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Rush to Judgment: The Agony and Ecstasy of 2013’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

All-star Jam at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, April 18, Los Angeles

Hell hath no fury like a Rush fan scorned. For over a decade, the cult of the Toronto prog-rock power trio has been waiting for their idols to earn ingress into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have watched everyone from Alice Cooper to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Donovan to Genesis, be feted by the industry cabal comprising the institution’s voting panel. Last night at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles was their time, they had earned this and they had the Rush baseball jerseys to prove it.

There’s no such thing as a casual Rush fan (just read this list). It’s like a bizarre bespectacled triangulation of the Grateful Dead, Star Trek, and Hawkwind. Nerds who worship power. They transformed what was nominally a celebration to honor Quincy Jones, Heart, blues guitarist Albert King, producer Lou Adler, Public Enemy, Randy Newman, Donna Summer and yes, Rush, into a holy grail deleted scene from I Love You, Man. 

The ceremony included speeches and performances from Oprah Winfrey, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Usher, Harry Belafonte, Tom Petty, Gary Clark Jr., Booker T. & The MGs, Spike Lee, Dave Grohl, and Jennifer Hudson. Jack Nicholson and Russell “Rush” Simmons whooped in the audience. A surprise encore featured half the above names, plus Tom Morello and DMC, performing a cover of “Crossroads.” But for 92 percent of the room only three men were fit to wield the Rush moniker: drummer Neil Peart, bassist Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist who no one ever really talks about.

Fans were boozy and bathed in fluorescent light, air-slapping the bass, and impatiently waiting for their heroes to earn long-awaited canonization. Rhinestone Rush shirts and Rush uniforms were ubiquitous. Merch lines were almost as long as the band’s guitar solos. Bald ginger-bearded men breezed past in “Got Geddy” tees. A feeling of comeuppance was in the air. And when the group’s chosen inductor, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, ruminated on the question of when exactly “Rush became cool,” two bros in front of me ripped off their T-shirts, hugged, and high-fived.  

While the Canucks monopolized the mood inside Nokia, the most memorable moments from the 28th annual ceremony arrived via artists who didn’t write concept albums about a world ruled by the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx. The ceremony airs on HBO on Saturday, May 18, hopefully pared down from the four-and-a-half hour live version. In the interim, here’s a breakdown of what went down on the night that Rush finally joined the ranks of John Mellencamp and the Dave Clark Five.

Inductee: Randy Newman

Presenter: Don Henley

Henley quoted the maxim from the late Buddy Rich: “there’s two types of music, good and bad, and Randy Newman’s been making extraordinary music for decades.”

He continued: “Randy Newman has written songs about the hypocritical and the honorable parts of our culture with biting humor but empathy for the human condition…He’s American to the core, depicting this country in all its shame and glory … even though the general public knows him best as the guy who wrote the song about short people.”

Acceptance Speech: The ever-mordant Newman took the stage and declared, “I was so moved by [Henley’s speech] that I didn’t know what was happening.” Then he tongue-in-cheek described Henley as a “great writer and artist who has had some success with the band he was in.”

Newman reminisced on being a child on the studio lot and watching his uncles conduct the 20th Century Fox orchestra: “All I wanted was to grow up and be respected by musicians…It means a great deal to me to have the respect of those people and this night means a lot to me.”

Then Newman quipped, “I hope that the fact that I rushed my performance of [“I Love LA”] doesn’t mean that I get kicked out of the hall on my first night.” He briefly choked up and smirked, ‘it’s hard for me to express a genuine emotion, as you can tell by my writing.”

Random Fact Discovered: Newman grew up in L.A., but spent the first ten summers of his life in New Orleans.

Performance: No longer resembling the Peter Sellers and Harold Ramis hybrid of his youth, the grey-haired Newman kick-started the night with a rollicking performance of “I Love L.A.,” backed by a whirring montage of the Hollywood sign, five singers, a horn section, and a guitar trio of Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and John Fogerty. The latter goes for a guitar solo that seems wholly designed to wow Rush fans. It works. He follows it up with “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and “I Am Dead (But I Don’t Know It).” Henley delivers backing vocals on the latter. Jack Nicholson is seen in the crowd flashing a gleeful joker smile several times during the performance.

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 5. Even Rush fans have to respect Randy Newman, if nothing else for dedicating an anthem to short people.

Inductee: Lou Adler

Presenters: Cheech & Chong

The comedy pair, whose albums were produced by Adler, reminisced about the first time they entered the producer’s office on the A&M lot. Chong fake-snorts the lines that he remembers being on his desk. Chong calls mega-producer Adler “special…because he’s one of the first black guys to ever be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame.” (Adler is not black.)

Cheech claims Adler is a “stealth producer. You don’t know what he’s done until you see the royalty check.”

Acceptance Speech: Wearing the garish suits, bright-white glasses, and beard that have become his trademark, Adler tells the story of his life from growing up in Boyle Heights to producing for Sam Cooke, Jan and Dean, Carol King’s Tapestry. He describes the early days when he and Herb Alpert went door to door around L.A., knocking on every independent record company in town.

“I love producing because it’s about that feeling you get when you know something is going to be a hit, before anyone else hears it or gets the numbers.”

He describes his first meeting with the Mamas and the Papas: “Barry McGuire asked if he could bring some friends to audition for me. This was way before MTV, so I would close my eyes and picture the artist’s auditioning on the radio. Cass had a voice as big as she was…and she was big…John Phillips was one of the most innovative vocal arrangers of the last 50 years…They were coming off 80 psychedelic trips and looked like it.”

He also remembers recording Tapestry with King: “I remember vividly that day that [King] and I were going over her new songs and she turns to me and says ‘how about this one’ and then she plays ‘you’ve got a friend.'”

Random Facts Discovered: His first office was a telephone booth at Will Rodgers State Beach, chosen because Jan and Dean liked to play volleyball there.

Performance: Carole King performs an impassioned rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” at a large black Steinway, before a video montage of Adler in increasingly ridiculous suits and hats.

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 6. Rush fans do not really fuck with Carole King, but they have innate sympathies for anything made during the Me Decade.

Inductee: Quincy Jones

Presenter: Oprah Winfrey

Leave it to super-producer Quincy Jones to trot out the biggest presenter imaginable. Oprah Winfrey honors the man who discovered her by declaring, “I’m rarely at a loss for words but when it comes to trying to find the words about Quincy Jones, I’m at a loss for words.”

She re-tells the story of being a local Chicago anchorwoman on AM Chicago randomly picked by Jones to star in The Color Purple.

According to Winfrey: “The safest place in the world is Q’s heart…he is a living legend who defies and defines the word…he is the most generous soul on earth, not only does he have an eye for talent, but he knows how to nurture it.” She also declares that she wants to be like Quincy Jones when she grows up.

Acceptance Speech: Jones delivers the longest speech night, an occasionally rambling 30-minute monologue that touches on everything from the day he first decided to learn the piano to asking Michael Jackson if he could “have a crack at” producing what would become Off the Wall.

Jones’ speech is the Yoda moment of the night; he is slightly doddering and at times mumbly, but he is clearly the elder Jedi in a room full of people who have seen the Star Wars trilogy more than a few times.

Jones dispenses the best advice he ever heard, given to him by the late saxophonist Ben Webster: “In every country that you go to, listen to all the music that real people listen to, the food they eat, and learn 30 or 40 words in their language.”

Despite being 80 years old, he is the only inductee to use the phrases, “triple OG” and “pimp slap.” He urges against the categorization of music, declares that Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were the Mozart and Beethoven of the 20th Century, and says that “jazz is the root of all popular music…we cannot let it die.”

Performance: Usher kicks an impressive imitation of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” complete with moonwalks, red bow tie, black leather suit, hip thrust and effortless glides across the stage. Somewhere Ne-Yo is seething.

Random Facts Discovered: Jones discovered he wanted to be a musician at 11 when he broke into a nearby armory looking to steal food and army supplies. “I saw a piano in the dark in one of the rooms and I almost closed the door, but something said to me, ‘get in that room, your future is there.’ I went into that room and I touched the piano and the voice said, ‘that’s what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.’ I knew if I hadn’t gone back in that room, I’d be dead or in jail today.”

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 5. Even Rush fans have to give it up for Quincy Jones.

Inductee: Public Enemy

Presenters: Spike Lee and Harry Belafonte

Wearing his Mookie outfit, Spike Lee recounts the tale of how Public Enemy brought him “Fight the Power” and how the song made Do the Right Thing into “the film that it is.” According to Lee, it was Public Enemy’s second attempt at a theme song, after he initially told Chuck D that the first one wouldn’t cut it.

Belafonte praises Public Enemy as “radical revolutionaries who came to change absolutely everything about the urban musical force called rap.” He says they are the latest in a long line that stretches back to Paul Robeson.”

Acceptance Speech: Flavor Flav delivers an off-course and extemporaneous 20-minute speech while giggling like a lunatic. He thanks Chuck for writing the records and calls him “the motor of the group.” He cites the group’s ability to get the state of Arizona to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. day as a career highlight. He repeatedly apologizes to Chuck D, acknowledging, “I know you want me to hurry up.” Chuck nods; the audience laughs nervously.

Then Flav declares that he’s been wearing the same clock since 1987 and now he can finally retire it and put it in the Rock Hall. He insists that he will buy another clock.

Chuck D follows with a brief speech, mentioning the importance of being inducted in the presence of Belafonte and Jones. He declares their music, “raptivism,” and hails its influences that include DJ culture, Louis Farrakhan, and Anthrax.

Performance: Easily one of the night’s most memorable, Public Enemy performed “Bring the Noise” and “Fight the Power” with both Terminator X and DJ Lord and the S1W. He roars “Elvis never meant shit to me” in front of a room full of people who worship Presley’s sequin jumpsuit. Flav does a brief version of “911 Is a Joke.” Terminator X does a quick tribute to Quincy Jones. It is the hardest moment in the history of the Rock Hall of Fame. The camera even cuts to Oprah Winfrey and she’s dancing and feeling it. 

Random Facts Discovered: None really, but Chuck knows how to get an applause line better than anyone else, declaring that all this “comes from the blues…but we’ll still manipulate a ‘Tom Sawyer’ and fuck it up.”

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 9. Flavor Flav gets booed mid-ramble. A drunken Rush fan mumbles “blah blah blah” as Belafonte delivers his speech. The room briefly teeters on the verge of warfare between the Rush horde and the 18 Public Enemy acolytes in the room, including a head-nodding Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.

Inductee: Donna Summer

Presenter: Kelly Rowland

Rowland describes the late Summer as “the Queen of Disco…a voice that feet and legs and bodies can’t resist…her compassion and sensitivity were as great as her voice.'”

Acceptance Speech: Summer’s widow remembers her as “excited, gracious, funny and grateful…There were no gold records or Grammy’s in our house because [Summer] didn’t think it was a good idea to live under the shadow of what she had done.”

Performance: Jennifer Hudson does complete justice to both “Bad Girls” and “Last Dance” in a silver sequin body suit. Hot stuff.

Random Fact Discovered: Summer’s husband had begged her for years to do an album of standards. Once the deal was ironed out and she was set to enter the studio, she backed out at the last minute because she had new songs that she felt she needed to record.

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 4. Even Rush fans aren’t insensate to the charms of the Queen of Disco. Two Rush-heads in front of me even chant, “sing it sister” at Jennifer Hudson.

Inductee: Albert King

Presenter: John Mayer

John Mayer delivers a heartfelt 20-minute speech about how he became a blues guitarist thanks to Stevie Ray Vaughn, but arrived at Albert King thanks to Vaughn’s advocacy for his chief inspiration. He breaks down King’s innovative guitar technique by imitating his emotive Gibson Flying V riffs. It is an impressive imitation that again proves that John Mayer is the Lisa Simpson of the Blues. Albert King is his Bleeding Gums Murphy.

Acceptance Speech: N/A. King’s daughter and granddaughter graciously accept the award for the late bluesman.

Performance: Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. duet on “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Booker T. Jones handles keyboards. It’s undeniably a special moment, but for all it’s technical mastery, it’s surprisingly dull. The guitar solos are so long that you could’ve walked to Clarksdale, made a deal with a devil, and walked back all before John Mayer finished making his guitar face.

Random Fact Discovered: John Mayer thinks Albert King was the very definition of a “cool cat.”

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 7. The ceremony is now over the three-hour mark. Rush fans are getting increasingly wrecked.

Inductee: Heart

Presenter: Chris Cornell

A fellow Seattle native, Cornell lauds the Wilson sisters as “superheroes with the power us mortals would never have.” He claims “it never occurred to us that the Wilson’s were women … gender was not mentioned because Heart clearly held their own…kicking total ass and all sexist barriers in front of them…It was pretty ballsy rock’n’roll.”

Performance: Heart is the most surprisingly excellent performance of the night. Though they are essentially relegated to the nostalgia circuit, Ann Wilson’s voice remains volcanic and Nancy Wilson never forgot how to shred. They tear through “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” and dedicate a poignant acoustic rendition of “Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child)” to their parents.

Random Fact Discovered: When Cornell was a young struggling songwriter in Seattle, he was putting his gear in his Ford Galaxy after a gig. At the time, he was debating quitting music altogether — then he saw Ann Wilson pulling out of a private studio in her Porsche and that image kept him on the way to finding his voice.

If this moment never occurred, we might never have gotten “Black Hole Sun.” We also might never have suffered through Audioslave.

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 5. Rush fans love them some Heart.

Inductee: Rush

Presenters: Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters

Grohl recalls when he first heard Rush in 1976. A “cool stoner older cousin” gave him a copy of 2112 reeking of incense and covered in “suspicious pollen.” He also describes a Rush press photo where they are dressed in kimonos and skintight pants. There is a camel toe joke. Crowd goes wild. If you aren’t into Rush, the speech is basically like Homer Simpson describing the merits of Grand Funk Railroad. If you are into Rush, this is a validation of your life. Grohl used to be in Nirvana and Nirvana was considered cool, ergo…

Performance: The Foo Fighters perform a Rush tribute while dressed in fake wigs, mustaches and kimonos. Rush perform “Tom Sawyer.” The volume in the room far exceeds any noise that Justin Bieber could ever summon from the Beliebers. There are people sobbing and hugging and fist-pumping and bass slapping. The band is tight and muscular — essentially a metal jam band for fantasy fans. This is the closest the crowd will ever come to heaven on Earth or at least the Fountain of Lamneth.

Random Fact Discovered: Geddy Lee is Jewish.

On a Scale of 1-10, How Impatient Did it Make Rush Fans: 0! Are you kidding?