I've been a dedicated Guns N' Roses fan for nearly 25 years. I first saw the "Welcome to the Jungle" video when I was in the third grade. That very weekend I had my mom take me to Camelot Music so I could buy the cassette of Appetite for Destruction... but when the cashier told her it contained curse words, I went home empty handed (I ended up copying the tape from a neighbor - sorry Recording Industry). I never got to see the original or Illusions-era lineup in concert – my parents forbade it – but I have seen the modern roster twice; it would've been three times, but the Philly show I went to in 2002 ended in an Axl-less riot. So when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced that GnR would be inducted, I knew I had to go to Cleveland on the slim chance they would reunite.
In December I bought two tickets
during the public on-sale and convinced a good friend (and fellow GnR fanatic)
to go with me. At that point I had no idea which band members, if any,
would show up, or what they would do. But on the slim chance they
reunited, there was no way I could miss this. Plus their fellow inductees included the Beastie Boys, Red
Hot Chili Peppers, Donovan, and Small Faces/Faces, so even if the reunion fell
through, I’d be guaranteed some star power.
By Saturday morning, the situation had become much clearer… and much more disappointing. There would be no Guns N’ Roses reunion performance. Axl not only refused to show up, he rejected his induction altogether. Izzy also took a pass. A case of strep throat forced Rod Stewart out of the Faces reunion. John Frusciante politely declined to participate with the Chili Peppers. And I'd heard rumblings that the Beastie Boys wouldn't attend because of MCA's ongoing cancer treatment. Would this trip be a major waste of time and money?
The ceremony started promptly at 8pm. My friend noted that it was the first GnR show to ever start on time. The curtain rised to reveal Green Day, who launch into “Letterbomb.” Billie Joe urged the crowd, “Stand up, you motherf**kers. This is not a party… this is a celebration, motherf**kers!” Everyone complied. The band sounded great, but I’m not sure why they picked this song, or why the Hall picked Green Day.
Terry Stewart, the President of the Hall of Fame, thanked the 6,000 fans in attendance. It was a bizarre mix of black tie and concert t-shirts. Where I was sitting in the upper level, there were no tuxes but MANY concert tees.
Hall of Fame founder Jann Wenner, also the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, quickly ran through the name of all the inductees. The Beastie Boys got the loudest cheers, by far. He also said that Rod Stewart, Adam Yauch, and Axl would not be there. Fifteen minutes in, and already Axl’s demand that nobody mention his name has been violated.
Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill (the two bearded members of ZZ Top) inducted blues legend Freddie King, then rocked out on a blues jam. Ah, those beards!
In his induction speech for Donovan, John Mellencamp said, “I wasn’t just listening to Donovan, I was living Donovan. Which means I was stealing from him.” Donovan performed “Catch the Wind” and “Sunshine Superman,” and Mellencamp joined in for ‘Season of the Witch.” It’s great, but it’s already 9:25pm and we’ve only inducted two artists. This would be a long night.
Bette Midler inducted songwriter Laura Nyro, who she claimed influenced Elton John, Elvis Costello and… Kanye West? Sara Bareilles performed“Stoney End,” and people seemed generally unenthused.
The Ahmet Ertegun Award went to Don Kirshner, who Carole King said had the “golden ear.” Darlene Love sang “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in his honor. I still feel that Love’s induction last year was unwarranted. But wow, she sure can belt a tune.
An In Memoriam package featured Ledisi singing Etta James’ “At Last.” In a montage featuring Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Davy Jones, Clarence Clemons draws the biggest crowd response. Nate Dogg was a close second.
Steve van Zandt inducted The Small Faces/Faces. He claimed that unlike their peers from that era (The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Pretty Things), The Small Faces “were actually good looking.” He also noted that between Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart, the band was fronted by two of the greatest white soul singers of all time. Sadly we got to hear neither; Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall handled vocals on “All or Nothing,” “Ooh La La” and “Stay with Me.” He’s no Rod, but he nailed it.
Smokey Robinson inducted six backing bands whose frontmen have already been inducted: The Comets, The Crickets, The Famous Flames, The Miracles, The Midnighters, and The Blue Caps. There are 13 recipients on stage to accept their awards, and they each took a turn to speak. No offense to them, but I used this as an opportunity to run to the bathroom.
Chuck D and LL Cool J teamed up to praise the Beastie Boys. LL said that “Run DMC brought rap to the edge of suburbia; the Beastie Boys drove it right into the center of town.” Chuck D asserted that “they were – and still are – one of the greatest live acts in music.” Unfortunately we have to take his word for it, as Ad-Rock and Mike D gave gracious speeches and read a letter from MCA, but did not perform. Instead we got the Roots, with rhymes spit by Black Thought, Kid Rock, and Travie McCoy (all clad in green Adidas track suits). It was a montage of “No Sleep til Brooklyn,” “So What’cha Want,” “Sabotage” and “The New Style.” Hands down, the Beastie Boys were the most popular of this year’s inductees, at least among the people in the room.
then it was time. Green Day stepped to the podium. There were a few yells of “F**k you, Axl.” Billie Joe called Appetite for Destruction the best debut in the history of rock n' roll. Of course I agreed. Billie then went through the members of Guns N’ Roses, heaping praise on Slash, Duff, Steven Adler, and Matt Sorum. Dizzy Reed and Gilby Clarke, much less praise. When he got to Axl, the boos were deafening. Billie told everyone to “shut the f**k up” and called Axl one of the best frontment to ever pick up a mic. He then said Axl’s also “f**king crazy.” The guys took turns speaking: first Duff, then Adler, Slash, and Sorum, who made way too many drug jokes in an attempt to sound cool. Sorum is also the only one who refered to Axl, although not by name. Gilby didn’t get to say a word, which I imagine was par for the course during his tenure.
And then they walked over to their instruments. With Sorum on drums, they launched into “Mr. Brownstone.” Myles Kennedy, who sings on Slash’s new solo album, was on vocals, with help from Billie Joe. Adler took over for Sorum on “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City.” I think this was Adler’s first time performing with the band since 1990, and he couldn’t have been happier; I’m not sure if his smile was bigger, or mine. I’m telling you, the music sounds as good than ever. GnR music had such a distinct, unmistakable tone when the band first came out, and they still do. Kennedy did a more-than-serviceable job under the circumstances; he can hit the notes better than modern Axl can, but there’s less character in his voice, and much less snake dancing.
And before you knew it, they walked offstage. It was over.
How did one follow this? With Robbie Robertson of The Band inducting a trio of engineers. The air was successfully sucked out of the room.
The last presenter was Chris Rock, there to honor the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He explained that he discovered the Chili Peppers in the '80s when he went to the wrong club, meaning to see a Grandmaster Flash concert. In an intro peppered with jokes, his best line was, “If Brian Wilson and George Clinton had a kid, he’d be ugly as f**k… but he’d sound like the Chili Peppers.” There were a lot of acceptances speeches, by Cliff Martinez, Jack Irons, Hillel Slovak’s brother, Chad, Flea (who chokes up more than once), and finally Anthony Kiedis, who thanked the Hall of Fame by saying, “Thank God rock and roll is open to interpretation.” He also slayed with a story in which Flea threatened to quit the band, but Anthony talked him out of it by saying “I was gonna be the James Brown of the '80s!” The current line-up did “By the Way” and “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” then Martinez and Irons joined in for “Give It Away” (it was the first time Cliff has performed with the band in more than 25 years). These guys know how to deliver a killer live show.
Finally it was time for the group jam. Kiedis tries to track down Billy Gibbons and Smokey Robinson, but they’d either left the building or had no interest. Or maybe they’d fallen asleep: it was 1:15am. They did recruit Slash, Ronnie Wood, George Clinton, Billie Joe, and Tre Cool for a roof-raising rendition of “Higher Ground.” They ended the show with a surge of energy, five-and-a-half hours after it began.
Now that it was over, I had mixed emotions. I was proud to have supported my favorite band of my lifetime, and thrilled that the members who came gave such a killer performance. Yet Axl and Izzy’s absence stung very badly. I’ll continue to support the band in anything that they do. But my hope for a reunion is pretty much dead. If last night couldn’t bring them together, I fear nothing will.