The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will take a shot at regaining some relevance tonight when it inducts its class of 2001. But sadly, the decision to include Aerosmith, Queen and Steely Dan — acts that may actually still mean something to rock fans — may be too little, too late.
The fact is that for 14 years the hall has regularly and systematically done everything in its power to make it pointless to any real rock fan. Instead of embracing the people who live and breathe rock 'n' roll, they've put together a tedious history lesson on the roots of an art form that the hall's board members no longer understand.
Nevermind The Staples Singers … Where Are the Sex Pistols?
A quick look at artists the Hall of Fame has inducted since its inception in 1986 shows that the people doing the picking think that rock 'n' roll's golden age ran from about 1940 through 1970. Forget the fact that the first real rock record wasn't released until 1955 or so, or that some of the most exciting sub-genres, like punk and heavy metal, aren't represented at all.
Can anyone who appreciates the entire history of rock — not just its invention and early days — truly justify the inclusion of The Moonglows, James Taylor, The Staples Singers, The Shirelles, Ruth Brown, The Lovin' Spoonful or Lloyd Price, while Black Sabbath, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, AC/DC, The Sex Pistols and Nirvana are absent? Certainly no one under the age of 40.
But while rock has always been the musical voice of youth, the Hall of Fame's target audience is apparently pushing 50 and looking to kill an afternoon during a business trip to Cleveland.
This Ain't Baseball
In order to understand why the hall seems so out of touch, one must realize that there's a big difference between a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and something like, say, the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Baseball players and fans seem, at least to an outsider like myself, to revel in the sport's history. In my hometown of Brooklyn, some folks are still suffering from abandonment issues, even though the Dodgers moved to the West Coast back in 1958.
Rock 'n' roll, however, is, by its very nature, art for the young. And every generation of rock artists and fans feels compelled to, at least in part, tear down all that has come before it.
But even baseball has a sense of its more recent history that the rock hall apparently lacks. To make a comparison, Reggie Jackson, who dominated the game in the late 1970s — when the Sex Pistols forever changed rock — was inducted in 1993. But that generation's music fans are still waiting for the seminal punk band to receive its due.
Enough With the Awards for Eric Clapton!
Deciding who deserves an honor like induction into the Hall of Fame is always controversial. But a nice criteria might be to select acts who not only did something new and groundbreaking, but who have been so influential that they're still relevant to serious rock fans of today.
Hall of Fame members should be rock acts of such importance that if one of them walked into any club in America and took the stage unannounced on any given night, the audience would be awestruck at their luck. How many of the class of 2000's inductees — Earth Wind & Fire, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Moonglows, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Eric Clapton — would get such a reception? I doubt that more than half of those acts could interest rock fans of any age to sit through a full set.
The Hall of Fame's board would probably argue that it's a disgrace that a surprise show by many of them would send even serious rock fans to the exit, or at least the bar. But what they don't understand is that the hall cannot manufacture a legacy for good artists they would like to make great. It's just that type of thinking that makes the Hall of Fame seem like a homework assignment in rock history rather than a prime vacation destination.
Yet year after year the board packs the hall's ranks with second- and third-tier doo-wop and R&B acts, with the occasional rock legend sprinkled in to get the press there. And when they run out of rock legends, do they move to the art form's lesser-known innovators? No, they simply re-induct one of those legends for a second or third time. Eric Clapton, for example, has been inducted three times, for his work with The Yardbirds, Cream, and his solo career. This year Paul Simon will be inducted for a second time.
The Mistakes in Cleveland
The flaws in the Hall of Fame's selection process are numerous, and no level of the institution is unaffected. The most superficial and obvious was the decision to locate the museum in Cleveland, a city that's more likely to attract Shriners than rock fans. It says a lot that the hall's annual induction ceremony is held in New York City. One has to wonder how many musicians would show up to be honored if they had to commute to Cleveland. And while I have no figures to support it, I would bet that any Hard Rock Café in America has more visitors annually than the Hall of Fame.
But the biggest reason for the skewing toward the early days is that the rock hall has set up an incredibly stupid rule that artists aren't even eligible for induction until 25 years after the release of their first record. That means that when the hall inducted its first members in 1986, when rock 'n' roll was only about 30 years old, only artists who had recorded in rock's earliest days were eligible.
Of course it makes sense to impose a waiting period. The folks who give out the Grammys could have saved themselves plenty of embarrassment in the Best New Artist category over the years if they'd have had the benefit of hindsight in determining who would be influential. But did we really need to wait until the 21st century to know that the Sex Pistols was one of the most important rock bands ever? Will it take us until 2014 to know whether or not Nirvana changed the course of rock? Should we be listening to Muzak interpretations of Rage Against The Machine before the band is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
Rock Grown Fat and Old
There are plenty of reasons for a 25-year waiting period, of course. But none of them is good.
For one thing, the old men who sit on the Hall of Fame board apparently don't want to have to worry about keeping current on their music. They were there when rock was being born, but they probably haven't taken their limos to an underground club to put in some time in a mosh pit in a very long time.
And the hall is nothing if not a perfect example of rock 'n' roll grown fat and old. While young musicians reinvent rebellion every day in clubs across America, the Hall of Fame is about putting on a tuxedo and smoking a Cuban cigar in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom.
And you can be sure that no one is going to be invited to the party unless they've "matured" enough to act like the very establishment they once attacked. In fact, the punishment for making it 25 years without reaching that level of maturity is being shunned by the hall — which might explain why eligible acts like Iggy Pop, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath have been repeatedly overlooked.
What Is Rock?
Another major problem with the hall is its incredibly broad definition of rock 'n' roll. Despite an "early influences" category dedicated to remembering the pre-rock artists who helped shape the music, every year's list of performers is loaded with doo-wop and R&B artists who cannot in any way be classified as rock musicians.
And does anyone really consider Michael Jackson, being inducted for the second time this year, a rock artist? The closest his solo career has come to rock is having Eddie Van Halen contribute a guitar solo to "Beat It." But he'll be joining the Hall of Fame for a second time before Van Halen gets in once.
The rock hall will soon have to become more relevant, or disappear. The Experience Music Project opened this year in Seattle, a considerably more desirable tourist destination than Cleveland. It has been described as a living, breathing tribute to great rock. There are no strict rules on who can be featured. And there is no attempt to force visitors to learn about what they should know.
Now that the Hall of Fame isn't the only option, it's questionable how long America will continue to care about that group of old men getting together at the Waldorf every year.