Friday, January 7, 2011

2001: Hall of Lame

This one is ripe for updating. It was written for the ZiaZine, an in-store magazine distributed by a local record store chain. The 2011 inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame have just been announced. Some of the snubs I complain about below are still being excluded a decade later, while some have been voted in after an insultingly long interval (Congratulations, Tom Waits!). More on this soon.

If you're like me, you're still pissed off about the election: the general blandness of the available candidates, the fact that more dynamic ones were shut out of the process early on, the general cluelessness of the media, the disproportionate influence of big corporate honchos, and the obvious fact that many owed their victories simply due to their ability to raise huge sums of money. I refer, of course, to the recent elections to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The R&R HoF has screwed up before, but this year they've outdone themselves by snubbing the goddess Patti Smith in her first year of eligibility (your recording career must begin at least 25 years prior to the voting in order to be considered). Patti has good company in the dubious honor of being overlooked by the so-called experts who vote on admission to the Cleveland pantheon; among those similarly insulted were the Yardbirds, the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead.

What those bands have in common is that their artistry and their influence far exceeded their market clout. The Hall gives lip service to the goals of recognizing artists who have had "a significant influence on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll." But too often the voters rush to honor musicians whose greatest success came on the Billboard charts. I ask you: how many of the great bands of the last quarter century got into rock music because of the stellar influence of Billy Joel?

This year, while giving Smith the back of their hand and offering belated recognition to Steely Dan and Paul Simon, the voters apparently caved in to intensive lobbying campaigns from the fans of Queen and Aerosmith. The HOF website ( and the web in general teem with heartfelt petitions on behalf of negligible Boomer crowdpleasers like Grand Funk and Mahogany Rush, so I suppose it could be worse.

Now, to be charitable, I'm not immune to the charms of Queen and Aerosmith; it's just that I wouldn't be in any great rush to enshrine them, given how long the Velvets had to wait. This is not just academic, either. Just days before the Velvet Underground was finally honored for their contributions, guitarist Sterling Morrison had succumbed to cancer, depriving his fans, colleagues and family of the opportunity to share the moment with him while he was still alive.

As the year of eligibity shifts to 1976, the small panel of "rock historians" who provide candidates for the thousand or so "rock experts" to vote on must now confront the punk revolution that injected some vitality into the lifeblood of a corporatized rock scene. Omitting Patti Smith does not bode well for this year's voting, when the Ramones become eligible, or for the Sex Pistols in 2002, or the Clash in 2003. Some of the antecedents of the form, like Zappa and the Velvets, have already been inducted. But before the punks start to storm the gates, those lobotomized experts would do well to consider the bastard godfathers of punk, James Osterberg and Don van Vliet - better known as Iggy Pop and Captain Beefheart.

Of course, I'm not holding my breath. Iggy and the Stooges were semifinalists last year, along with other protopunks like the New York Dolls and the MC5, but the latter two never made the ballot, while Jim got snubbed along with Patricia. The list of thirty (winnowed down to fifteen candidates and then eight inductees), also included seminal figures like Gram Parsons and Tom Waits, who will presumably have to get in line behind Chicago and Bob Seger. Beefheart was completely ignored, along with artists like Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, whose influence also exceeded their sales.

Passing over Patti Smith does more than just elevate the commercial over the artistic; it also ratifies the pervasive sexism in the industry. Up until 1975, you could perhaps argue that there weren't too many women in the HOF because there weren't that many women in rock. You'd be wrong, of course, and you'd have to explain why the experts passed over the great Wanda Jackson and the popular Brenda Lee, while equally esoteric talents like Gene Vincent or Sam & Dave have gotten the nod. But hey, if you're keeping an eye on sales figures, who had the best-selling record of all time in the early-to-mid-70s? Carole King, that's who.

But as of now, the cowardly and clueless historians who guard the gates have locked out, arguably, the greatest female rocker of them all, and the one true godmother of punk. I demand a recount.

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