Rock Hall induction: Brushes with music legends from behind the scenes

When my press credentials for the 36th Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony came through, I had no idea how my night would flesh out. Would there be a special seating area? Backstage access? Save for a lot of noise and energy, I didn't know what to expect.

Getting into the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse required two digital verifications ahead of time and a COVID-19 test on site—the line for which was populated by elbowing media types encumbered with cargo ranging from small (camera bag) to giant (carts laden with mysterious equipment).

The plan for those of us with media work room (MWR) credentials was simple: We'd view the live action in here on television screens while waiting for celebrities to drop in for photos and questions.Once in, we were shuffled into the underbelly of the Fieldhouse. We meandered through areas filled with industrial shelving and bins. Exposed conduit ran above our heads; instructional yellow tape lined the concrete floor. Had we been any further backstage, we would have been in the boiler room.

The utilitarian press room had rows of metal folding chairs and various nuts-and-bolts accommodations. The plan for those of us with media work room (MWR) credentials was simple: We'd view the live action in here on television screens while waiting for celebrities to drop in for photos and questions.

By now, the big stories have been told. Taylor Swift opened the show with a dazzling tribute to Carole King. LL Cool J took the stage with surprise guests Jennifer Lopez and Eminem. The Go-Go’s rocked the stage with a set of their classics.

The star-studded parade went on and on: Jennifer Hudson, Dr. Dre, Angela Bassett, Christina Aguilera, Mickey Guyton, Keith Urban, H.E.R., Dave Chappelle. Then, Sir Paul McCartney and the Foo Fighters concluded the festivities with a rollicking rendition of "Get Back."

As has been duly reported, the night was full of breathtaking spectacle.

Now that the after-parties are over and staff has long-since broken down the VIP tents, here's a roundup of some of the evening's more nuanced snapshots captured both in and out of the press room.

L L Cool J backstage in the press room• Before Brandi Carlile, flanked by identical twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, sang "All I have To Do Is Dream" in a tribute to Don Everly, Carlile offered up some evocative commentary in the press room.

"I do find that American roots music is an important place for representation for LGBTQIA+ people, especially youth, because I was raised in a rural setting and I remember being systemically rejected by the culture that correlated to this style of music,” Carlile shared. “And so as an adult, I have to say that I find it an important responsibility, and something that makes me proud, to represent queer people in that space."

• Carole King also used the press stage to draw attention to the environmental endeavors she has pursued for decades. "People don't know that logging is as big an emitter of carbon as oil and fossil fuel," she said. "Please help me get that word out."

On the lighter side, the beloved songwriter and performer called Taylor Swift her "professional granddaughter," and the keen-eyed noticed that she wore flats onstage, but sported glammed-out heels for the press.

• The complimentary brown bag repast—even for we of the media scrum—was really good. My bag contained a hearty Italian sub, pasta salad, chips, an apple, an orange, and two big cookies. I wonder what the A-listers noshed on.

• Drew Barrymore donned bath towels and cold cream ala the Go-Go's 1981 album “Beauty and the Beat” as a visual companion to her charming and heartfelt remarks about her tween adoration of the group. "I spent hours staring at that cover and the back side—all of them in the bathtub—the coolest girls in the world taking a spa day in cool-girl heaven."

• Simultaneously welcome and unwelcome: Audio and video misfires. When a speaker's clapping hands were too loud or when the camera swooped down over the audience's feet, it was a tiny moment of validation: The professionals are human just like me.

• Gary Clark Jr. honored early influencer inductee Charley Patton by singing “High Water Everywhere,” while playing an acoustic guitar. The simplicity and authenticity of the performance felt sweet and gave contrast to the otherwise glitzy affair.

• In vintage footage, musical excellence honoree Billy Preston's faith and love of music combined in one perfect reference. "Ray Charles was my musical Jesus," he said. Another great video quote (among so many) came from early influence inductee Gil Scott-Heron in reference to the governmental buildings of Washington DC: "I don't know if they're locked in or I'm locked out."

An animated Lionel Ritchie, who inducted Ahmet Ertegun honoree Clarence Avant, didn't look a day over 35 despite being in his 70s• Everything about the night felt youthful. Lionel Ritchie, who inducted Ahmet Ertegun honoree Clarence Avant, didn't look a day over 35 despite being in his 70s. Go-Go's drummer Gina Schock dropped F bombs all over her comments during the group's thank-you remarks, and it was downright playful.

But Tina Turner wore her age like the hard-earned badge it is. "If they're giving me awards at 81," she said via video feed, "I must have been doing something right."

• President Barack Obama launched Jay-Z's induction proceedings via video: "I've turned to Jay-Z's words at different points in my life," President Obama said, then called the legendary rapper "one of the most renowned artists in history and a monument of the American dream."

Jay-Z subsequently recalled when Obama asked him to hit the campaign trail. "I thought like, ‘Man, hip-hop was really an agent for change and how amazing is its reach that this man is calling me to help out when he campaigned.'"

In the end, the press room was a weirdly isolating. It all but eliminated the noise and energy I thought would characterize the evening. But seeing all those larger-than-life icons in person made them real. Stars are people just like you and me (although Angela Bassett is an actual goddess).

There were, however, unique moments in the press room. Behold LL Cool J's (lightly edited) response to the question, why is hip-hop essential?

"For me as a kid growing up at a time when they took music out of schools, at a time when the world was really changing—the Bronx was like a war zone—[hip-hop] changed our lives. It gave us an opportunity to express ourselves, to express ourselves creatively and artistically and really level up. It gave us a way to see the world, and it made me, as a young Black kid growing up in Queens, it made me feel empowered. It was the first time that I heard kids that looked like me saying something that sounded powerful. Because, to be honest with you, most of the time when I saw them on the news it was like this," LL hunched over by way of demonstration, "with handcuffs."

So it was like, 'Wow, they're saying something that I like, and they sound powerful.' That's why hip-hop is essential."

LL Cool J continued, "It's connected the world, it's not only for the Black kids. It's for kids all over the world and all over the globe. It's connected us. You've learned our stories. We've learned your stories. Kids from all over the world are connected. People from all over the world are connected with each other. And that's because of hip-hop. I think it's one of the great forces in culture and music."

"I'm happy that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has expanded to include our genre," he said. "I definitely love representing hip-hop."

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.