By Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK – Now into its second quarter-century, its rebellious youth largely a memory and its adolescence rapidly receding into the past, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony canonized Neil Diamond, the Alice Cooper band, Tom Waits, Dr. John and Darlene Love as its newest performer honorees on Monday night at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan.
All five had long been eligible under the hall’s requirement that acts only become candidates 25 years after the release of their first recording, making this something of a catch-up year for those like Cooper, Diamond and Love, all of whom sold millions of records in their prime, or in the cases of Waits and Dr. John, artists whose critically admired work hadn’t been accompanied by the kind of commercial success that might have helped usher them into the hall earlier.
The performers quickly made up for lost time, though. Upon being inducted by his shock-rock disciple Rob Zombie, Cooper and his band mates opened with a string of their hook-filled ‘70s hits accompanied by a choir of ghoulishly outfitted and makeup-laden kids from the Ronald McDonald house of New York. It was an aptly dramatic moment from an artist whose onstage theatrics have often overshadowed his hits – teenage classics such as “School’s Out” and “Eighteen.”
In typical fashion, as mature and respectable as the hall of fame has grown over time, singer and frontman Vincent Furnier, a.k.a. Cooper, made his acceptance speech with his neck and shoulders draped with a yellow boa – the snake, not the scarf. Then he saluted his wife on their 35th wedding anniversary.
Bette Midler referenced her own status among the overlooked when inducting Love. “I’m so happy to be here,” she told the black-tie audience of several hundred that also included Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Geldof and Robbie Robertson among its rock star elite. “Now when you Google ‘Bette Midler’ and ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’ at least something will come up.”
Midler said that Love’s voice on such Phil Spector-produced hits as “He’s a Rebel” had “changed the world. Now girls all wanted the rebel guy. … She picked us up by the scruff of our necks and shook the starch out of us.” Midler later joined the jam session for a rousing version of “He’s a Rebel.”
Near tears, Love noted that she will turn 70 later this year, and thanked Spector “for recognizing my talent and making me the main voice in his Wall of Sound.” Her speech elicited a standing ovation. Later, she sang “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” with Springsteen playing a lowdown solo on a Telecaster.
Art Rupe, founder of Los Angeles-based Specialty Records, which was home to Little Richard and, for a time, Sam Cooke, was entered into the hall as a recipient of the Ahmet Ertegun Award, given to noteworthy record executives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the New Orleanian who first turned heads. Even before he came onstage following his induction by John Legend, R&B-funk-meister Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, stood out in his neon purple attire amid a sea of penguin-suited men and evening-gown-bedecked women. Rebennack is best known for his virtuoso piano version of “Iko Iko” and his own classics “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and “Right Place Wrong Time,” which he played Monday with full-force backing from the 20-piece, Paul Shaffer-led big band and chorus. Legend joined for a piano fest on “Such a Night.”
Dr. John has been a crucial figure in the pantheon of New Orleans rock, funk and R&B for 50 years. But he, too, has held more of a cult following rather than the kind of broad-based popularity that has worked in favor of so many inductees over the years.
Conversely, Neil Diamond came onstage snapping digital photos of the crowd before him, capturing a moment that he perhaps thought might never arrive for the opposite reason. Despite his widely respected skills as a songwriter and his long history as an entertainer known for appealing to Middle America, he’d previously been passed over at least in part because of those mainstream tendencies.
“Why so long?” wondered Paul Simon while saluting Diamond, before answering his own question. “I have a theory. Six words: ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.’ Beautiful love song. Recorded with Barbra Streisand, one of the great voices of our time. But Barbra Streisand, rock and roll? I don’t think they even allow that kind of DNA near this place.”
For his part, Waits, whose work over the last four decades he has described as composed of “brawlers, bawlers and bastards,” pondered the usefulness of his award. Upon learning of his nomination in December, Waits had released a typically wry statement: “I never really cared about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame … but now I am surprised to discover how much I DO care.”
On Monday night, after a loopily poetic introduction from fellow musical iconoclast Neil Young (who later joined Waits for a rendition of the latter’s “Get Behind the Mule”), the newly enshrined Waits identified one potential reason for his excitement. Holding the statuette, he noted that it was “really heavy.
I’m wondering if there’s a keychain version I can keep on me so some day a guy will say ‘Pete, take the cuffs off – he’s a hall of famer.’ “