NEW YORK — Rock 'n' roll has always been about music--not speeches. So it's no surprise that the all-star jam sessions generate the most media attention each year at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies--except on those nights when Beach Boy Mike Love is popping off about Paul McCartney and Diana Ross not showing up.
But those spontaneous sessions are usually better seen than just heard. The music itself is spirited, but understandably ragged. The treat is in watching the likes of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Billy Joel and Neil Young (from this year's cast) huddling between numbers, trying to figure out what song to do next.
A second, surprising element, however, has emerged to rival the jam sessions among fan interest: the induction speeches.
It's disarming to hear some of rock's most celebrated figures speak with the affection and humility of devoted fans when describing the way other artists--including rivals--inspired or stirred them.
In inducting the Beach Boys at this month's dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Elton John recalled how the California group's music inspired him as a composer and how it summarized in the '60s everything he imagined that was wonderful about America.
The good news about the speeches is that you don't have to be at the dinner to appreciate them. They stand up well on paper and audiotape.
There must be hundreds of tapes in circulation of Springsteen's salute last year to Roy Orbison--tapes passed among Springsteen fans with as much eagerness as the bootleg of a favorite concert.
In that brief address, Springsteen spoke in warm, intimate terms of the effect Orbison's music has had on him. He told about riding 15 hours in the back of a U-Haul truck in 1970 just to open a show for Orbison and recalled how as a teen-ager, he was both frightened and enthralled with images in Orbison's classic '60s tales about the exhilaration and torments of romance.
The speech was widely distributed--both in the informal tapes passed around the industry and in a reprint on the back of an Orbison album--and its personalized style no doubt served as a model for several of the musicians who gave induction speeches at this month's Hall of Fame dinner.
Mick Jagger, in inducting the Beatles, thanked his longtime rivals for giving the Rolling Stones a song (Lennon-McCartney's "I Wanna Be Your Man") that became their first hit, for encouraging him to write songs and for opening a door for all British bands in America. "We had a lot of rivalry in those early years and a little bit of friction," Jagger said at the dinner. "But we always ended up friends and I'd like to think we still are. . . ."
Little Richard drew the biggest laugh of the night for this playful tribute to the Supremes: "I love them so much because they remind me of myself--they dress like me."
The most eloquent remarks, however, were by Billy Joel, in behalf of the Drifters, and Springsteen, who gave the induction speech for Bob Dylan.
There was in the best music of the Drifters a sweetness and innocence and a promise of better times--and Joel wove the titles of several Drifters hits (including "Up on the Roof," "Under the Boardwalk" and "On Broadway") into a story that reflected the inspiration that he saw in that music.
His comments, in part, "I grew up in a housing development . . . out on Long Island called Levittown. I was in a gang--everyone joined a gang so they could be different than the kids who were in other gangs . . . back then this made a lot of sense.
"This was (in the early '60s) when a roof was just the top of a house, a boardwalk was just a long stretch of wood . . . Broadway was this street in New York City where old people with blue hair went to see plays . . . and the last dance was something you never hung around for. The Drifters changed all this for my gang. . . .
"Before President Kennedy was shot, before the British invasion, before the counterculture, before all hell broke loose, the Drifters offered my gang an alternative life style. They gave us the word and the word was this: Don't just stay in the house and stare at the ceiling, go up on the roof and stare at the stars and even Levittown looked good from up there. . . ."
Springsteen not only saluted the songwriting contributions that made Dylan rock's second most important figure, but he also challenged the tendency of the rock audience to measure a veteran artist's contemporary work by unreasonably high standards.
The speech, in part: "Dylan was a revolutionary. The way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellect. . . .