They came. They laughed. They cried. They brought down the house.
That's basically the new order of things at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, which started off this year like all others. Luminaries including Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bette Midler, John Mayer and Michael J. Fox caught up over chicken pot pie and dessert samplers inside NYC's Waldorf Astoria Hotel before HOF honcho Jann Wenner surprised everyone by declaring why this night would truly be different than all other nights: The first half of the usually endless ceremony would get the snoozier awards and speeches out of the way while the landmark performances would run uninterrupted together in the second half like a giant jam session from heaven (or more like 2009's 25th Anniversary concerts at Madison Square Garden).
What nobody expected is that the speeches would be just as entertaining -- if not more so - than the big numbers. After fairly run-of-the-mill acceptances from Dr. John (who confessed, "Music is a blessing) and famed Electra Records head Jac Holzman (who was presented by a bongo-beating and Jim Morrison-quoting John Densmore), Midler brought in her signature guffaws by turning her introduction of singer Darlene Love into a stand-up routine. "At least now when you Google Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and my name something will come up!" Midler joked. Well, certainly she's the only one on that stage to ever tell a joke about combining Lipitor and Viagra, so that should be enough.
Rob Zombie also made a vivid statement, likening his hero, Alice Cooper, to a "murderous gang of drag queens." After a rousing midway-point special treat set by the band's original members of "I'm Eighteen," "Under My Wheels," and "School's Out" (backed by a children's choir in ghoulish makeup that caused Zeta Jones to jump out of her seat brandishing a Cooper-like whip!), Cooper himself concurred, "We've always been a hard rock band. We just decorated it a bit differently," while holding a yellow python. Way to make a statement, as always, Alice.
Following a bathroom break (Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Fox all found themselves in the little rock stars' room!), Young inducted a self-deprecating Tom Waits, who admitted, "They say I'm difficult and I have no hits. And they say that like it's a BAD thing!" But it was the Elton John-led induction of Leon Russell that was the emotional crux of the evening, with John telling the fabled story of their friendship and reciting the unprecedented laundry list of historic recordings his crony had played on. But after Russell took the stage to thank John for finding "me in a ditch on the highway of life and pull[ing] me out of the gutter and treat[ing] me like a king," John noticeably broke down in tears on the side of the stage.
But the real winner for most laughs of the night went to Neil Diamond, who picked up his award from buddy Paul Simon (who dubbed him the Jewish Elvis and picked on Diamond's 1978 smash "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" by saying of his duet partner, "If it's Barbara Streisand, it's not rock and roll!"). Coming off like everybody's favorite uncle, Diamond started and ended his speech by taking pictures of the crowd with his handheld digital camera, and spent his speech recounting his crushing flight to the awards from Australia ("Where am I?" he asked) and how his career has been best served to pay for his kids and grandkids dental work. Ever the charmer...
As for the performances that made up the second half, it was a typical HOF Induction ultimate game of Rock Band: Waits and Young joined up for "Get Behind The Mule." Paul Shaffer backed up Judy Collins on a gorgeous "Both Sides Now." Dr. John and John Legend knocked pianos on "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Such A Night." John Mayer made a surprise appearance backing up Leon Russell on "Delta Lady and A Song For You." Springsteen joined his hero Darlene Love on "Zip A Dee Doo Da," "Today I Met The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" and her No. 1 anthem "He's A Rebel," which also brought out Midler again.
But it was Diamond who stole the show during the performance portion with TWO renditions of his karaoke favorite "Sweet Caroline," as well as his first hit, "Cherry Cherry" and "I Am I Said." And finally, after John joined Russell on "Stagger Lee" was the big final rumble, with Love, Midler, John, Diamond and Cooper joining forces for a roof-rattling "Da Doo Run Run." And my heart stood still, alright.
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