He also once said, "Rock 'n' roll is very, very important and very, very ridiculous."
I went to the 15th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria last week. I don't suppose you'll be surprised to know it struck me as the very, precise and complete antithesis of rock 'n' roll. With its black-tie tedium of endlessly droned speeches occasionally interrupted by seizures of dubious "entertainment," its absolutely phony pretense of celebration, its hollow evocations of youth and its grinning, back-slapping, fascistical suppression of anything resembling authentic joy (God how I wished George Grosz were alive to document the moment), it produced in, I would judge, nearly everyone there a sense of alienated boredom that was like being at a wedding where you don't know either family, only the music at most weddings would be more rockin'. Seen from above, the aged entertainers and impresarios arranged at their tables for the formal dinner were a sea of heads that if not gray were bald as stegosaurus eggs. It looked like that final House of Lords scene in The Ruling Class, all cobwebs and applauding corpses.
Not that I was actually in attendance. The press, except I suppose for a few heavy hitters very very close to Mr. Jann Wenner, was relegated to a backstage holding pen. We watched the ceremonies on tv monitors, just as you might have on VH1 two nights later, except no one edited out all the really dull segments for us. Right as I walked in, local tv figure Penny Crone fired an unwelcome image into my brain, doing a standup in front of hot tv lights about how rock 'n' roll reminds her of heavy petting in the backseat of a Chevy.
A kind of bleachers section filled most of the room?definitely the cheap seats for the press?with a phalanx of tv cameras along the top row aimed like artillery at a low stage, where some inductees and presenters would be trotted out for us to do photo ops and brief rounds of dopey "entertainment media" questions of a how-does-it-feel-to-be-inducted? nature. Flanking the stage were the two widescreen monitors wherein the real action took place; I'm no expert on giant tv appliances, but these looked slightly smaller and lower-quality than the one my brother-in-law has in his rec room in Pacific Palisades.
Radio and Internet types were crammed into the far corners. Throughout the evening, a fat, lanky-haired DJ doing live radio feeds to somewhere out in cow-patty country periodically erupted into outbursts of "mhm hmm mhm BIG APPLE! mnmn hmhm hmhmhm ROCK 'N' ROOOOLLLLL, BABY!" By 9 p.m. I'd estimate roughly half the assembly was willing to strangle the mofo with his headphones cord. Other, meeker media types found themselves brushed off and pushed around all evening by some officious dick with a Hall of Fame employee laminate hanging from his neck, wearing a ketchup-colored sportcoat he probably bought for $59.95 in a small men's specialty shop back home in Cleveland. By contrast, the hired security guys were unfailingly polite and mannerly, in that slightly menacing mafioso-in-relax-mode way. (And there were a lot of them, speaking into their cufflinks all over the building; I wondered for a while if Clinton was coming with his sax.)
Where past induction ceremonies have occasionally managed to stir up a glimmer of rock 'n' roll spirit, at 15 years into it this one seemed particularly exhausted and offhand. Compared to, say, 1992, when the list of inductees included Hendrix, the Yardbirds, the Isleys, Booker T, Sam & Dave, Elmore James, Doc Pomus and Leo Fender, this year's crop seemed uninspired at best. One gets the impression that the bottom of the barrel of rock talents Jann Wenner is willing to sanction has by now been scraped very, very clean. Eric Clapton was inducted for the third time; I think at this point they should just declare him God and retire him to his own niche in Cleveland. Others included Bonnie Raitt, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Moonglows and the Lovin' Spoonful; a new category honored relatively unsung session men like Elvis' guitarist Scotty Moore and Motown bassist James Jamerson; Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole were recognized as early influences. In one of the evening's rare moments of candor, Natalie Cole, when asked by the press how her father?who hated rock 'n' roll?would've felt about being inducted, admitted, "He would die. I think he'd be slightly mortified." Standing next to her in an extremely shiny jacket, Ray Charles grinned and grinned.
It would be hard to say who were the more boring speakers, those presenting or those receiving. Paul Simon, introducing the Moonglows, looked ancient and out of it; at one point he seemed to be hallucinating, mumbling some nuttiness about how great it is to be an adolescent, "before the imagination has been dulled by cultural pollutants." Like...? Melissa Etheridge, who has become a regular at these affairs, hamboned interminably and with incredible phoniness about what a great musician, feminist, sex symbol and humanitarian Bonnie Raitt is. John Mellencamp, an absurd little fellow with a basted-on booth tan and a practiced faux-rock insouciance that would earn him a smackdown in most corners of the real world?he blew smoke rings at the press like he'd been practicing it since he was 14?insisted on singing half the Lovin' Spoonful's song catalog in introducing them.
Patti Smith introduced Clive Davis. She looked awful and ashen and paralyzed with stage fright. I was told she was a late replacement for Whitney Houston, who is said to have a problem with certain personal habits that can render her suddenly unavailable for public speaking. Patti sang, with, pathetically, no show of irony, "The People Have the Power," and I'm thinking the power to what? Lick the floor in Clive Davis' office? Purchase another 12.5 billion units of Santana?
Not that the inductees helped much. After each member of the group had thanked every sentient being in the known universe, they would toddle over to their equipment and stumble through a couple of signature hits they hadn't played together in 20 years. You can hardly blame them for being rusty, but really, what is the point of embarrassing everyone that way? Why not just encase them in lucite and let Ahmet Ertegun use them as paperweights in his office?
Because that is, as you know of course, the whole point of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Like the Academy Awards, the Grammys, your local Chamber of Commerce's annual citizen of the year award, it's a business award. It was dreamed up by and exists primarily to serve as a back-patting exercise for the business side of things, for those moguls, producers, impresarios and highest-level sycophants who had what they clearly consider the great genius to recognize talent when they heard it and know how to make a buck off it. Although it's easy to figure why the actual performers and artists in attendance feel they cannot not participate, most of them looked to be enjoying themselves a whole lot less than Ahmet Ertegun, Clive Davis, Seymour Stein and Jann Wenner, beaming into the spotlights.
Also like all awards ceremonies, it went on two hours too long. Press was made to arrive between 4 and 7 p.m.?I shot for 7. The event got rolling maybe 8:30. At around 12:30, by which time everyone in the press room was hot, bored senseless, hungry, thirsty and cranky, Paul McCartney, who's become another regular, appeared on the monitors and began the induction speech for James Taylor.
James Taylor. When does Livingston become eligible for consideration?
At James Taylor I draw the line. There was still to come a video about him, his speech, his playing a couple of tunes I loathed 30 years ago, and then the spectacle of the big all-star jam. I got up and left. As I passed in front of the still-packed press bleachers, a couple of reporters gave me dirty hey-where-you-think-you're-going? looks, like I was violating the newsman's code by abandoning this ship without them. A couple others applauded.