Gil Hodges was a popular baseball player in Brooklyn during the 1950s. In his heyday he was considered one of the best defensive first basemen ever and was fourth on the all-time home run list when he retired with 370. Later, he managed the New York Mets to an unlikely World Series title in 1969. Gil Hodges is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He died almost 42 years ago, yet his name is still brought up in New York sports columns and talk radio shows every time Hall of Fame ballots are tallied up and poor old Gil falls short yet again.
One would think if the merits of your career are fodder for vigorous debate decades after it ended, then really what can be the argument against inclusion? This of course is not a symptom singular to baseball, or sports for that matter. No, it’s most appalling application is when it comes to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Sport is based on competition—almost all American mainstream sports are team sports, so to single out certain members from these teams after their career is over is not such a far out concept. Unfortunately the process for these honors has become such a self-important industry unto itself that it almost doesn’t seem necessary anymore.
Art, music, and specifically rock ‘n’ roll isn’t competitive in and of itself. Sure, Brian Wilson can record Pet Sounds as an answer to Rubber Soul and the Beatles can return the volley with Revolver, and so on. Stories of one-upsmanship and rivalries litter the history of rock like cigarette butts on the floor after a Van Halen show. But so what? That kind of thing is good for magazine articles or retrospective documentaries, but it doesn’t really mean anything.
So, what is the criteria for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? According to their website, “We shall consider factors such as an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.”
Great. Musical Excellence. As voted on by over 600 “artists, historians and members of the music industry.” So essentially it’s a reason to have a self-congratulatory dinner once a year with some of the most famous musicians in the world jamming on all your favorite heavy-rotation hits of the past 50 years.
And that’s not to say it’s all bad. I’ve been to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum (which by the way opened up 10 years after they started naming inductees to it) and I loved it. It’s hard not to turn into a hyper-giddy, geek boy around handwritten lyric sheets for “Hey Jude” or chunks of stage sets from the Rolling Stones ’81 tour or a Jimi Hendrix smashed Fender. The rotating exhibits focusing squarely on certain artists or eras are a great idea which makes it worthwhile for return visits.
I guess the point is why does it have to be more than a museum, why does it have to be an exclusive club? This seems counter-intuitive to everything that birthed most of the best rock music. Rock has always been for the outsider, whether it’s from your parents or the establishment, the government, the popular kids—or even those beautiful times when rock has revolted against itself—it’s always been from the outside looking in.
One of the headliners of the Class of 2014 is Kiss. Kiss has been the Gil Hodges of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for the last 15 years. I hate Kiss. Sort of. Maybe I can’t separate Kiss from Gene Simmons’ quest to paint a logo and a price tag on everything he sees. Maybe it’s his dismissive attitude towards anything that doesn’t bow at the altar of cock-rock (I’m thinking specifically about his declaration that rock critics only like Elvis Costello because they look like Elvis Costello). Or maybe I just don’t care for their music. But for whatever reason I don’t jive with Kiss, I still think it’s ludicrous that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has stuck their fingers in their ears and pretended not to hear Paul and Gene gleefully singing about their dicks for the last 40 years. It’s impossible to pretend they weren’t one of the biggest bands of the 1970’s, and managed to parlay that into a decades-long traveling circus of blood spitting and fire eating.
Rock n’ Roll should be all-inclusive. Does it make me queasy that the lyrics to “Love Gun” might be placed on the wall next to something like “In My Life”? Well, no, not really. How stupid are the lyrics to “Hound Dog”? Or “Tutti Frutti”? Or hundreds of other songs by less gimmicky artists? As much as I don’t like them, there’s no reason that if there has to be a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame that Kiss shouldn’t be in it.
Which brings me to one of the other headliners, Nirvana. Oh Nirvana, how you both made and spoiled my impressionable adolescence. It’s hard to think of a bigger polar opposite to Kiss than Nirvana, whether you think Kurt Cobain was a sensitive genius who couldn’t handle the spotlight or just a drug addict whose success bankrolled his demise—or whatever. I would think Kurt Cobain, the image of Kurt Cobain as a pink-and-blue haired introvert, wouldn’t care about being permanently enshrined in any institution. But who knows what he really thought? And who knows what would have changed over the last twenty years had he still been here?
But it’s hard to argue that Nirvana didn’t at least start off as outsiders within a Seattle scene that, for all its grunge glory, was dominated by metal-tinged bands like Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, and Alice in Chains. However, unlike Kiss, once they broke through they were welcomed with open arms by the rock press. Every five years or so Nirvana or Cobain will pop up on magazine covers featuring unearthed interviews or fresh takes on old tales about the making of their albums just to sell a few extra copies. The truth of the matter is, however much he might not have wanted to be, Kurt Cobain may have been the last iconic rock star, and if there has to be a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, of course he and his band would be welcomed as conquering heroes as soon as they were eligible.
So, when the 2014 Class is inducted in April, Kiss will finally have its day to strut their 6-inch heels across the stage in front of the same group who told them they didn’t belong for the last fifteen years. Relics from their countless tours will surely hang from the rafters in the Hall, if they aren’t already, and the merits of the next wave of popular but critically reviled band will be left to stir a new great debate. Maybe Mötley Crüe or Limp Bizkit or, God help us all, Nickelback.
But wait, don’t get too comfortable just yet because who from each band is going to actually be inducted? Yes, aside from whether the band is accomplished enough to receive this holy honor, WHICH members of the band are officially “inducted” is also decided at the Hall Committee’s discretion. This is why a few years ago there was a controversy over Bruce Spingsteen getting in but not the E Street Band, who it just so happens will also be inducted this year under the “Award for Musical Excellence” category. Let’s not even get into the idea that one might think the WHOLE IDEA OF A ROCK N ROLL HALL OF FAME IS TO RECOGNIZE MUSICAL EXCELLENCE—let’s not make ourselves nuts, there’s still a long way to go here. So, let’s forget about the E Street Band and how their musical excellence is different from Bruce Spingsteen’s Musical Excellence, let’s get back to Kiss and Nirvana.
Last week a story broke that Chad Channing, the drummer who played on Nirvana’s first release Bleach, would be inducted along with the band. This bothered a vocal section of Kiss fans who felt that Channing being welcomed in was a slight to current Kiss members Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer (and, I would imagine, Bruce Kulick, Eric Carr, Vinnie Vincent, and Mark St. John) who logged just as much time served, if not more, than Peter Criss and Ace Frehley.
Now if I wanted to argue that point I would say this—to be eligible for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a band or artist isn’t considered until 25 years after their first release. Bleach came out in 1989, twenty-five years ago. Chad Channing, was in Nirvana at the time, and played drums on the album. Seems pretty cut and dry. Frehley (who was the coolest member of KISS) and Criss (who sang their biggest hit) both played on KISS’s first album, and were members during the peak of their popularity. I could also mention the name Terry Chimes. Terry played drums on the first Clash album and left shortly thereafter but was inducted with the band in 2003 anyway.
But I don’t want to argue the point. For one, because there’s nothing to argue. It was later announced that Channing will not be inducted after all. But the bigger, broader argument would be—who cares? What integrity is being compromised by setting up criteria where Chad Channing, or 6 members of KISS, or all of the roughly 3,000 members of the E Street Band are memorialized? Who is demanding all this criteria? Who made all these rules? Isn’t that kind of going against the whole point of rock n’ roll (man)?
Over the last 15 years rock has been replaced by hip-hop as the most fertile ground for pop music. Sure there are still rock bands, great rock bands, but it has been a long time since one has been culturally important. So for the establishment to shun, instead of celebrate, a part of its past as popular as Kiss once was for as long as it has—or to trivialize significant contributions from amazing musicians or even slight contributions from mediocre ones—is a symptom of its slow suicide.
Rock has been pronounced dead more times than Jason Vorhees, but for years it’s found a way to grow another head and to stick a vengeful hand out from its grave. The declarations of rock’s death usually were met with the backlash of youthful defiance—anytime it got too bloated some raw form of the original monster unleashed itself, a little louder and a little angrier each time.
You don’t hear anybody say that rock is dead any longer. No one has to. It didn’t die, it did something far worse. It got old. And put in a museum.