The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a terrible idea; if its founders want to honor forgotten stars, they should leave it at that. But the only people who can stop it are the stars themselves, and honorees almost always show up for the private annual induction ceremony. But quite a few were missing from the big public bash last Saturday celebrating the opening of the new Cleveland museum. Any concert that includes Chuck Berry, James Brown, Little Richard, Robbie Robertson, George Clinton, John Fogerty, the Kinks, Jerry Lee Lewis, Booker T & the MG's, Eric Burdon, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop cannot be called a failure. But the show curiously bypassed certain stops on the rock 'n' roll journey it purported to be on. No Beatles or Stones; indeed, the rather silly Kinks were the sole Britons present. Even stateside there were big gaps: no bow to the Beach Boys nor mention of Elvis Presley, a fairly significant figure. Certain members of the second-rank rock aristocracy--your Eric Claptons and Rod Stewarts--can generally be relied on to attend such events, but even they stayed away. Most tellingly, important rock from 1976 on was entirely absent, other than that of Chrissie Hynde. No punk, no rap (though Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg were supposed to play). And, finally, no sign of key modern stars such as R.E.M., U2, and Pearl Jam. Was it the affair's intent to salute only the past? Hardly. The 1990s were represented all right, but only by a risible lineup of latter-day evanescence that included fake alternative acts like Sheryl Crow and the Gin Blossoms, minor VH-1 artists like Bruce Hornsby and Natalie Merchant, and hairband survivor Jon Bon Jovi. Only Hootie & the Blowfish were missing.
These artists gave the six-and-a-half-hour concert a shudder-inducing tinge. Take the Gin Blossoms, who went platinum on the songwriting talents of the doomed Doug Hopkins. Since Hopkins's alcoholism-based suicide, the band has drifted and has turned to outside songwriters for its upcoming album. The Rock and Roll Foundation turned to this simulacrum of a rock band to warble the Beatles' "Wait." (The crew from Beatlemania might have been more appropriate; indeed, a former cast member, Marshall Crenshaw, is one of the Gin Blossoms' hired guns.) This peculiar exercise in honor was trumped by the nod made to the Rolling Stones. "Let It Bleed" and "Get Off of My Cloud" were delivered by the grinning, small-brained Crow, who in her inexplicable role as concert utility infielder tired herself running on and off stage to back up Robertson on "The Weight," the Allman Brothers on "Midnight Rider," and Martha and the Vandellas on "Dancing in the Street." The puny stood with giants all day. John Mellencamp sang with Johnny Cash, forgetting the lyrics to "Ring of Fire." Jon Bon Jovi took the stage with Eric Burdon. Later he and band mate Richie Sambora delivered a bathetic acoustic "Imagine." "Sing along if you want," he said solemnly. Easy for him to say: moments later, the HBO camera caught his and Sambora's teleprompter.
In the museum's opening ceremony the previous day, Yoko Ono averred that John Lennon would definitely have been there. She may have been right, but the sight of his ghoulish, careerless widow insisting on it aroused in me a sharp desire to break something. Jerry Garcia deserved better than a song by Bruce Hornsby. Bob Dylan was incoherent. Bruce Springsteen, the one superstar on the bill, looked game but uncomfortable. There was little he could do: his manager, Jon Landau, is on the foundation's board. Landau's only other client: Natalie Merchant.
Glimmers of art and meaning crept in. Girl groups were saluted via Melissa Etheridge's gender-switched "Leader of the Pack." Hynde spit out "My City Was Gone," her hymn to the social and personal ruins in her hometown of Akron, but its smoldering resentment seemed to be lost on the crowd. She also gave the night its most haggard moments with her cover of "The Needle and the Damage Done," Neil Young's ode to the drug of choice for past, present, and future Hall of Famers everywhere. And the adamantine Booker T led his MG's through a loud and crushing "Green Onions." "The best rock 'n' roll band in the world," Fogerty called them, and that night, on that stage, they may have been.
The foundation is set up in a clever way: each year, they select from a pool of acts whose first recordings were made at least 25 years back. Sixties relics--Clapton, the Stones--always participate in the ceremony. Older stars, particularly R & B-based ones, will always show up, blinking a little at the attention. Punks, when they become eligible, might provide some fireworks, but it's easy to imagine artists too long out of the limelight softened out of any lingering rock 'n' roll defiance--in the early years of the next decade I can definitely see Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, and even Johnny Rotten approaching the dais. In future years the true test of rock 'n' roll defiance will be to see who will resist the hall's blandishments. The only sign of such feelings during the show last weekend came on a tape of Arlo Guthrie's comments on the occasion of his father's induction as a "forefather" in 1988. "He's the last person who would have been here," he said. The Hall of Fame seemed unconcerned by the crack. Woody Guthrie was a folkie and a commie, not a true rocker at all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.