NEW YORK -- Rock 'n' roll has always been about music--not speeches. So it's no surprise that the all-star jam sessions generate the most media attention each year at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies--except on those nights when Beach Boy Mike Love is popping off about Paul McCartney and Diana Ross not showing up.
But those spontaneous sessions are usually better seen than just heard. The music itself is spirited, but understandably ragged. The treat is in watching the likes of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Billy Joel and Neil Young (from this year's cast) huddling between numbers, trying to figure out what song to do next.
A second, surprising element, however, has emerged to rival the jam sessions among fan interest: the induction speeches.
It's disarming to hear some of rock's most celebrated figures speak with the affection and humility of devoted fans when describing the way other artists--including rivals--inspired or stirred them.
In inducting the Beach Boys at this month's dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Elton John recalled how the California group's music inspired him as a composer and how it summarized in the '60s everything he imagined that was wonderful about America.
The good news about the speeches is that you don't have to be at the dinner to appreciate them. They stand up well on paper and audiotape.
There must be hundreds of tapes in circulation of Springsteen's salute last year to Roy Orbison--tapes passed among Springsteen fans with as much eagerness as the bootleg of a favorite concert.
In that brief address, Springsteen spoke in warm, intimate terms of the effect Orbison's music has had on him. He told about riding 15 hours in the back of a U-Haul truck in 1970 just to open a show for Orbison and recalled how as a teen-ager, he was both frightened and enthralled with images in Orbison's classic '60s tales about the exhilaration and torments of romance.
The speech was widely distributed--both in the informal tapes passed around the industry and in a reprint on the back of an Orbison album--and its personalized style no doubt served as a model for several of the musicians who gave induction speeches at this month's Hall of Fame dinner.
Mick Jagger, in inducting the Beatles, thanked his longtime rivals for giving the Rolling Stones a song (Lennon-McCartney's "I Wanna Be Your Man") that became their first hit, for encouraging him to write songs and for opening a door for all British bands in America. "We had a lot of rivalry in those early years and a little bit of friction," Jagger said at the dinner. "But we always ended up friends and I'd like to think we still are. . . ."
Little Richard drew the biggest laugh of the night for this playful tribute to the Supremes: "I love them so much because they remind me of myself--they dress like me."
The most eloquent remarks, however, were by Billy Joel, in behalf of the Drifters, and Springsteen, who gave the induction speech for Bob Dylan.
There was in the best music of the Drifters a sweetness and innocence and a promise of better times--and Joel wove the titles of several Drifters hits (including "Up on the Roof," "Under the Boardwalk" and "On Broadway") into a story that reflected the inspiration that he saw in that music.
His comments, in part, "I grew up in a housing development . . . out on Long Island called Levittown. I was in a gang--everyone joined a gang so they could be different than the kids who were in other gangs . . . back then this made a lot of sense.
"This was (in the early '60s) when a roof was just the top of a house, a boardwalk was just a long stretch of wood . . . Broadway was this street in New York City where old people with blue hair went to see plays . . . and the last dance was something you never hung around for. The Drifters changed all this for my gang. . . .
"Before President Kennedy was shot, before the British invasion, before the counterculture, before all hell broke loose, the Drifters offered my gang an alternative life style. They gave us the word and the word was this: Don't just stay in the house and stare at the ceiling, go up on the roof and stare at the stars and even Levittown looked good from up there. . . ."
Springsteen not only saluted the songwriting contributions that made Dylan rock's second most important figure, but he also challenged the tendency of the rock audience to measure a veteran artist's contemporary work by unreasonably high standards.
The speech, in part: "Dylan was a revolutionary. The way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellect. . . .
"The fact is that to this day where great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan over and over and over . . . and Bob's own modern work has gone unjustly underappreciated for having to stand in that shadow. . . . If there was a young (songwriter) out there writing 'Sweetheart Like You,' writing the 'Empire Burlesque' album, writing 'Every Grain of Sand,' they would call him the new Bob Dylan. . . ."
"And speaking as a fan, I guess when I was 15, I heard 'Like a Rolling Stone,' and I heard a guy like I had never heard before or since . . . a guy that had the guts to take on the whole world and make me feel like I had it too. . . .
"Maybe some people mistook that voice to be saying somehow (Dylan) was going to do the job and we know as we grow old that there isn't anybody out there who can do that job for anybody else. . . ."
The suggestion that Dylan's modern work is undervalued because of the revolutionary fervor of his '60s material was both provocative and perceptive.
There is no question Dylan's '60s albums were his most influential, but there was a constant invention and insight in such later LPs as "Planet Waves," "Blood on the Tracks," "Desire," "Street Legal," "Slow Train Coming" and "Infidels" that, if isolated from his earlier work, would alone have earned Dylan a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In retrospect, it would have been in keeping with Dylan's independence and vision if he had turned to one of his '80 songs during the jam session rather than the early and expected "All Along the Watchtower" and "Like a Rolling Stone."
Considering Springsteen's biting reference about those who looked to Dylan in the '60s to do the thinking for them, "Trust Yourself"--from the "Empire Burlesque" album--would have been especially appropriate.
The lyrics, in part:
Well, you're on your own, you always were,
In a land of wolves and thieves.
Don't put your hope in ungodly man
Or be a slave to what somebody else believes ...
Don't trust me to show you love
When my love may be only lust.
If you want someone to trust,
In some ways, in fact, it was surprising to see Dylan show up at the Hall of Fame dinner at all. He's always been suspicious of awards and ceremonies. Those instincts led to a public furor last September when he refused during a two-city concert tour of Israel to meet with the mayor of Jerusalem and the nation's foreign minister.
Responding at the time to a question about how he feels about the massive expectations that fans bring to his shows, Dylan said, "To be perfectly blunt, it doesn't really affect me. If you let it, you get into doing all the extravagant things that go along with that . . . like going to break bottles on boats.
"It turns into one great big ceremonial trip. . . . I could easily spend all of my time doing that sort of thing . . . dedicating this school or getting the keys to the city. . . ."
But that sort of exclusivity can carry its own dangers--a re-enforcement of the mystique that has long surrounded Dylan. By attending the dinner and doing his most celebrated rock anthem ("Like a Rolling Stone"), Dylan was, in effect, combatting his "legendary" aura by paying his respect for the other musicians who have influenced him and demonstrating that he is part of the musical tradition.