Depending on how one calculates such things, I‘ve seen either 33 or 42 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in concert. The higher of the two numbers adds members of Hall of Fame groups, such as Jerry Butler of the Impressions, plus the “Tribute to the Byrds” band fronted by Gene Clark that featured original drummer Michael Clarke and second bassist John York (I’ve also seen Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and David Crosby); I’m hesitant to include them in my official tally as it’s somewhat akin to counting chads – but, in the immortal words of Grace Slick (via “Hey Fredrick”), “Either go away or go all the way in.” So I’ll count them if only for this post.
Mind you, I never set out to see that many (or few). It just happened.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony took place in early 1986 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Although the evening was filmed for the HoF’s archives, HoF spokesman Robert Altshuler is quoted in this report by New York Times scribe Robert Palmer as saying, “We intentionally avoided selling film or video rights for the evening, because we are and will remain a not-for-profit endeavor.”
In its first decade, the Hall of Fame was the culmination of many a baby boomer’s dream: The counterculture was finally leaping from the pages of Rolling Stone into the mainstream. The inductees were obvious, as all hailed – due to the rule that artists only become eligible 25 years after the release of their first record – from the baby boom generation’s collective youth, teens and early twenties: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, not to mention Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Byrds and Supremes. Were some major names left out? No doubt. But there’s no arguing the importance and influence of the selected icons (though I’m sure in today’s age of social-media outrage some ignorant folks would decry the “R&B” artists therein.)
In its 10th year, the ceremonies moved to TV; and, now, in its 34th year, that’s pretty much all it is – TV fodder. Some years it’s fun to watch. Some years it’s not. Nominees are decided by a select committee and the public is encouraged to vote, though that vote barely factors into the outcome, which is actually decided by about 1000 music experts. Looking at each year’s line-up, however, I’d wager that the results are tweaked more often than not. Worthy artists are honored, true, but worthy artists are also ignored. And, often, journeymen are feted as heroes simply because they’ve hung around. Nostalgia has come to count as much as importance or influence.
Who’s in and who’s not is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless, in other words. Which is why, when I hear (or read) criticisms of certain artists being included, I can’t help but roll my eyes. Does Whitney Houston belong? Biggie Smalls? Why not? From its earliest years onward, “rock and roll” has had a wide berth. Born from a jambalaya of R&B, country and jazz, rock is far more than what passes as “rock music” in today’s world. It’s been vocal groups like the Platters and rock rebels like Elvis, industrial noise like Nine Inch Nails and grunge rock like Nirvana. It’s never been a specific sound. It’s an aesthetic, an attitude. In that sense, they all pass that test.
Are there groups I think should be in that aren’t? Of course. A slew of acts from the late ‘70s and ‘80s have been overlooked, including the Jam, Go-Go’s, Bangles, Sonic Youth and Ciccone Youth (that’s a joke, folks), as well as Hüsker Dü, Suzanne Vega, 10,000 Maniacs and [fill in the blank]. Whether any of them get in, who knows? I doubt it, myself. The cultural mantle has been passed from the baby boomers – who decried Generation X as “slackers” – to the millennials. And many millennials were weaned not on music, but video games.
But at the end of the day, from where I sit, I don’t think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame matters all that much. It’s akin to looking to any awards show – from the Grammys to the Oscars to whatever – or record reviews to validate your tastes. It’s silly. To me, the most important Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t located in Cleveland. It’s my music library – and yours.