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Neil Diamond Leads the Charge as Underdogs Storm Hall of Fame

From Alice Cooper to Tom Waits, the wild side of rock’s biggest party

Brian Hiatt May 03, 2011

Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

There was no shortage of indelible moments at the 26th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony ”“ from Leon Russell thanking Elton John for lifting him out of “a ditch by the side of the highway of life” to Alice Cooper accepting his honour with assistance from a large snake. There were plenty of flamboyant, self-created personas on display too ”“ Cooper, the shock-rock demon; Tom Waits, the mystic hobo poet; Dr John, the voodoo showman. But it took Neil Diamond, of all people, to really shake the night up ”“ first with a fiery acceptance speech, then an arena-scale performance that found him wading far enough into the audience to stick a microphone in Bruce Springsteen’s face for a chorus of ”˜Sweet Caroline.’

“We totally traded places,” says Cooper, whose band was compared to a “murderous gang of drag queens” in Rob Zombie’s induction speech. “I was the calm, cool, collected guy and Neil was the one that was going for the throat.” Paul Simon inducted Diamond with a speech that gently poked fun at his 1978 duet with Barbra Streisand, ”˜You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ ”“ he half-joked that the song had kept Diamond out of the Hall of Fame for years. Diamond was grateful to be honoured by one of his music heroes, but the reference to that song got under his skin: “I think he tapped an area that very spontaneously erupted,” Diamond says.

When Diamond took the stage, he had no remarks prepared (before going on, he e-mailed his friend Robbie Robertson to ask, “What do I say?” ”“ Robertson told him it’s the performance that counts). “I love you, even though you didn’t vote for me,” Diamond said, looking out at a crowd that included Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Liv Tyler, Sean Penn, Michael J Fox and Patti Scialfa. “I don’t give a shit,” he continued, as the audience roared. “I still would sing that song with Barbra ”“ she’s the greatest.”

Diamond doesn’t drink, but he was loopy from jet lag after a 25-hour flight from Australia, where he was on tour. “If you’re unprepared, the real thing comes out,” says Diamond, who insists the speech was lighthearted. “I could see that the audience needed to have fun. I’ve felt a little bit marginalised by so many critics for years”¦ but I did want to let people know I was very happy to be taken into this warm place after being out in the cold so long.”

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Other inductees had been marginalised in their own ways ”“ Russell was nearly forgotten before Elton sought him out, and ”˜He’s a Rebel’ singer Darlene Love rarely received proper recognition as a signature voice of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, partly because she sang under a bewildering number of group names. “It’s my Christmas present, my birthday present, my anniversary present ”“ it’s everything,” Love said, clutching her statue. She was inducted by Bette Midler, who shared vocals on ”˜He’s a Rebel,’ backed by Paul Shaffer’s band and Springsteen ”“ who played a Duane Eddy-ish solo on Love’s version of ”˜Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ “No voice drove me crazier than Darlene Love’s,” Midler said (adding she was glad that now “if you Google Bette Midler and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, something will come up”).

Elton, who spent much of the past year championing Russell’s cause, again made the case for the greatness of the singer-songwriter and prolific sideman: “He was my idol ”“ he sang, he wrote, and he played just how I wanted to do it,” Elton said. Walking to the podium with a cane, an emotional Russell thanked Elton: “He took me to the high stages with big audiences and treated me like a king. The only thing I can say is, ”˜Bless your heart,’” he said, with Elton standing beside him, fighting back tears. Elton told Shaffer that he didn’t want to diminish Russell’s moment in the spotlight by performing with him ”“ instead John Mayer was a featured guest, offering a Clapton-esque guitar solo on ”˜A Song for You’ that had Russell murmuring, “That’s right!”

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John Legend inducted Dr John, hailing him as a living link to New Orleans roots music, and the pair jammed on ”˜Right Place, Wrong Time’ and ”˜Such a Night’ ”“ though Legend had to be coaxed into playing a piano solo after he heard Dr John play in rehearsal: “I’m not gonna follow that,” he told Shaffer. In the nonperformer category, Lloyd Price inducted Specialty Records founder Art Rupe, and the Doors’ John Densmore welcomed Elektra founder Jac Holzman into the Hall ”“ and Judy Collins performed a note-perfect ”˜Both Sides Now’ to a hushed audience in his honour.

Neil Young inducted fellow iconoclast Waits, hailing him as a “magician, spirit guide, changeling.” Waits ambled up onstage and rumbled his way through a hilarious speech that included a request for a key-chain-size version of his statue that he might be able to present to police: “”˜Pete, take the cuffs off of him, I think he’s a Hall of Famer!’” Waits delivered a hypnotic performance ”“ and then snuck off before the finale. “It was way too much stimulation for me,” he told Rolling Stone afterward. “I had to take a pill just to keep my heart in my jacket, and I had to keep reminding myself that others were being honoured as well. But yes, I am being measured for a new hat size.”

At the beginning of the event, Hall of Fame chairman (and Rolling Stone editor and publisher) Jann Wenner joked that city authorities had nixed his plan for a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-style “aerial battle” between Midler and Elton ”“ but the ceremony concluded with nearly as wild a spectacle: Love, Cooper, Diamond, Midler, Elton and Russell teaming up for ”˜Da Doo Ron Ron.’ But Diamond insists the sight of all of them together wasn’t as incongruous as it seemed: “We spent our lives in studios, on the road, writing music, loving music,” he says. “We’ve had exactly the same lives.”

Additional reporting by Patrick Doyle, Andy Greene and Austin Scaggs

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