When Stratocasters Are Pinned Up Like Butterflies: The Problem of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
You believe these new girls? None of
'em take birth control, and they eat
all the steak.
She looks sadly at her plate of vegetables. An ever-sharp
mind in last night's clothes, she commands Russell's respect.
They don't even know what it it means to be
a fan! To blindly love some silly
piece of music... or some band so much
that it hurts... please, they're all
just after the money. Shoo --
(in their direction)
Go rob a bank! It's more honest!
Ok, I admit I’m not your typical visitor to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Cleveland. I came primed with a fan’s heart, a brain overstuffed with knowledge and a surly Missouri State of Mind — ok show me, y’all. Three hours later I departed in a sad funk after having padded through endless hallways to gaze at Jerry Garcia’s guitar, Ringo’s drum kit, Green Day’s handwritten lyrics and about 2,000 other totems that sought to enlighten and amaze.
The pathway you trudge through the Hall is circular and takes a visitor through the history of rock as the creators have defined it, through the various Stations of the Cross. In this case Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Dylan, The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, The Band and on and on, until one reaches Taylor Swift’s dress. These and hundreds of other artists are celebrated with various totems and memorabilia and bits of stories describing their importance to The Cause. There are headphones everywhere in the hope you can stop and listen.
The stories pile up, as does the sheer volume of material one is expected to process and absorb. One room shows video of American Bandstand performances. The day of my visit, Paul Simon had loaned them a lot of material from his career for a special installation. I think I saw Run DMC’s hats. There were Elton John things. Posters for shows at the Fillmore Ballroom in San Francisco. Drumsticks used by Mitch Mitchell. There were flashing video screens. About the only time my pulse quickened was when I got to Ringo’s drums.
I didn’t get Museum Shoes so much as I Slouched Toward Bethlehem via Santana’s guitar and out the door. I spent time looking out at Lake Erie from the glass windows. I didn’t bother to investigate an exhibition of artifacts from The Wall that was up on the top floor. The Exit Via The Gift Shop underwhelmed, or perhaps I was already so burned out I had lost my mojo to flash my MasterCard for a t-shirt.
In the end, not even Johnny Cash’s tour bus parked outside could lift me up or mask the fact that the visit had been the biggest bummer since Star Trek: the Motion Picture was unleashed on a good and decent people.
Later as I picked through a bowl of Pho at restaurant in East Cleveland, I wondered how in hell could a group of well-meaning people could take one of life’s biggest pleasures and reduce it to an exercise in forced nostalgia? It hadn’t been bad so much as it was lifeless.
Someone told me (and I wish I could credit a source) that a trip to the I.M. Pei-designed Hall of Fame was like being in a Hard Rock Cafe without the food or booze. I fairly imagined Hunter S. Thompson screaming mad as he leaned against Johnny Cash’s tour bus yowling about rotting flesh and the stench of embalming fluid.
Thirty-three years after Ahmet Ertegen and others decided the time had come for a Hall to honor “Rock n’ Roll,’’ I suspect many other visitors who drop in at the museum must had the same depressing feeling. It’s not that the exhibitions were imprecise or poorly thought out. They simply scratch the surface of what it is to love the music and leave out the soul within.
Thus, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous cuts to the heart of fandom better than any museum can: ultimately the listener’s emotions are what represents the true Hall of Fame moments and they can’t be communicated in a visit.
Such is the conundrum of the Hall — how best preserve, celebrate, and. analyze one of America’s greatest innovations? Ethnomusicologists preserve and educate — fans celebrate. Well, Sir, I am a fan, and the saddest thing about the Hall was it was like some sort of strange Indian burial site for the physical remains but the actual spirit was somewhere else.
I’ve ruminated on my deep disappointment with the Hall for months, but it took Ice Cube’s comments about his own induction with N.W.A to put some order to my jumbled thoughts:
“A group like N.W.A is supposed to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We are just as much rock and roll as any other artists that’s in that hall. Rock and roll is not a guitar, it’s not long hair — that’s not rock and roll. Rock and roll is a state of mind, a state of nonconformity. It’s not about an instrument, it’s about spirit. Not seeing how N.W.A is rock and roll — if you don’t see that, then you really don’t get what it was all about.’’ Ice Cube (Los Angeles Times, April 15, 2016)
Music is an odd beast for preservation. One does not dance to Monet as much as we fuck to Shakespeare or make mix tapes for Rimbaud. I have had moments at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Centre Pompidou in Paris where I was blown away by something I hadn’t seen before. Films such as The Bicycle Thief change us. Books such as Catcher in the Rye engross us.
Yet those Spirit Moments are untraceable, unreachable in the confines of the Hall in Cleveland. If you’ve been touched by the Muse, it likely came long before you entered the museum. So what follows in Cleveland is just really an affirmation. And if you haven’t already had your heart opened by the music, a two-hour trip through Alan Freed’s Back Pages isn’t the place to start warming up. Lord, as loud as Big Mama Thornton shouts, she isn’t going to convert you above the industrial carpet and below the emergency exit signs.
I can show you a picture of Van Morrison or Johnny Ace and talk to you until I’m blue in the face about their lives. That won’t help you understand Van until you’ve listened to the man. Moreover I can’t show you how it feels to hear the momentary break in the kick drum at 2:31 in Beck’s “Loser’’ or smugly knowing and loving the various samples that float in and out of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power or how it felt to lose one’s virginity while Marvyn Gaye’s Sexual Healing randomly dropped on the radio. I can tell you about being drunk and stoned and lying on the grass at college listening to Neil Young singing Bright Lights, Big City led me to Jimmy Reed but I can’t tell you how it felt. That, dear reader, is up to you. You will create your own sonic footprints through hundreds of hours of listening in all ranges of emotions.
Watch the opening to Lord of War where the viewer is treated to a journey of a bullet as it is manufactured and ultimately ends up as a kill. How do you teach someone in 90 minutes in Cleveland to feel a chord, a back beat, a vocal, a bass line, a harmony that someone played long ago that ended up slicing through skin, nerves, bone and lodged in the heart? How do you communicate the feeling of a rainy, cold afternoon in October and a sexual encounter became a lost Sunday night with the addition of alcohol and a first-ever listening of After the Gold Rush? What was as important to the first fumblings of a teenager over That’ll Be the Day is as relatable to the generation that is getting used to Lemonade or Coloring Book.
So what’s left for the fan is a sad, empty echo of an orgasm by Lake Erie. What about the musician? The one who made all this real, gave it life? Well, that’s also a Curate’s Egg. At once there’s a whiff of the old Groucho Marx joke about “not wanting to be a member of a club’’ that would have them as a member. There’s the sense of being dipped in embalming fluid and told “you’re old.” And of course, the fact that when you were 19, this wasn’t something you thought was going to represent the end of the road: Stratocasters nailed on boards like butterflies and displayed for all to admire.
Of course, there’s the question of who gets in. The dust storms kicked up at the induction ceremony for the 2016 crop of Hall of Famers served as a useful reminder of the tricky difference between defining and curating rock, pop, country, soul, rap, jazz, gospel, bluegrass and rhythm & blues and actually showing how those streams bind together to produce the magic that has driven popular music since Rocket 88 or Robert Johnson.
For those who missed the highlights of the induction ceremony for N.W.A., Deep Purple, Steve Miller, Cheap Trick and Chicago, the event in April was often cantankerous. Steve Miller arrived with a bad temper this side of Lou Reed and Neil Young and departed with comments about the organizers that were akin to a verbal trashing of an A&R executive’s hotel room. As late as May, Miller was still winging on about the entire issue of the Hall. The Black Keys, who inducted Steve Miller, were bummed out, having looked forward to honoring a musician they deeply respected.
Kiss’s Gene Simmons lobbed in some deeply uncool racially charged grenades toward the idea of Rap being unfit for the Hall and N.W.A didn’t perform, saying “they didn’t feel supported.’’
That’s before we even get to the evergreen aspect of every Hall induction ceremony which involves musicians reuniting who really hate each other.
That was just the show. The actual physical space that lies on the banks of Lake Erie exists to keep the project ticking over until the next crop of Inductees are sent to their Viking’s Funeral each spring. So the two are intertwined, a Gordian Knot of sorts — that can’t really be solved.
So, yes, there are candidates, but who and what is worthy of preservation in a museum? A favorite parlor game of rock fans is the annual moanfest about WHY THE HELL ISN’T MY FAVORITE ARTIST in the Hall? Er, like The Replacements (Hint, hint y’all).
The kid who listens to .38 Special and gets a guitar as a result and then starts a band — hell, his personal Hall of Fame probably includes the boys from Jacksonville as well as Molly Hatchett. And what about Blackfoot? I’ll bet that kid has some memories listening to them after Friday Night Lights and some burgers. And yet both bands have about as much chance at the real Hall as I have in winning the National Book Award.
Kiss got in, but only after a lot of badgering from that exact demographic which had based very move they ever made in music upon their first purchase of Kiss Alive. Wilco even mentions this in Fell In Love With a Drummer — “playing Kiss records/beautiful and stoned.” And Wilco might get into the Hall someday — they fit the appropriate demographic. Los Lobos was on the list in 2016 and I’d love to see them get the big applause they deserve but I frankly don’t see it happening. Rush had the same problem getting past those who just Didn’t Approve. Steve Miller’s right when he questions the weird logic that goes into choosing who’s in and who’s not.
So much of pop is ephemeral even when we hope it’s not. I have made bald-faced predictions about the timeless enduring nature of some artist or another only to watch them fade away. As the years roll along, I often wonder what in hell possessed me to like this band or that singer but heck, who really cares? It sounded good at the time and probably provided some kind of healing balm I needed. Buddy, you get those hooks into you and you’re already halfway gone: there was probably a girl that I liked who wanted to listen to the song on the radio as we cruised around or there was a monster riff or a poster that was cool hanging on the wall of Sam Goody. It’s all relative.
Lift the needle and flip the record over. There’s another side: the concept of honoring those who set the table for the rest of us to eat from — musically speaking — is honest and genuine. I often think of the Eucharist — it is Right to Worship. At the very least we can thank them for enduring years of sheer cruelty meted out at the hands of bad managers, racism, financial malfeasance and neglect.
Think of Little Richard at the Grammys in 1988 screaming “Y’all never gave me no Grammy.’’ See Chuck Berry, angry and mean as he collects another bag of cash instead of trusting the club owner (that Aretha Franklin does this as well was news to me recently but came as hardly a surprise.). Remember Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and 1,001 other artists who signed contracts without reading them or failing to understand what they meant.
Many musicians who worked hard to bring us all the joy are often happy with the ceremony and the pomp afforded their efforts — Van Halen couldn’t get it together for the Induction for the usual anger issues but Sammy Hagar (one of the nicer people I’ve ever encountered in the music business as a reporter) and Michael Anthony are among those who seemingly embraced the event without regret. Let us celebrate!
The Celestial Actuarial Table has cashed in hard on our heroes in this year of 2016. The giants, one by one, are departing Dinosaur Island. And so, as Edward Kennedy said at the Democratic National Convention in 1980: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
But on Side Two of Why Have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame we better hurry to remember that these people need to be remembered. Otherwise in the mess of streaming services and radio stations that never play anything interesting our Gods will get lost. Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys has noted that the Hall has done a lot to promote the music to schools and offer exposure to bring older material to light.
The next culling of the herd is coming around and this time we may expect Tupac Shakur, Journey, ELO, Pearl Jam and Depeche Mode will get gonged. All worthy in their ways, probably not to all. What to do?
Last Track (Reprise)
If you find yourself in Cleveland, visit the Hall. Appreciate what has come before you and why it matters. If you’ve never experienced what is there, make time for it the next time you fire up your next streaming service. And then go somewhere and do the real thing to find the Muse: Listen. That’s your Hall. Listen for the moments that define your life. You’ll know where those are. And as you grow older, you’ll know where those moments were buried. They may lie in early Genesis, they may be anchored in the Sex Pistols or they may find the outer edges of the Flaming Lips or Car Seat Headrest. Always further.
And for the record, if we’re going to have a Hall of Fame, it’s about damn time Warren Zevon got in. Do it for me, won’t you?