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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Everybody hurts

Addiction, loss, tragedy -- and the rebel spirit that can shine through. All have their moment at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.

March 14, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

New York — THE conflicts involved in any long life lived by the artist's code were reflected in many discomfiting moments at this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But the stubborn exuberance of rock's rebel establishment -- a quality that inductee Patti Smith succinctly described as "joy" -- washed over the mournfulness and made everything beautiful, in patches.

That's what popular music does for its fans and its makers: Its glimmer and crash overtake life's ordinary woes and offer a glimpse of something bigger, louder, freer. Fans treasure its momentary release, but its creators often compromise health and stability to serve that rush.

The famous folk inducting honorees kept invoking that super-charged energy. "They could sing all the way right through a Wall of Sound," Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said of the Ronettes, playing with the phrase coined by producer Phil Spector to describe the sound he'd pioneered with that group.

Welcoming Smith, Zack de La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine described rock's poet queen as "one of the sparks that set the punk prairie fire" that ignited in the mid-1970s. And Jay-Z celebrated the music of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Hall's first hip-hop induction, as "the shot heard round the world."

Thrilled to be recognized, these luminaries also unabashedly showed their scars.

The Ronettes, first up for induction, formed the pink-and-blue dream of teen romance in such songs as "Walking in the Rain" (while singing it, Ronnie Spector caught the mournfulness that often slips between the notes of hope). The shadow haunting this group, above all girl groups, is of romance gone wrong: Spector's ex-husband Phil, notorious for his abusive treatment of Ronnie, is about to go on trial in the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. Neither Ronnie Spector nor Nedra Talley, who both gave effusive acceptance speeches, mentioned him. After the women exited, and house bandleader Paul Shaffer read a note from Phil Spector congratulating his former intimates, the crowd's awkward applause reinforced the message that teen dreams only go so far in gaining forgiveness for serious sins.

When Flash and his crew performed, they did so with a white Stetson hanging from a microphone stand to honor member Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins, who died in 1989 after struggling with crack addiction. Rapper Melle Mel implored that hip-hop no longer support a "culture of violence," in effect mourning a genre that's only begun to enter into maturity -- as inductor Jay-Z, whose raps have often glamorized the drug trade, sheepishly stood by. Does the honor bestowed Monday signal a new era for rap, the beginning of the end? Flash and the Five, looking healthy and performing with panache, offered hope; but that cowboy hat reminded everyone of the risks involved in the street life that rap often extols.

Such informal elegies were mirrored by two written into the program. One, graced by a lovely vocal showcase from Aretha Franklin, remembered Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. The other, by Rev. Al Sharpton for James Brown, came right after Patti Smith's performance and caused the night's oddest juxtaposition. Smith ended her set with "Rock N Roll ... ," whose full title means to claim the notorious "N" word for all living "outside society." Seeing one icon of black pride memorializing another after Smith's guileless gesture of solidarity raised itchy questions about pop utopianism in light of real politics.

Hair metal inventors Van Halen represented a different dream -- the ultimate hedonism of the song title "Bottoms Up!" -- but the band's pathetic fumble of its induction showed how such indulgences often end in vomit and tears. The group's founder, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, chose to enter rehab instead of attending the event; his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, was also absent. David Lee Roth, suffering from good old hubris, opted out at the last minute because he and the event's organizers couldn't agree on what he would perform. Only bassist Michael Anthony and jovial second vocalist Sammy Hagar were on hand. The two rock vets did their best in a weird situation, but one couldn't help but think how much the absent members would regret missing their big night.

If Van Halen was a sad example of rock excess too heartily embraced, Smith reminded everyone that a bohemian life often entails sacrifice. She began her acceptance speech almost in tears, remembering the many loved ones -- especially her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith of pioneering Detroit hard-rock group the MC5 -- who died before being able to share her achievement.

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