Hall Pass

Looking for influence, significance, development and perpetuation at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Press release, Tuesday, December 12, 2000, New York -- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees for the 16th Annual Induction Ceremony were announced today at VH-1 by Jann Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine...

It's a little hard to get your dander up about the Rock and Roll (note: it's the formal and, as opposed to the more rockin' 'n') Hall of Fame in 2001. There was a time when this lifelong rock fan was one of the more quoted critics of the institution, but the biggest gripes with the RARHOF were remedied when they finally inducted the Velvet Underground (four years after they were first nominated, mind you) and Del Shannon (years after he'd committed suicide -- no doubt the overlooked nominee's depression was not helped by a request to deliver the induction speech for the Four Seasons).

Anyway, if you wait around long enough, all of your faves will eventually make it in. Diminishing returns are already on display: The first year (1986) saw 10 performers inducted, the second a whopping 15, but since then, it's ranged between five and this year's mostly sorry eight inductees. The class of 2001 comprises Aerosmith, Solomon Burke (cool), the Flamingos, Michael Jackson, Queen (there's a reason they were Wayne and Garth's favorite band), Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Ritchie Valens.

Writing in BAM in 1994, J. Kordosh suggested, "They should've opened the Hall, inducted Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and then closed the Hall forevermore." In light of some recent inductees (and after sneaking Dylan and perhaps Brian Wilson onto the list), it's easy to agree. Artists are eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first recordings. The official criteria remain "influence and significance of the artist's contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll," though it's still not clear who determines that influence and significance, nor why some years 15 artists have it and some years only five. But when we start getting to the LA hair-metal days or those early MTV years, the pickings are gonna be pretty fucking slim ("Uh, Mr. Ertegun, do we nominate Men Without Hats? Or would you prefer A Flock of Seagulls?"). The New York Dolls, the Stooges, MC5 and Black Sabbath will eventually have to go in, if only by default. Besides, someone who works at Cleveland's RARHOF Museum says that Lou, Mo Tucker and John Cale (all of whom declined requests to be interviewed for this piece) have been guests at the museum. If they can forgive the fact that by the time they were inducted, their bandmate Sterling Morrison had died, then who are we to cast stones?

Still, there are people out there who do care. Many newspapers always refer to an inducted artist as such whenever his or her name is mentioned, and an online search produced at least two Web sites devoted to alternative Halls of Fame (not to mention all the regional RARHOFs that have popped up from Detroit to Nebraska) and petitions for nomination, ranging from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (yes, definitely) to Michael Bolton (aiiiieeeee!). Another site is devoted to the artists who haven't been inducted but, in the eyes of those posting, should be. The list includes many worthy names: Alice Cooper, Rory Gallagher, Cat Stevens, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Grand Funk Railroad, the Zombies, the Monkees, Link Wray, Doug Sahm, Procol Harum, Love, the Dave Clark Five, Gram Parsons. And what about ? and the Mysterians, and the Rivieras? Granted, they only had one hit apiece (and the members of both bands could barely play their instruments), but, my God, what hits!

Actually, the Cleveland museum -- which purports to be separate from (though closely associated with) the RARHOF Foundation -- does pay tribute to "96 Tears" and some of the more "marginal" rock legends. In that regard, the museum can't be faulted, especially when it claims education as its primary goal. ("Rock education" may seem like an oxymoron in conjunction with such terms as "post-Guns N' Roses" or just "Limp Bizkit," but that's beside the point.) History, of course, belongs to the victors -- and the museum's biggest gaffe is devoting an entire wall to Rolling Stone and an opposite wall to every other publication in the history of rock. Now, Rolling Stone was a terrific music magazine in its day -- and it's certainly the world's most successful -- but there's no way that it was more important than prime CREEM or Crawdaddy (or Gloria Stavers-era 16, or Lisa Robinson-Lenny Kaye Rock Scene, for that matter). But you just know that Jann Wenner will be inducted as one of the Hall of Fame's nonperformers before Lester Bangs has a snowball's chance in hell.

The RARHOF induction ceremonies have presented numerous memorable moments over the years (although many occurred before VH-1 began broadcasting the shows): Mike Love incoherently challenging the Beatles, the Stones, Billy Joel and others to a talent duel in 1988 ... and Bob Dylan beginning his induction speech with "I'd like to thank Mike Love for not mentioning me." The year before, it was the quiet pride of the daughters of the late Muddy Waters when he was inducted. And hey, any institution that can bring more attention to artists such as James Burton and Johnnie Johnson (both "sidemen" inductees this year) can't be all bad. Yet when another memorable moment -- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's reuniting for the first time in years to perform live -- was broadcast on VH-1 two years ago, the camera panned the audience, and the most recognizable faces in the crowd were those of label execs: Val Azolli, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Donnie Ienner, Michelle Anthony, Seymour Stein, Tommy Mottola.

These names also feature heavily on the RARHOF board of directors -- which immediately tells you something about the (and the folks who can afford the $1,500-$2,500 tickets to the ceremony, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). In other words, Shawn Fanning won't be nominated anytime soon. When Gail Zappa was told she could have two free tickets to the event the year her late husband was inducted, she replied that there were five people in the immediate family. "[They] said, 'Well, we can sell you additional tickets at $1,500 apiece ... but you can't sit together,'" she recalled later. "I just laughed. He said something about nonprofit organizations, but they can kiss my ass about nonprofit organizations, especially when they were going to exploit it as a TV show."

Zappa requested that Johnny "Guitar" Watson induct her husband, but her request was denied. "I asked them who chooses these things, and I was told 'the board,'" she said. "I asked if there were any musicians on the board, and, more importantly, are there any black musicians? They had to call me back, and they replied, 'Yes. One. Berry Gordy.'"

To be fair, Quincy Jones and Antonio "L.A." Reid are included on the very long list of directors. They join mostly record execs, plus a promoter or two, VH-1 head John Sykes, lawyer to the stars Alan Grubman and damn near every living industry-based "nonperformer" inductee (including last year's Clive Davis and this year's Chris Blackwell). Lots of these people are more responsible for the era of Mariah Carey and the Backstreet Boys than they are for the things rock & roll celebrates -- which helps explain why the late Paul Ackerman (editor in chief of Billboard magazine from 1943-73 -- yeah, I actually hadda look it up) was a "nonperformer" inductee five years before Beatles producer George Martin.

The weird thing, though, is that once the nominations are made -- by a 15-member committee named by the board -- close to 1,000 international voters are sent ballots. Unless the decks are being stacked, these voters have scarily mainstream tastes. This year, the nominees who didn't get inducted include Black Sabbath, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Lou Reed (solo) and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Black Sabbath was first nominated back in 1997, and although it's true that Ozzy Osbourne's wife/manager, Sharon, asked that the band be removed from consideration because "it's not voted on by the fans," thereby pissing off a few people, it's also true that few bands have been as influential as Sabbath. The editor of No Depression magazine once said that even more than Gram Parsons, today's alt-country bands love Lynyrd Skynyrd. And c'mon -- there's no way that pretentious little pipsqueak who was inducted once before as half of Simon and Garfunkel (as well he should have been, even if he did talk with a Liverpudlian accent throughout their set at the Monterey Pop Festival) and who's been a less-than-stellar collaborator with everyone from Artie to Los Lobos (and who remains so pretentious that he actually had a sign-language interpreter onstage during his set opening for Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl two summers ago, leading to bets as to whether the interpreter would remain onstage and throw her hands up in dismay two songs into Dylan's set) has been more important in his rapidly declining solo career than Iggy and the Stooges were and continue to be.

"Well, it's interesting, because those bands are nominated," says Suzan Evans, a pleasant person who's been the executive director of the RARHOF Foundation since its 1983 inception. "It just takes a while for those bands to get enough votes to get inducted. And I don't know -- maybe it's just [because] the voting bloc is international and much broader than the nominating committee. That could be the reason. But, overall, we're optimistic that everyone who deserves to be inducted will eventually be inducted. Even depending on your particular taste in music, I don't think anybody can really find fault with the artists who have been inducted so far. And we do keep updating the voting list. We put new blood in every year. We try to grow it, and at the same time, we do delete some people for whatever reason. But it's kept very new.

"People try to lobby all the time, and, of course, we're always interested in hearing people's opinions. But ultimately it doesn't have an effect on the nominating process, because the members of the nominating committee have extremely strong ideas and they're so knowledgeable that they already know all the information that could possibly be given to them."

One person who lobbied heavily for Ritchie Valens' induction was Del-Fi Records head Bob Keane, who discovered and recorded the Pacoima, Calif., native during his eight-month career. For the past several years, every Del-Fi album and reissue has included a postcard to return to the label to be included on a petition for Valens' induction. When Valens perished in the plane crash that also claimed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, he actually had the biggest hit, "La Bamba" (which noninductee Lester Bangs once credited as containing the three chords that launched punk rock). Beyond the fact that you can draw a straight, direct line connecting Valens with ? and the Mysterians, Santana and Los Lobos, if rock & roll truly was for teenagers (especially in the '50s), then Valens, 17 when he died, was the real deal.

"After the Hall of Fame opened, about three years went by and I didn't see Ritchie's name, so I called them up," recalls Keane, who claims credit for co-writing Valens' biggest hits. "And the person who answered said, 'Well, he hasn't even been nominated.' So I said, "What's the matter? Don't you like Mexicans back there?' And she got so pissed off that she hung up on me. Later I told them, 'Name one other teenager who had three Top 50 records in six or seven months,' but it didn't seem to faze them. I guess they figured he didn't have the longevity to prove himself. And then I got word that Jann Wenner just did not want Valens in. Eventually we got the support of the folks at Rhino Records and of Phil Spector. And we got a ton of postcards from all over the world -- even China, for God's sake. But it took three years after he was nominated to finally get him in."

For Keane, the triumph is bittersweet. He won't be at the induction ceremony. "They gave all the tickets to the family, and I got upset because I'd have had to pay $2,500 for a seat in the back," he claims. "Without me, there wouldn't have been a goddamn Ritchie Valens! There definitely should be someone from the family, but I felt I should've been there as well. I gave him his name. I gave him his music. And I gave him his fame. He was my life, you know? He was the only artist on the label at that point -- the label was six months old when I signed him. But I was never actually allowed to be part of this thing. I don't know if the family decided they didn't want me there or what. But that's OK. In the long run, it doesn't matter. He's in."

Ultimately the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a subjective, industry-involved popularity contest (at least some of it is based on volume of records sold; how else could you explain Billy Joel's going in before Lou Reed?), and in that sense, it's only slightly more important than the Grammys or the MTV Awards. It should be interesting in two years, when the first wave of punk rockers becomes eligible: The Sex Pistols should go in on the first try, but Johnny Rotten vowed in 1997 that should the band be inducted, "We won't turn up. I accept no awards. Ever. Because that introduces the concept of competition, and I don't do this to compete with other bands. And I find people who do attend those things to be quite ludicrous in their dinner jackets and dickie bows. That's so old-school."

But the final word belongs to Iggy Pop, who, next to the young Elvis Presley, probably personifies rock & roll more than any other living creature -- a rebel and a true rock star who is now also mainstream enough to have his old songs sell cars on TV commercials. His incredibly influential first band has been eligible and rejected by Hall of Fame voters for five years now. During his 1996 "Naughty Little Doggie" tour, not long after the Stooges failed to be inducted, he said, "Well, my manager is in tight with some of those people, and I guess they've said, 'The Stooges, never! Never! Iggy, maybe -- if he's a good boy. And if he doesn't title albums Naughty Little Doggie!'" He laughed. "Maybe if I'd have called it something like Fucking Heroic Young Record Executive instead!" That statement alone should guarantee him inclusion in any institution devoted to rock & roll.

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