A skinny, deliberately bald guilt sycophant from Athens, Georgia. A self-absorbed hate-me-and-you-love-me self-tortured doormat with limited commercial appeal. An eight-foot tall bag of hammers still wearing a skipper’s hat and a latex sailor suit. Tuesday night at the French quarter? Of course not. It’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
The Western World’s last cultural testament, appropriately located in Cleveland, Ohio, built as a monument to the versatile mathematic victory of clapping hands on 2 and 4, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame spends several self-promoting months nominating the most influential artists of all time. The lobby of the museum, in a testament to the simple symbolic nature of music, greets visitors with an eclectic panorama of replicated memorabilia, such as the cars from U2’s Zoo TV tour and representations of famous guitars to, one expects, the petrified liver of David Crosby and whatever the remains are of Elton John’s dignity. With great fanfare, the nominees are announced; much debate and arguments are hashed out until it is decided that the five or so musical performers who have made the most money are creative enough to be enshrined in the hall of fame.
Music is, of course, a depressingly subjective area. For every Beach Boy or Bee Gee that ushers in yet another unlistenable genre of music, there are many others whose influence is more subtle—or, in other words, not as commercially successful. And yet others transcend both commercial viability and legitimate creative success. And still others are selected for their durability—not just for ongoing radio play and record sales, but also for their continued existence after ingesting eighteen pounds of crack cocaine every day for six years back in the seventies.
There’s always a difference of opinion about who the greatest artists are in rock and roll; there’s also my opinion, also known as “fact.” The various merits of the current list of inductees can cause many to shake their head in wonderment. For instance, Bob Dylan has been described as the first singer-poet, though I’m certain that first adjective is charitable at best and I’m not so sure about the second. And the continued success of Neil Young I’m certain is propagated by the deliberate expanding influence of the criminally tasteless.
One good thing that can be said for this stolid enterprise is that they manage to please most anyone, as long as you’re white and haven’t listed to the radio for about twenty years. But thank goodness there’s at least a token effort at diversity in both the musical styles and the methods of creativity of the inductees. The Sex Pistols, for instance, produce one stellar album then passed out. The last album by Pink Floyd, on the other hand, was released in 1994 and still hasn’t reached the last track. Diversity can be found in other places, too; Janis Joplin died of a combination of heroin and whiskey, while Keith Moon died from a sedative overdose.
The bands and singers are not the only ones who get inducted. There’s also a “sidemen,” representing the people who got kicked out of the band right before they made it big and the lead singer found Jesus and felt guilty about it later. There’s the “Early Influence” list, otherwise known as the “African Americans whitey wouldn’t play on the radio.” The museum also honors what are affectionately known as “non-musical performers,” which presumably represents who Chrissie Hynde had to sleep with to get a record deal.
This year, the inductees are Van Halen, R.E.M., Patti Smith, the Ronettes, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. This diverse group represents many different styles of rock and roll—from pretentious punk rock all the way to pretentious hard rock.
The induction ceremony is slated to take place in March in New York City, far away from the solace and economic distress of Cleveland, lest its influence make Gary Cherone even more sedate and unemployed. One suspects this year’s annual ritual will not disappoint. David Lee Roth will be trying to pay for pina coladas with food stamps and Sammy Hagar will be selling Cabo Wabo T-shirts and coasters (while supplies last), while Eddie and Alex sit in the smokers’ lounge calculating the gold exchange rate in Amsterdam. Ronnie Spector will entertain passersby with how her ex-husband didn’t kill her. Michael Stipe will no doubt give the ceremony much needed gravitas by giving an exhilarating speech on the dangers of economic apartheid or the evils of the Rand Corporation have on the royalty payments of Automatic for the People. And Patti Smith will sit Indian-style in the corner, wearing a CostCo Charlie Brown-style V-neck, weeping gently to herself at how painful limited success is and, if we’re lucky, overdose on a combination of DayQuil and St. John’s Wort.
While critics and fans may debate the various fate of the inductees, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum glamorizes exactly what the music industry, in all of its forms, is intended to glamorize: itself.