Tonight and Friday, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Simon & Garfunkel, Metallica and other acts that started their careers in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s will perform at Madison Square Garden here to celebrate the silver anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The landmark events, which are expected to run 4 1/2 hours each and will air on HBO on Nov. 29, come at a tricky time for rock and for the rock hall itself. These days, Guitar Hero is a video game, Rockstar is an energy drink and ring tones routinely outsell albums.
When the rock hall started in 1984, rock was the loudest amplified sound in American pop culture, but through the years, it gave way to hip-hop and now, it has been commercially diminished by the free-fall of the recording industry. Those factors, along with the tilt of several recent rock hall induction classes toward pop stars, rappers and long-gone doo-wop singers, have some observers questioning the long-term relevance of the enterprise.
But Jann S. Wenner, co-founder of the rock hall and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, said that rock as a cultural force endures and that its museum will too.
"People are very emotional about it; this music is the soundtrack of their lives," Wenner said. "Rock formed a social, moral and ethical life for a generation."
Perhaps, but for many young people today, the diffusion of the music scene and the woes of the recording industry have reduced rock to more of a background sound. Overall album sales in America have declined sharply since 2000, and on the live music scene, there are few up-and-coming rock acts that even try to tour at the arena level.
"Things are different," Wenner said, "but I don't think of it in [terms of] better or worse."
Rock hall President and Chief Executive Joel Peresman said it's a mistake to view the decline of the recording industry as a signal that music is losing its vitality or allure. He pointed out that over the last three years, the rock hall's Cleveland museum has tracked a change in its attendance demographic -- more families are coming.
Peresman attributes that shift to the popularity of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games that have youngsters nationwide playing classic-rock riffs.
"We had an event last year honoring Les Paul, and [Guns N' Roses guitarist] Slash was there," Peresman said. "You saw all these little kids jump up and run down to the front to get a look at him. Where else would they know him and his music from?
"We're getting visitors now that go beyond the middle-aged white guy fan that has been our usual audience," he added. "There's younger interest in learning about the history and the music."
The anniversary celebration in New York this week is designed to further broaden the Hall's appeal. At a pair of all-star concerts at Madison Square Garden, artists will be teamed up with their elder influences and perform classic hits by Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and other pioneers.
Wenner said the surprise stage tandems and the vintage material will give the show a singular feel, as will the specially prepared film clips that will be shown between sets to "introduce the acts, explain the importance and tell the whole story" of rock's heritage.
Earlier this month, a nine-DVD collection, "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Live," was released featuring highlights from induction ceremonies through the years, another attempt to underscore the institution's rich history.
Tonight, the lineup includes Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Friday's performers include U2, Aretha Franklin and Metallica. Jeff Beck is a last-minute substitute on Friday for Eric Clapton, who is recuperating from gallstone surgery -- a medical report that speaks to the different challenges that face a rock star in his own 60s as opposed to the 1960s.
"It's a historic group of artists," Peresman said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime sort of show."
"Once-in-a-lifetime" shows seem to happen three or four times a year now, but the artists performing in honor of the rock hall anniversary say this one is indeed distinctive. Bono of U2 said he is eager and even a bit anxious about his band's closing set Friday night. A still-unannounced icon from the 1960s is scheduled to perform with the Irish group, and Bono said he wouldn't mind more rehearsal time for such a special moment.
"It's not like it's on television or anything, and there's nobody else playing on the same stage, so there's no pressure," Bono deadpanned.
Asked if the best days of the rock hall and rock music have come and gone, the 49-year-old singer said that the name of the museum is as big as its mission and that there is a long line of lightning-rod acts awaiting induction in the years ahead.
Since artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first recording, many of the influential figures of mid-1980s hip-hop are only now beginning to be recognized.
"Public Enemy, for instance, needs to go straight in," Bono said. "That's as important a moment as the Beatles. It changed popular culture for the next 25 years, and it was important as the Beatles."
Wenner and Peresman both said that debate about who belongs in the Rock Hall is an entrenched tradition. Fans of Black Sabbath, Yes and AC/DC squawked when those bands were passed over year after year, and purist-minded music critics have a field day when someone like Brenda Lee is enshrined.
"The fans care and the artists care. It means a lot to them," Wenner said.
He looks at contemporary figures such as Jack White, John Mayer and Weezer as key names that might make the cut in the future. Asked if they can compare to past inductees such as Jimi Hendrix, Clapton, the Clash and Prince, Wenner declined to play that cross-generational game.
"Look, there was a very special moment in the 1950s with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. It just all happened at once. It was incredible. Then in the 1960s, the Beatles and the Stones, emerging from England at the same time as America's greatest writer of any kind, Bob Dylan . . . are those moments going to happen again? Those are hard to predict, but a generation later came U2 and Bruce Springsteen. They do keep coming."