he acknowledged they were at a disadvantage over the Who, the Yardbirds, Them and the Stones because “they were good-looking; they were darlings of the Mod Scene.”
Ahhhh, yes, the competitive advantage of the momentum of being sexual catnip...before the first note was played. But these R&B/blues-drivers would never rest on their looks, not when the songs could twist pheromonics into an even deeper frenzy.
 
Though Rod Stewart was down with enough of a flu that he was a last-minute cancellation, Ron Wood wore a sparkly close-cut suit that was pure Mod, Ian McLaglan wore a Technicolor shirt of utter psychedelia, while Kenney Jones was the more subdued gentleman rocker. The peacockery was evident, and that was a part of it.
 
As was the strut inherent in the brash “Stay with Me,” though it also demonstrated sometimes enlisting band buddies, in this case, the wonderfully smoothly soulful Mick Hucknell, isn’t always the best service of the legacy. The filth of “Stay with Me” was never quite scratched, nor was the hormonal wonder of “Oooh La La” properly grazed.
 
Still, there’s a reason some songs imprint on our DNA, and the collected rockers' exuberance more than carried the shortfall. As was the first moment of middle-aged white people up and waving their arms, while chirping along to the soundtrack of who they were “when we were younger.”
 
Ahhh to have known then, but at least we could celebrate it now that we do know.
 
With the history for the most part served, the rubber met the road. LL Cool J and Chuck D brought their personal truth to how the Beasties shaped who they were to become. The way homeboys once upon a time banded together, to drive and build what rap evolved into.
For LL, it was the hand-off of his demo tape to Rick Rubin in “his dorm room,” that was life-changing...sending him onto a whole other path, one that saw the rise of hip-hop as a mainstream thing.
 
For Chuck D, it was that first tour for Public Enemy, as they busted wide. He saw what started as a bunch of punk kids locking down and recognizing how much their music could doand mean.
 
For Mike D, Adam "Ad Rock" Horovitz and Adam “MCA” Yauch, it was the legitimizing of a journey that had seen the Beasties go from frat rap anomaly to visionary musical synthesists. The one wavering truth to their music: aggression and intensity.
 
By the time they got onstage with the Roots, Kid Rock, Black Thought and Gym Class HeroesTravie McCoy, the free-for-all was on, beats and rhymes spewing, this was serious business, the hardcore intent of people unrelentingly slamming into that which defines them.
 
“So What ‘Cha Want” was a rallying cry, a challenge, a validation of how you get here from there. And, honestly, y’all: ?uestlove is one wicked badass drummer who can also throw down the lines.
 
Perhaps the most ardent inductor was Billie Joe Armstrong, who came loaded for bear and gave it up for Guns N' Roses like some kind of Appalachian preacher looking for the hardest-to-save souls.
 
Testifying to the brutal intensity and seedy vision of Valhalla that the Gunners painted for a young music fan, the force of their impactand salvationwas palpable.
 
“Listening, I knew one of these guys could end up dead or in jail,” Armstrong said. “It was love, anger and the facts of Hollywood… I hated power ballads and fucking jock anthems, and they delivered.”
 
With a back-and-forth about the dark humor and darkness, Armstrong and a fan exchanged an ad hoc and a written-in-his-speech “I used to love her... but I had to kill her” call-and-response. Running through the import of each member, including the event-eclipsing, no-show Axl Rose, it was a summation of gargantuan parts that was even bigger than the total.
 
An expression from pure fan perspective, a deconstruction from a player’s guise and a songwriter’s emotional thrust of truth and details, Armstrong celebrated ravages and seediness as desirable. Desirable and dangerous like pirates with no end game.
 
Accepting the award, the six musicians in attendance were all humility and bravado. Matt Sorum spoke of being the one to bring cocaine to the opium den, Steven Adler quoted Freddie Mercury and Slash spoke of learning to write songs, meeting in rank alleys and playing shows with no audience until people started showing up. Several mentioned Teresa Ensenat, the A&R woman who believed, and various business people who held together a band intent on breaking apart at the seams.
 
But the real truth of Guns’N Roses were the songs. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” stung with that consumed by lust and innocence that was kerosene, discovery and the obsession of discovery; “Paradise City” was the frenzied lash of the wrong place feeling better than anywhere you’d be safe inside.
 
Unraveling that circular guitar signature of “Sweet Child” brought the grown-ups to their feet, wine glasses sweeping the night, as they remembered when danger wasn’t something to avoid, love was consumptive and lust was the thing that saved you.
 
Slash, in particular, stood large:  fat tone, brutal downstroke and single notes that spike right through the sternum or third eye. Melodic, yet utterly without mercy, this is the ravage that drives you to pleasure--an audible remembrance of something forgotten, suddenly found and recognized on a cellular level.
 
For all the booing of Axl Rose, his absence didn’t dent his claim on dominance of the band’s soul as potently as the sheer performance of the survivors who’ve continued moving in the name of rock. Suddenly, the songs rose, the bitterness and blind rage of not having enough became a group truth in the most organic sense.
 
To quell the intensity a bit, Robbie Robertson brought his studied elegance to the stage for a protracted induction of Cosimo Matassa, Tom Dowd and Glyn Johns, three seminal engineers, true architects of sound, yet… a complete momentum-buster. Or perhaps breath-catcher. Either way, one can only wonder, since these are “business” people, why they wouldn’t be honored where there was a higher concentration of the people who’ve benefited from their work? Versus the hinterland where the fans mostly come to rock?
 
After the speeches, two from the children of the inductees, Chris Rock climbed onstage and, with an assassin’s timing, told of accidentally landing on the Red Hot Chili Peppers in an attempt not to blow all the money on drugs (“We had to get there early”) and see George Clinton throw down his funk.  Instead, he was confronted with a lot of white kids, a band that knew no bounds and ended up wearing only socks.

Three Grammys, 85 million records sold, the stats went on and on, but what Rock stressed was how hard the Peppers played. He intimated how hard they lived as wella fact the members past and present acknowledged not only without flinching, but with a compassion for the demons they’d outlived, the fate they’d managed to outwit and the grace that got them there.
 
“If Brian Wilson and George Clinton had a baby, it would be ugly as fuck, but it would sound like the Chili Peppers,” Rock said. Hyperbole, but also truth; humanity and mythology-in-the-making.
 
Flea, the most seek-and-destroy bass player in the bridge between punk and funk, was touching as tears welled in his eyes and he thanked his mother. But there was a bit of Puck, too, as he spoke of growing up playing basketball and going to school with some of the Gunners, the late Pepper Hillel Slovak convincing him he could play bass…

Anthony Kiedis as well balanced the tender with the truculent. Acknowledging a wild father and a mild mother for both his audacity and his poetry, he spoke of what being in a band truly means, the roguery and the standing by peoplein this case himin dire places for the sake of the music.

With a strong sense of compassion, for what they went through and himself for his noted drug addiction, he was proof one can emerge from those things stronger, harder and more focused. He also spoke of seeing Rick Rubin and George Clinton sitting together, the touchstones for all that the Peppers, a bunch of smart-ass kids with a hunger for the extremest funk, would become.
 
And it was a night for all who were a part of the tube-sock nation. Or as someone said, “the band who rocked out with their socks out,”which would also include Chad Smith, Josh Klingenhoffer, John Frusciante, Jack Irons and Cliff Martinez, as well as Slovak.

After a protracted pause, for the Peppers to strip off and strip down, they returned to ignite “By the Way.” Hardcore, yet euphoric, Flea’s bass throbbing like an erection well past the blue-balled stage, the harmonies that rarely get acknowledged honeyed the slam of what they were doing. It is the leavening that adds the impactand this night, the Peppers played it for all its worth.
 
After a well-executed “The Adventure of Rain Dance Maggie,” a well-known drum patterm began and even the exhausted servers found a second wind and began bobbing and moving in time.
 
All these years later, “Give It Away” is an anthem of how to live that eschews Up with People optimism for making it work in the streets. Penetrative, yet almost soothing, too, this was a call to who we were back when, but also a reminder of how to build a better future.
It was perfect. It could’ve ended there. But the brotherhood of rap and roll, rock and folk and whatever else confronts the edge is larger than any group of players, any number of variations within a group.
 
The Chili Peppers’ ecumenism meant calling to the stage Slash, Armstrong, Rolling Stone/Face-man Ron Wood, fellow Face Kenney Jones and, of course, their raison d’etre in Clinton. With the bass roiling up and over the crowd, it was a low-slung, high-jubilance take on Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” that jammed and rocked and saw solos pressing every edge of the soul classic into new directions.
 
When the groove is mighty, the players on fire, anything can happen. In Cleveland, Ohio, on this night, it was the build and release of recognizing that rock and roll is a mighty thing. It is about power and passion, pathos and the notion that rebellion is a strong fuel to lift one out of the morass.
 
Did the executives on hand realize that? Perhaps not, taking it as their due. But for 6000 screaming people in the balcony, it was a renewal of an implied promise made many years ago; it was everything that mainlining the highs of being alive entailedand surviving the lows to get there again.
 
Say what you want about the Rock Hall, about the process, about the behind the scenes machinations that cause discussion among those outside the gates. If the music is about the people, about the fans, the pilot light is strong and burningboth on that stage and in the balcony, where music was the only thing that truly mattered in a night that dragged on and on and on….
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