Musicians are a sorry lot who destroy lives and can't manage their money or their relationships, said Bruce Springsteen as he accepted the MusiCares Person of the Year Award on Friday night in downtown Los Angeles.
But, he added, they're also a glorious fraternity who make life worth living.
In his speech, which came about midnight after a long and stirring show in which musicians like Mumford & Sons, Elton John, Neil Young, John Legend and Alabama Shakes performed his songs, Springsteen offered appreciation to the Grammy charity MusiCares for its help with musicians in need of aid.
"Thank you MusiCares for taking care of musicians, because we are bad with our money," he said, prompting laughter among the 3,000 people in the huge hall at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
"We spend too much on the wrong things … We love the wrong people. We are the wrong people … We fuck up many people's lives while setting fire to our own dancing down the street."
And yet, he said, music is a vital force in life. "You can't triumph without music, because music is life."
The Boss' conclusion: "We are a brotherhood and sisterhood of magical fuck-ups."
The MusiCares gala is an annual event in which a notable musician lends his name to a tribute that takes place just before the Grammy Awards. Past evenings have raised more than $7 million for the charity through ticket sales, contributions and both silent and live auctions.
Friday's live action was disappointing, with the first three big-ticket items – diamond earrings, a specially-customized Acura and a resort vacation to India – going for less than face value, and producer/auctioneer David Foster buying two of them on his own because he was annoyed at the low bids.
And when bidding for the final item, a Fender Telecaster guitar signed by Springsteen and other guests, stalled at around $60,000, Springsteen himself stepped in and took over (above).
"This isn't just the guitar," he told the audience, increasing the pot. "It also comes with a free one-hour guitar lesson from me, and a ride in the side car of my Harley Davidson. So dig in, you one-percenters!"
Bidding quickly soared over $100,000, but that wasn't enough for Springsteen. "I'll throw in eight tickets and backstage passes to the next E Street Band concert of your choice, and a tour of the entire backstage area conducted by me. I want 200 fucking thousand dollars!"
He got $200,000, then added lasagna made by his 87-year-old Italian mother (who was in attendance) to the offer, prompting a $250,000 offer from a woman near the back of the hall.
"I think we learned two things here tonight," said show host Jon Stewart when he took the stage later. "One, David Foster will buy all the shit you people don't want. And two, there is no show that Bruce Springsteen can't save."
In fact, the show itself hardly needed saving.
It opened with an amusing tribute to Springsteen by New Jersey native Stewart, who pointed out that the rocker is so beloved in his home state that his anthem "Born to Run" included the lyrics, "Baby this town rips the bones from your back/It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap/We gotta get out while we're young" — and, he said, "they still considered making it the state song."
The roots-rock band Alabama Shakes followed with a fierce, raw version of Springsteen's "Adam Raised a Cain," followed by Patti Smith performing her and Springsteen's composition "Because the Night" and the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, Ben Harper and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite doing a loose and lovely "Atlantic City."
Other highlights included Zac Brown and gospel veteran Mavis Staples bringing the house down with a chilling and glorious version of "My City of Ruins," Mumford & Sons (above) nailing a ghostly "I'm on Fire" without ever raising their voices, Elton John getting suitably melodramatic for "Streets of Philadelphia" and Tom Morello and Jim Jones trotting out the scorching arrangement of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" that Morello has performed with Springsteen on several occasions.
Sting, Jackson Browne, Kenny Chesney, Emmylou Harris, Juanes and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill also performed.
Toward the end of the night, John Legend did an elegant solo piano arrangement of the synth-driven hit "Dancing in the Dark," while Neil Young and Crazy Horse stomped their way through an unhinged version of Born in the U.S.A" (right).
"John Legend made me sound like Gershwin," said Springsteen in his speech. "I love that. Neil Young made me sound like the Sex Pistols. I love that."
After funny and touching remarks in front of an audience that also included Sean Penn, Judd Apatow, Conan O'Brien, Julie Chen, Jay Roach and musicians Rosanne Cash and Susannah Hoffs, Springsteen got down to business, turning toward the wings and saying, "Now get me that damn guitar."
With members of the E Street Band augmenting or supplanting the house band, he ripped through versions of "We Take Care of Our Own," "Death to My Hometown," "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" before calling everyone onstage for an all-hands-on-deck free-for-all on "Glory Days."
But before he did that, he asked the crowd to please ignore the seating arrangement that put the 3,000 guests at a couple hundred different tables, with the biggest donors up front.
"Everybody get up from your tables and come down here to the front," he insisted, as the crowd toward the rear of the hall eagerly obeyed.
"Don't worry, it's just rock 'n' roll."