Early this morning, “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the names of the artists who will be inducted into its Class of 2017.
Once, rock ’n’ roll made us believe anything was possible. Do you remember that feeling?
Trumbull, Conn., 11th grade, just as your senior year was beginning, and there was this girl, and every time you saw her, the song “Fox on the Run” popped into your brain. And you knew, you just knew, that even if it wasn’t her, one day someone just like her would kiss you, actually kiss you.
Or maybe it was in Winnetka, Ill.: You couldn’t take your eyes off that picture of sloe-eyed, slow-curled Bolan that was on the inside door of the locker eight feet to your left, that locker that belonged to that girl who had a haircut just like Todd Rundgren, except she had a little fringe of faded pink in her hair; and between satyr Bolan and The Girl With Todd’s Haircut, you knew there was someone and something out there beyond the glue-colored walls of your high school.
And do you remember (you, yes you, you there with the glasses), Jimmy Carter was president and you were lying on your stomach next to a new friend in a basement in New Hyde Park and both of you were staring at that strange and beautiful dog man on the sleeve of Diamond Dogs, and you felt something you were afraid to name, and then suddenly, almost immediately, you were no longer afraid to name it.
Or maybe you recall this: One over-bright winter day in Wayne, N.J., there was a pile of college applications stacked under the Diet RC Cola on your desk in the room that belonged to your older brother (would he want it back when he came home for Christmas?), and the blaring, booming, beat-down sibilance of “Anarchy in the U.K.” came on the stereo, and you knew that you had been right all along—there was no reason ever, not never, to listen to Kansas anymore. And the next time you sat at that desk, the only application that mattered was the one for NYU.
This morning, it was announced that these six artists will join 311 others who are already inducted into “The” Hall: Journey, Yes, Electric Light Orchestra, Joan Baez, Pearl Jam, and Tupac Shakur. Niles Rodgers will be honored in the “Musical Excellence” category.
Do you remember? It wasn’t that long ago, really, was it?
As you fell for the beat, as you fell for the sway, as you learned the mysteries of shaving and condoms, you read everything you could about the strange and beautiful world out there. You read Quentin Crisp and Ira Robbins and Lester Bangs and E.M. Foster and Nik Cohn and Nick Tosches and Nick Kent and Caroline Coon, and you learned that you hadn’t been told the whole story. Even Rolling Stone, passed around every week at school or purchased at the local train station newsstand, didn’t tell you the whole story.
You discovered there was a whole land of rough and beautiful rock ’n’ roll before Elvis, so you learned about men named Goree and Hardrock, Wynonie and Otis; and you learned about the untamed hearts that made punk before the Sex Pistols, those Sonics and Raiders and Monks; you learned about the art that lay at the root of all the art rock you loved, Cage and Sun Ra and LaMonte Young; you learned about tragic and magical heroes like Syd or Gram or Tim Buckley; and you made friends all over the world just because they shared these amazing secrets.
Most of all, maybe, you learned that behind every rumble of the prancing Stones, every slogan and shriek of the Clash, somewhere in the not-so-distant past, there lay a plantation and a parish and someone who hadn’t suffered for their music, but made the music because they had suffered.
You learned about the claps and stomps and sighs and tears of the disenfranchised, the discriminated, the rejected, the persecuted, and you learned that upon the rock of America’s discarded, your church, the church that held your life’s dream and your lusty memes, had been built. You learned that at the end of every rainbow of sound, rainbow of Syd, rainbow of Sex Pistols, rainbow of Raiders and rainbow of Revolver, there lay the rhythm of those who had been discarded.
You honored them by learning their story, reading everything you could find about their Storyvilles and Parchmans, Congo Squares and Clarksdales. Ultimately, the road you had been on since you had heard the bells of old Bowie had led you there, to the holy, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten. You must honor them.
Roughly eight weeks ago, “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame published a list of 19 nominees for their class of 2017. The following 13 were deemed to be unworthy of admission into “The” Hall: The Bad Brains, Kraftwerk, Chaka Khan, Chic, Depeche Mode, the J. Geils Band, Jane’s Addiction, Janet Jackson, Joe Tex, the MC5, Steppenwolf, The Cars, and The Zombies.
I probably don’t need to tell you that whatever “The ”Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is, it is telling you only one side of the story. Isn’t that bloody obvious?
In order to emphasize that, I could reiterate the long list of artists who haven’t been inducted (and, in many cases, haven’t even been nominated). I have written about this on multiple occasions, but to very quickly re-cap, amongst the artists not in “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are: The Smiths, The Cure, Thin Lizzy, Kate Bush, Big Star, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Slayer, Husker Du, Bon Jovi, New Order, Blue Öyster Cult, Joy Division, Madness, the Specials, Roxy Music, T fucking Rex, Alan Lomax (the father of modern folk, blues, and rock), the New York Freaking Dolls, and now, the MC5.
I realize now that this is why I sought out the other side if the story; the side behind Rolling Stone or WPLJ’s endless recitation of the glories of Ronstadt and the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and the Beatles, Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor.
Rock ’n’ roll actually means something; it gives hope, it tells stories, it speaks for victims, it points out accusers.
Often, even our most garish, drugged and drunken souls are implicitly political, because the first time we screamed that we were lovers of the Dolls or the Doors or KISS was the first time we took a stand that we knew would piss someone off. Soon, we would be willing to take a stand about how we love, or how we defend our bodies and our choices. Before we learned to care, rock ’n’ roll gave us an opinion to care about.
No one ever came out of the closet because they saw Paul Simon or Tom Petty on the cover of a magazine. No one ever got spat at because they loved the Cars. No one decided to move to New York City and discover the nightworlds because Don Henley smirked from a newsstand. Rock ’n’ Roll was often the first station on our voyage of discovery, dissent, and happiness. So let’s tell the whole story.
I am not going to condemn the Rolling Stone version of the rock ’n’ roll story. Truly, I am not; it is one version of the tale.
We all have our own version of the story. Mine is inclusive of, oh, Lance Loud or Edwyn Collins or Colin Newman or Lee Dorsey or Lemmy or Phil Ochs or King Oliver. Theirs is inclusive of Daryl Hall and Timothy B. Schmidt and Nicolette Larson. Honestly, mine is not better than theirs; it just reflects, well, a little more research.
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True, I would no sooner visit their museum (even though I hear good things about it) and give my money to this corrupt band of Eagle-fellating and E-Street-Band-felching cronies than I would give my money to the Anthony Weiner No Child’s Behind Left Foundation, but honestly, I would never condemn someone who did visit the place in Cleveland, and I would hope they would enjoy themselves.
Here’s the problem, though: by establishing “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they are stating that they are quite damn sure that their version is definitive. That’s implied by the word “The.”
I need not tell you that anyone who has spent even a relatively minor amount of time studying or listening to rock ’n’ roll can tell you that anything that calls itself “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and doesn’t include, oh, Marc Bolan or Kate Bush or Wilko Johnson or Alan Lomax or Judas Priest, to name just five, really has literally zero right to call itself “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We wouldn’t be having this discussion if they called themselves “A” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or even Rolling Stone’s American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame plus some Beatles and Stones©, or something like that. They could have theirs, I could have mine, and so on.
Mine would tell a different story, that’s all, and whereas I would never claim my version to be definitive, it might reflect a little more about what got us from there to here, and it might be a little more inclusive of artists who produced influential music of great quality but didn’t sell a shit-ton of records, or it might include artists who dared to sell a lot of records outside of America.
All I am asking is that “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame try, maybe just a little, to know a little bit more about their subject, or just change the damn name of the place.
But in order to further underline the absolute absurdity and dislocation from objective reality of this entity in Cleveland that calls itself “The” Rock’ and Roll Hall of Fame, let’s take a little quiz, shall we?
- True or False: Of all of the musicians in these bands—The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and Pink Floyd—one and only one musician merits being specifically singled out for his “musical excellence,” and that, obviously, is Ringo Starr.
- True or False: Despite the fact that Kraftwerk were literally the first pop-based act to wholly replace their rhythm section with synthesized, sequenced, and automated instrumentation, and one cannot turn on the radio or walk into a store or walk down the street without hearing an artist who makes use of this invention, and despite the fact that Kraftwerk’s pioneering invention of synthetic instrumentation in the service of pop melodies and a dance beat makes them, without any doubt, the second most influential band of all time, they don’t belong in “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (even though “The” Hall has regularly inducted artists who do not utilize the “traditional” rock combo electric/acoustic instrumentation).
- True or False: In the entire history of Rock ’n’ Roll, the only band that deserves to be honored as a full band for their “musical excellence” is The E Street Band. Obviously, no other full band deserves to be specially and specifically venerated for their “musical excellence.”
- True or False: For the most part, any British artist who emerged after the late 1970s does not belong in “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be mostly for American artists, with a few obvious exceptions.
- True or False: With the exception of some high-selling American acts and some high-selling “legacy” British acts, Heavy Metal, no matter how popular or influential, does not belong in “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- True or False: With virtually no exceptions, independently released and/or relatively low-selling rock acts who were hugely influential and who re-set or changed the course of rock history do not belong in “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (for instance, Big Star, Wire, the MC5, the dBs, Black Flag, Misfits, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, etcetera).
Now, if you answered “True” to all of those questions, you are in full, 100 percent agreement with “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you answered “false” to any of them, even just one or two of them, you understand why I think that calling “this” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is ludicrous, absurd, and insulting to the music of our lives.
Oh, and why do I get so hepped up about all this? Why does it matter?
Because rock ’n’ roll matters, baby.
Rock ‘n’ Roll is how we tell our story, the story of this phenomenal and strange and addlepated and diverse and messed-up land of immigrants and outcasts. Seriously, hand me a pile of records and I can tell you the story of America.
The vast majority of us carry the DNA of starving Celts or Tsar-chased Jews, or came over in slave ships or steerage, and in our not-so-distant past just about each and every one of us were spat at or whipped or turned away from a job because of an accent or a skin color; and our sloppy middle-class lives, where we are utterly free to discuss such things as the MC5 or Westworld, were built on the back of pickle sellers and cotton pickers and assembly line workers and those who inhaled silo dust and coal dust 12 hours a day.
And our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents saw their children die in TB hospitals and sink in the cold East River under the smoky weight of the General Slocum, and these people, the masters of our DNA, swayed to songs of mourning and sang songs of joy, and these people, those who shared our eye color or that weird pattern of hair on our ankles or that strange way our left earlobe turns in, they hummed and cheered and wept and stomped so that they could keep sane and keep their bruised hands and swollen feet in the rhythm of their work, and this became our rock ’n’ roll, our music.
And that, goddamit, is why we ought to tell the story right.
To learn about rock ’n’ roll—from the thump and sass of Louis Armstrong to the horny honk of the Treniers to the stomp and shriek of Slade to the cold syncopation of Kraftwerk—makes the story of the West rise from the flat pages of history. We see the class war turn into Bourbon Street shuffle and West Midlands glitter, we see the dishonor of Jim Crow give rise to the soaring testimonies of the Chitlin Circuit, we see frightened and pale young folksingers follow in the footsteps of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. We even see how every one of those things led, in a beautifully crooked but nonetheless true line, to those pictures on a locker that made us feel all funny inside.
Now, you may recall that back in October, I took a look at the list of 19 nominees, and I handicapped them—i.e., gave their odds of getting inducted into “The” Hall. Why don’t we see how I did?
Well, I did pretty damn well, actually. ELO, Tupac, Pearl Jam, and Joan Baez were all in my top six “predicted” entrants (the only one I got wrong—predicted would get in, but didn’t—were The Cars). Yes and Journey were a little further down on my list, but not much further (I had them at 11 and 12) and none of the artists I had as “long shots”—those I listed at below 6 /1 odds—got in.
That doesn’t make me a sage; it just means that “The” Hall is absurdly predictable, which is to say that their ability to tell only one side of the story is eminently and consistently predictable.
Listen, despite all of this blather, this lather of fury, “The” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t bother me that much.
I do indeed hate the idea that some people are being conned, that they are being told a story that is, at least in part, biased and misleading (a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without the Smiths, Joy Division, Motörhead, Kate Bush, Wynonie Harries, or Big Star?!?); but they have their story, and I have mine, and you have yours.
It exists in our hearts. It lives on in the way music has changed our lives, led us to the ones we love, found us our best friends, brought us back to long-dead cities and century-old streets. It lives on when we remember what we felt inside of us, a feeling we couldn’t quite name in a place we couldn’t exactly point to, when we first saw or heard Bowie or the Clash or the Dead or the Speedies. Rock ’n’ Roll is the road map that led us to our own hearts and that directed others to our hearts.
And no goddamn Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is ever going to take that away.