Is Bruce Springsteen a man or a machine? Is he Superman? These are the questions that ran through my mind last night as Springsteen and his E Street Band literally picked up the six-hour Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anniversary show at Madison Square Garden and breathed life into it.
The show, which started at 7:30, lived on a weird mix of sedation, old fights, and punctuations of soul for its first four hours. It was divided into sections after Jerry Lee Lewis emerged to play’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Crosby, Stills & Nash commanded a deadly hour with Bonnie Raitt ‘ the only featured female of the night, plus James Taylor and Jackson Browne. It wasn’t the artists’ fault but it was too much of the same thing, and ‘ coupled with the 98% all white audience ‘ they lent a creepy start to the history of rock and roll. I kept expecting Pat Boone to come out and join them in an acapella “Tutti Frutti.”
Instead, it was time for “Family Feud” with Simon & Garfunkel. After Paul Simon (who is really a devastatingly good songwriter, if not the best) delivered a couple of his solo hits, he brought out Little Anthony and the Imperials. They were the first black artists on stage after two hours. For some reason, Anthony chose “Two Kinds of People,” a little obscure, instead of “Hurts So Bad.” Still, the audience loved them as much as they adored Dion DiMucci on “The Wanderer.” Simon’s guests actually related to the roots of rock and roll, and were authentic.
Adding Art Garfunkel was good for gossip and harmony ‘ the vocal kind only. How these two make such beautiful music and are so awful to each other is beyond me. “The Sound of Silence” was exquisite. “Mrs. Robinson” was playfully woven into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” “The Boxer” was sublime and moving. But then came “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Garfunkel sang the first verse. But Simon cut him off, it seemed, to croak the second verse. This was a mistake. Garfunkel looked pissed, and Simon sounded like Burt Bacharach on a bad day. When Garfunkel took over to begin, “Sail on Silver Girl,” Simon just huffed away. He should have just let Garfunkel sing the song. Anyway, Garfunkel brought it to an emotional and satisfying close.
But then there was a lot of promise: The masterful Stevie Wonder, a welcoming warm presence, appeared on stage and was going to take over. It wasn’t so easy. The sound was a mess. Part of his sound was missing, which meant Stevie’s voice and harmonica could be heard, but much of his set sounded like it was coming through one channel. You can’t stop Stevie Wonder, though, so he plowed through his hits with aplomb, then brought out Smokey Robinson for a gorgeous version of “Tracks of My Tears.” (If only this event had been written and produced ‘ Smokey is one of the great emcees.) B.B. King joined Stevie for “The Thrill Is Gone.” And then a bearded movie star-ish and much needed Sting emerged, bass guitar in hand, to mash up his “Roxanne” with Stevie’s “Higher Ground.” It worked. There’s no audience that doesn’t like singing along to “Roxanne.” Stevie also did a tribute to Michael Jackson with “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
The one really off moment: John Legend, thrown into this section ‘ what a friend of mine called “The Black Section” ”(is it 1963? Was this an episode of “Mad Men” What happened to desegregation?) ‘ did a misguided version of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.” Legend had just come over from singing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. Perhaps it was too much in one night.
Only one man could save this by now four hour marathon of ego and microphone mishaps: a passionate, sweating, loving rock and roll Bruce Springsteen. A couple of days after a band tragedy, Bruce and the gang just rolled up and slammed. After a crowd-pleasing “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” Bruce whipped out the night’s two show stoppers. First up; legendary Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame. Sam, 74, represented Stax and Atlantic Records at this shindig like a shining star. With Bruce 100% invested in the moment, Moore brought his hits “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man” to a fever pitch. Wait for when this show airs on HBO next month. Dustin Hoffman was seen dancing in the aisles, People were crying. Moore’s voice is richer than ever. It’s true the E Street Band can make anyone sound good, but this was over the top. Genuine R&B. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show finally came alive.
Springsteen didn’t stop there. He offered more guests. The magnificent guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, transcended the genre on Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad.” John Fogerty, wearing the same plaid shirt he’s had on since “Centerfield” in the 90s, brought the bayou to New York with “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary.” The two guys’ took, as Bruce called it, “A ballpark swing” at recreating Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and pulled it off brilliantly. Now Bruce had the Garden rocking. Darlene Love, the second singing female of the night,’ a surprise guest, invoked the Phil Spector Wall of Sound.
What was left? Well, there was no Beatles, Stones, or Zeppelin. Or even Elton John. Or Who or Kinks or Beach Boys or Supremes. You wished for some female presence:’ Debbie Harry, Tina Turner, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Carole King, Loretta Lynn, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Grace Slick. Where is Chrissie Hynde when you really need her?
But then Springsteen announced his special guest, Billy Joel, with news that this would be the “Bridge and Tunnel Summit Meeting” ‘ meaning my Long Island, their New Jersey ‘ “right here on neutral ground in New York City” ‘ and so it was. They did Joel’s “You May Be Right,” “Only the Good Die Young.” and “New York State of Mind.” Somewhere in there Bruce added one of his own songs, and then they ended the set with “Born to Run.” Not to be outdone though: the entire gang staged an old school-style jam on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” with Moore and Love trading vocals, while the stage was lined from left to right with Patti Scialfa, Fogerty, Steve van Zandt, Jackson Browne, Peter Wolf (of J Geils fame), Nils Lofgren and the whole E Street ensemble.
“That’s,” Springsteen yelled, waiting a beat, “rock and roll!” It sure is.
What was the concert for? Where will the money go? How much did it cost? What did Yoko Ono think? Why was there no mention all night of the Museum in Cleveland? Of Ahmet Ertegun? All mysteries. Why was Springsteen the only artist to actually speak all night, and talk about what the music meant to him and why he was there? What happened to Little Richard and Van Morrison? I’m afraid some of these answers will be delivered by Amelia Earhart in the after life.
The main thing is, warts and all, it was kind of a glorious night for rock. Someone produced pretty good interstitials that included bits and pieces of the many missing or dead artists in the history of rock. (This was all completely absent the Beatles, who knows why.) HBO should just put the whole thing on in two three hour chunks, no editing, just the way we saw it. Graham Nash said it was like Woodstock. Not really. But it was kind of a great mess, the way rock should be. And whatever or whoever was missed, well, they’ll catch up to it eventually.
Tonight ‘ Friday ”Jeff Beck replaces Eric Clapton. Metallica, U2, and a little set from Aretha Franklin with special guest Annie Lennox rounds out this colossus. Since the tickets require a mortgage, I will pass on all of that and hope it goes well.
In the audience last night besides Dustin, his family, and Yoko: Clive Davis, Ron Perelman, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, Martin Short, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, “Sopranos” creator David Chase, Shania Twain, Paul Shaffer, Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan, Patty Smythe and John McEnroe, Kenneth Cole. There was also a gift lounge, ‘natch, where lots of non-musical types and beautiful young people from “Gossip Girl” etcetera came in and gorged on stuff they didn’t need.
P.S. Really, about Paul Simon, from “You Can Call Me Al” ‘ I would trade this verse for just about anything written in the last nine years:
A man walks down the street,
It’s a street in a strange world.
Maybe it’s the Third World.
Maybe it’s his first time around.
He doesn’t speak the language,
He holds no currency.
He is a foreign man,
He is surrounded by the sound, sound ….
Cattle in the marketplace.
Scatterlings and orphanages.
He looks around, around …..
He sees angels in the architecture,
Spinning in infinity,
He says, Amen! and Hallelujah!