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A Promising Night Unravels

Pop music: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and memorable performances were all absent from Hall of Fame induction.


CLEVELAND — The 12th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner on Tuesday may have been held on the edge of Lake Erie, but there was a strong California spirit for much of the night in the grand ballroom of the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel.

Too bad there wasn't a lot more.

The decisions by Joni Mitchell and Neil Young not to attend the ceremony left a huge void at the heart of what could have been a dream night, since the careers of both California-based singer-songwriters were so closely intertwined with fellow inductees Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Mitchell's record company had announced last week that she would skip her induction because she was in the final stages of work on a new album and because she is enjoying being reunited after 32 years with the daughter she had placed for adoption.

But Young's absence caught the 1,400 guests at the $1,500-a-plate, black-tie affair by surprise. In a letter to the Hall of Fame Foundation that was released to the media Tuesday by his record label, Young said he feels the recent decision to televise the annual affair cheapens the event.

The dinner, Young charged, is now a "VH1 TV show . . . that has nothing to do with the spirit of rock 'n' roll. It has everything to do with making money."

Young also complained that performers aren't paid for appearing on the television show and that their remarks in induction and acceptance speeches are subject to the decisions of a VH1 editor--"someone who has absolutely no right to interfere."

Response Tuesday was swift.

"Neil Young is a great artist and a true rebel, but rock 'n' roll belongs to the people," John Sykes, president of the cable channel VH1, said in an interview before the dinner. "It shouldn't be some secret, clubby function."

Sykes added that under a new, two-year pact, VH1 pays the Hall of Fame Foundation more than $500,000 a year for the right to show highlights of the event on a delayed basis. Tuesday's event will be shown as a special on Friday at 8 and 10 p.m. and Saturday at 1 and 9 p.m.

The issue of whether to televise the affair is not a new one. Fearing a loss of spontaneity at the dinner, the foundation board refused to open the ceremony to television until 1995, when MTV carried highlights. Young, incidentally, was inducted as a solo artist that year. On Tuesday, he was scheduled to be inducted as a member of the Buffalo Springfield, the highly influential Los Angeles rock band of the late '60s.

"I think we were right to hold off for a while and give the event a chance to grow," Seymour Stein, a veteran record executive and president of the Hall of Fame board of directors, said in an interview Tuesday. "But we've gone past that point. You can't close the world out."

Outside of voicing respect for Young's right to stay home, there was little support among artists for Young's sentiments. Stephen Stills was thrilled to be placed in the hall alongside such personal heroes as Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

"If I had to come in a rowboat and stand outside, I would have," said Stills, who became the first person in the history of the awards to be inducted twice in the same year.

The absence of Mitchell and Young also contributed to a striking imbalance between music and speeches at the dinner, which was held for the first time in the home city of thespectacular, $92-million rock hall of fame and museum.

Besides Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Buffalo Springfield, the inductees were the Jackson 5, Parliament-Funkadelic, the Bee Gees and the Rascals. Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and gospel great Mahalia Jackson were inducted posthumously in the pre-rock influence category, and Syd Nathan, founder of King Records, was inducted posthumously in the non-performing category.

But there was just 45 minutes of music by inductees in a program that stretched a grueling four hours. What made matters all the more frustrating musically was having Michael Jackson and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, two of the giants of contemporary pop, go on and off stage without singing or playing a note.

Hopes for a Jackson 5 reunion were thwarted when brothers Michael, Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Tito accepted their awards in a lengthy hug-fest and then vanished. The former Prince, who was accompanied by his wife, Mayte, gave the induction speech for Parliament-Funkadelic, but didn't join the legendary funk outfit in its opening jam.


The evening's musical serving by the inductees would have been even briefer if the four Crosby, Stills & Nash tunes didn't average about six minutes each. The rest consisted of just the seven-minute jam by Parliament-Funkadelic, an equally short medley by the Bee Gees and about 10 minutes of hits by the Rascals.

Of the music, the CSN segment was the most vigorous musically--with Stills singing and playing guitar with gripping intensity. During "Teach Your Children," the trio was joined by James Taylor on guitar and Emmylou Harris on vocals.

On the closing number, "For What It's Worth," a song that Stills wrote during his Buffalo Springfield days, CSN was joined by Tom Petty and former Springfield members Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin.

But the evening will be remembered mostly as a talkfest--part of which was quite moving. In saluting the Jackson 5, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. declared that the group gave "black kids from the ghetto a license to dream."

James Taylor pointed to the soulful, sophisticated harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash as well as the social content of the group's recordings. "I think they helped an entire generation navigate themselves through very confusing times."

Unfortunately, the spoken highlights wouldn't add up to more than a handful of "Hollywood minutes" on CNN. This is one time the Hall of Fame broadcast is going to need an aggressive VH1 editor.

Sorry, Neil.

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