We were in the middle of recording our first record, and we’d gone home for a few weeks off before we came back to put some guitar and mandolin stuff on it. I’d only been home for a few days, and I got a phone call from our A&R guy saying, “Robbie Robertson called me up. Van Morrison is about to get inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but he’s not coming. They were thinking of having Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers come in and play a Van Morrison song, but Robbie recommended you. How would you feel?” I told him I’d think about it and call him back, and two minutes later he calls me back and says, “Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? You don’t think about it — you do it.”
It was Sunday afternoon, the show was Tuesday, and rehearsal was the next day, so we had to get back down to LA and figure out which song to do. My dad gave us a ride to the airport, and we stopped at Tower Records to pick up a bunch of Van Morrison cassettes so we could figure out which fuckin’ song to play. We decided on “Caravan” on the plane. We worked out a version in an apartment in the Oakwoods we got for that night, and then we drove down to the Valley the next day to the rehearsal space.
As we were in the parking lot, I heard the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” being played inside, and I thought, “Wow, that sounds like a really good version of that song — just like the Doors.” When we walked in, it was the Doors, with Eddie Vedder singing. We can see Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, and Don Was around the room just watching, and as I waved to Robbie I saw Bruce Springsteen standing with him too. It was a pretty heavy room. Clapton grabbed his guitar, but he couldn’t remember the riff to “Sunshine Of Your Love,” so Jack Bruce had to remind him how it went. In the ’90s, you could take Eric Clapton for granted, so when he played that riff I was like, “Right, that’s Slow Hand, of course.”
We were shooting hoops with Eddie Vedder for a bit, and then we go back in and Robbie’s like, “Do you want to do an arrangement with all of us?” The house band was Don Was, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Robbie on guitar, maybe Springsteen. I wasn’t thinking, but I didn’t want to be a problem, so I said, “Nah, we can do it ourselves.” I didn’t mean to sound arrogant at all! I just didn’t want to be a hassle for anybody. But there was total silence, and everyone just laughed at me. I started apologizing, and Robbie was like, “Nah, I get it. Why don’t you play it and we’ll see if it works.” We played it and Robbie said, “That’s actually pretty good. What if Benmont comes in on the second verse too?” We played it again with him and it sounded good. To this day I think we’re still the only unknowns who played the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, so I understand why they were thinking [we might want to play with the house band].
We hung out for a little while longer. Cream was supposed to rehearse an hour before us, but Ginger Baker hadn’t shown up yet. Classic Ginger Baker! It felt like reliving rock history. We watched them for a while and then we took off because we had to be there early the next day. It’s Hollywood stuff, so they do soundcheck at 8AM. We get there and the room is even heavier. There’s Springsteen’s band, John Fogerty’s there, Ruth Brown is there with Bonnie Raitt, who I actually knew through a friend. k.d. lang was there because she was inducting Etta James.
George Clinton was there because he was inducting Sly, so a bunch of the guys in the Family Stone are there too. It was a crazy crowd that we had to now soundcheck in front of while they sat at banquet tables, relaxing and waiting for their turn. We soundchecked and all of them came up to us afterwards and said it sounded good. When we played that night, the first autograph I was asked for in my life was from George Clinton, because we were sitting at a table together. I said, “No, you’re gonna have to give me yours first, because this is too weird.”
What I remember most about the performance itself is that I was wearing this hat called a mambo sock and a big heavy jacket. I wasn’t really used to performing that much yet, and I felt more comfortable in big jackets. When we started playing, I threw my head forward and the mambo sock came flying off my head. I caught it and put it back on, but I didn’t get it on right, so it hit sideways. Every time I moved, it started falling off my head. I should’ve just taken the fuckin’ thing off and threw it on the floor, but instead the entirety of the song is this hat migrating on top of my head as I’m trying to play this song for all of the most famous people in the world. And we’re killing it! It’s a great version of the song. But I get really lost when I play, especially back then, so this fuckin’ hat is just migrating around on my head the entire performance.
We finish and everyone’s cheering, and I walk offstage. Some of those bigger stages are really deep — they have multiple curtains off to the sides, and the wings are really dark so it’s hard to see back there. As we come off the stage, it’s pitch-dark back there, and I trip on a cable or something. I fell, and I thought, “I’m about to get hurt.” Instead, I landed on this big, soft, pillowy cushion. I can’t see because it’s dark, and as my eyes adjust to the light and I push up out of these cushions, I realize I’ve fallen face down into Etta James’ breasts. She was sitting in a chair because they were next, and I just pitched face-first into her chest. I push my face out of them, and Etta James — her face, it’s so beautiful — just goes, “Y’all alright, honey?” I just go, “Uh, yeah,” and I hear this other voice standing behind her chair. It’s k.d. lang, and she goes, “Are you sure you’re okay?” I got up and walked away. No one saw, but it was the most bizarre thing.