Saturday’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2020 celebration was a bittersweet affair, with the usual star-studded live ceremony (which was originally scheduled to take place this past May in Cleveland) replaced by a performance-free, virtual HBO special due to coronavirus concerns. Additionally, three of this year’s six inductees — R&B diva Whitney Houston, T. Rex’s glam-rock godfather Marc Bolan, and rapper the Notorious B.I.G. — were honored posthumously. Certainly the evening’s most poignant moments came when those artists’ relatives stepped in to deliver the acceptance speeches.
The most surprising speech came from Bolan’s son, a musician himself, who confessed that he hadn’t come to appreciate T. Rex’s legacy until many years after his father’s death. “I really didn’t have a chance to know him very well; he was taken away from all of us so early in his life,” said Rolan Bolan, who was 10 days shy of his second birthday when Marc was killed in a 1977 car crash. (Rolan’s mother, Northern Soul star and original “Tainted Love” singer Gloria Jones, was behind the wheel and survived.) “I discovered his music pretty much the same way you have: through my eyes and ears. When I was a kid watching MTV, Def Leppard’s ‘Rocket’ video came on and had a clip of T. Rex’s performance of ‘Get It On.’ That was my daily hello to my father. When I saw GNR, and Slash was wearing his Slider T-shirt and looking just like my dad, I had to check out the Slider album and discover the T. Rex sound for myself.”
T. Rex was inducted by the elder Bolan’s good friend Ringo Starr, who co-starred with Marc and T. Rex in the 1972 concert film Born to Boogie, which Starr also directed. "We lost [Marc Bolan] way too young, but in his short life, he made 12 albums that are as far-out and ahead of their time as he was,” proclaimed Starr. Among the celebrities in T. Rex’s tribute package were Joan Jett and Billy Idol; the latter singer’s early punk band, Generation X, famously appeared on the final episode of Bolan’s 1977 ITV variety show, Marc, on which Bolan introduced then with the sassy quip, “This new group has a lead singer called Billy Idol, who’s supposed to be as pretty as me — we’ll see now!” (The episode aired two weeks after Bolan’s death.)
Whitney Houston was inducted by Alicia Keys (who said Houston’s “unprecedented success brought Black women into the absolute highest reaches of the music industry's pantheon”) and was honored by Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Price, and Clive Davis. Whitney’s sister-in-law Pat and 87-year-old mother Cissy accepted on her behalf, in another tear-jerking moment. “This is something Whitney always wanted," Pat noted, revealing that Whitney had once said a Hall of Fame induction was “the one thing missing” in her career. Meanwhile, Cissy kept her comments short and sweet, explaining, “If I talk too long, I'll cry. And I don’t want to cry, so thank you.”
The Notorious B.I.G. was inducted by his friend and Bad Boy label boss Sean Combs, while his influence and genius was praised by Jay-Z, Nas, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who called Biggie Smalls “the undisputed sound of New York”), and his mother, Voletta Wallace. Smalls’s award was accepted by his children, T’yanna and C.J. Wallace, who, like Rolan Bolan, lost their father at a young age. “When my dad passed away, I was only 3 years old. Even though I didn’t get to know him as well as I wanted, through his fans and my family, I was able to see with my own eyes that his music transcended the hip-hop industry. He was able to not just become the king of New York, but the king of the culture,” said T'yanna, while C.J. added, “I’m honored to share his name and his dedication to Black music, creativity, self-expression, and Black freedom.”
The specter of death loomed large over the virtual ceremony in another way, due to an In Memoriam segment that was especially long because it encompassed all of the music industry’s losses since the last Rock Hall ceremony took place in April 2019. The segment began with a tribute to recently departed guitar great Eddie Van Halen from Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello (who dubbed EVH “the Mozart of our generation”; included a cleverly edited “drum-off” between Rush’s Neal Peart and Cream’s Ginger Baker; and ended with a reel of colorful career highlights from the architect of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard.
Among the Class of 2020’s living inductees, Depeche Mode definitely provided the most levity, even though the band members repeatedly expressed disappointment over not being able to perform at the induction ceremony as planned. The band’s three-way remote speech came across as the jolliest, goofiest Zoom meeting ever — with Andy Fletcher, who seemed eager to go celebrate at his local pub, joking about frontman Dave Gahan stealing cars in his pre-fame teens and throwing shade at the Eagles, and Gahan thanking “all of the promoters around the world who took a chance on a bunch of outsider, eyeliner-wearing weirdos from Essex... and all of the wankers that didn’t!” (That line might have been referencing a 2015 Billboard report about the induction committee dismissing new wave acts as “weird outcasts from England who wear mascara,” quoting one insider as saying, “You and I will die before those groups are in the Hall of Fame.”)
Gahan, Fletcher, and Martin Gore seemed genuinely humbled by the Rock Hall honor, remembering to thank ex-members and “part of the DM family” Vince Clarke (who left Depeche after their first album and went on to form Yazoo and Erasure) and Alan Wilder (who quit in 1995). And they certainly inspired the night’s most unexpected, random, and diverse set of celebrity tributes: actress Charlize Theron gave their induction speech, explaining that they were the “soundtrack to [her] life” and that it was her idea to include them on the Atomic Blonde soundtrack, while Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Arcade Fire's Win Butler, Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry, and even ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons gushed about the electronic band’s legacy. “They've done a wonderful job seeing things that we may not have seen before and listening to things that we had yet to hear,” said Gibbons.
Another moment of levity came courtesy of film and TV producer/director and self-described Doobie Brothers “superfan” Judd Apatow, who cracked, “Probably my favorite Doobie Brothers song is ‘Jesus Is Just Alright.’ Why? I don't know. I'm a Jewish kid from Long Island.” Apatow also amusingly recalled the Doobies’ bizarre appearance in the two-part “Doobie or Not Doobie” What’s Happening!! sitcom episode about the evils of concert bootlegging. “We got to see the Doobie Brothers act… and it wasn’t strong,” he chuckled. The Doobie Brothers were inducted by country star Luke Bryan, while Brad Paisley and Heart’s Nancy Wilson paid tribute (Paisley described the “iconic” chord changes on “Black Water” as “the sound of America”; Wilson then demonstrated on her acoustic guitar). The band’s Tom Johnston, Michael McDonald, and Patrick Simmons accepted the award in separate short speeches.
Nine Inch Nails were inducted by a shirtless Iggy Pop, who praised “master artist” Trent Reznor’s “focused and relentless process of emotional destruction, which paints a portrait of pain, pressure, and dissatisfaction.” Among the celebrities paying tribute were Miley Cyrus (whose lavender-wigged pop-star alter ego, Ashley O, remade NIN’s early hit “Head Like a Hole” as “On a Roll” for Black Mirror), St. Vincent, Mark Ronson, Rick Rubin, and director David Fincher, for whom Reznor has scored several films. While Reznor had expressed disdain for the Rock Hall in the past (before agreeing to induct his heroes the Cure at last year’s ceremony), he delivered a gracious acceptance speech, taking care to mention the names of every NIN member of the past three decades. Reznor even revealed that he'd been planning a big Nine Inch Nails reunion at the canceled May ceremony. “The whole camp — past and present — was going to get together and have a moment,” he sighed.
While the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony will hopefully return as a live event next year, this year’s postponement due to COVID-19 has permanently altered Hall’s schedule. Typically, the nomination process has started each year in September, with the shortlist of nominees announced in October, the inductees announced in January, and ceremony taking place in the spring. We can now expect the Class of 2021 nominees announcement next February, with the ceremony — virtual or not — taking place next fall.
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