|John Mellencamp's three romping songs were the hit of the ceremony. (jason decrow/associated press)|
Most debates about rock stars who've been around awhile include one side swearing that the "early stuff" was the best. The same is true for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, now in its 23d year. Glimpses of the anything-goes attitude that used to prevail at the annual event made this year's festivities seem placid by comparison.
VH1 Classic's 3 1/2-hour live broadcast of the annual dinner and jam session Monday night tried to serve two masters and failed them both. Interspersed shots of previous bashes, some before the ceremony was shown on TV, were electrifying. By comparison this year's class of Leonard Cohen, the Dave Clark Five, the Ventures, Madonna, John Mellencamp, Little Walter, and songwriter-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff was ushered into the Hall with a whimper
As a television show it was simply too long, full of dead spots and hampered by an audience full of stiff industry types whose tepid response muted even the good bits, like Justin Timberlake's bawdy but reverent tribute to Madonna. (VH1 itself will air an edited version of the ceremony March 22 at 11 p.m.)
Music geeks and fans of specific honorees tend to be untroubled by all of the above, happy to revel in the unedited access. But even we were ultimately let down by presentations that, with one major exception, lacked excitement.
The night's undisputed highlight was the Mellencamp induction, which combined surprising presenter Billy Joel - whose speech was both funny and heartfelt - an eloquent inductee, and a flawless performance of classic rock songs "Pink Houses," "The Authority Song," and an acoustic version of "Small Town."
"As long as I can hear a song that puts a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat, I know there's still hope," said Mellencamp in his acceptance speech. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough of that in the show itself.
Instead, there seemed to be two modes: good speech followed by ho-hum performance, or endless speech followed by ho-hum performance.
The first category was best exemplified by Tom Hanks's fervent celebration of British Invasion lads the Dave Clark Five and the peppy but hardly revelatory "all-star" jam of the DC5's "Glad All Over," featuring Joan Jett, Mellencamp, Joel, and John Fogerty.
The second division was represented by the Cohen segment in which Lou Reed rambled on and then Damien Rice sang a perfectly serviceable version of "Hallelujah."
For all the loud debate about whether she deserved inclusion, the most exciting thing about Madonna's segment was her snazzy outfit, which was black and white and sheer all over. It was classically risque, while her earnest acceptance speech was sparkle-free and epic.
She was gracious, and even thanked her early critics: "They inspired me because they made me question myself repeatedly and pushed me to be better." But then, irritatingly, she chose to sit out performing. Instead she tensely watched Iggy Pop and the Stooges bound through rocked-out but far-from-riveting takes of "Burning Up" and "Ray of Light." A shirtless Pop pleaded with the crowd - "Feel something!" - to little avail.
As Joel dared to say in his speech, "It used to be a lot more fun before it became a TV show."