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More Lame than L.A.M.F.|
The 17th Annual Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Dinner
Text and photos: Copyright © 2002 John Nikolai
And you may find yourself at a $2,500 a ticket event. And you may find yourself sitting in a pressroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City where you expected to have a good time. And you ask yourself, four excruciating hours into it, where is all the great rock 'n' roll you expected to find there. And you may say to yourself, "This is not something I ever wanna do again." And you may find yourself resenting having blown several hours of your life that you'll never get back at some corporate circle jerk masquerading as a rock 'n' roll event. And you may ask yourself, "My God, what have I done?"
It's March 18, 2002, and the big media event is the 17th Annual Induction Dinner for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. With these award ceremonies, what you see on TV is not what you get when you're actually there, having been invited, having talked your way in as a member of the press, or - if your brain's in your ass - having spent 2,500 bucks to piss away on a black tie dinner and the privilege of sitting through it in person. The 2002 inductees were The Talking Heads, Ramones, Gene Pitney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Brenda Lee and Isaac Hayes. In the "Nonperformer" category, Jim Stewart, head of R&B label Stax Records was inducted and, in the "Sideman" category, guitarist Chet Atkins - who died last year - made the grade.
The press, PUNK magazine included, was kept at the Waldorf-Astoria like dogs in kennels, in a separate pressroom from the actual event. In this room, we watched and heard the ceremony on monitors and were subjected to the Rock Hall's representative, some clown in a tuxedo, who was there to manage the press. This little monkey-assed putz acted as though he were the star attraction. Every time acts were brought into the pressroom, he would stand as close as possible to them and it seemed as though he planned on being in as many photos as possible. Almost everything he said proved he had the most minimal knowledge about the history and work of the inductees and their presenters. He STRUGGLED over the title of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop," calling it, among other things, "Blitzkrieg Bot," and was puzzled by the pronunciation of presenter and Red Hot Chili Pepper's singer Anthony Kiedis' name, which he'd apparently never heard before.
After the musicians were inducted, performed, or had inducted someone else into the Rock Hall most of them were ushered into the pressroom where photographers had a minute or two to take photos and writers had a few minutes to shout out questions. The performers were then whisked back to the ballroom. If you watched the ceremony on TV a couple of days after it took place, you got the extremely edited, tweaked, revisionist, hour and a half long version of the real ordeal. Having watched it from the pressroom, I can honestly say that it was the single most boring, unrock 'n' roll charade I've ever been to. On a personal note, I was there primarily for the Ramones and the Talking Heads. Despite the fact that the Rock Hall of Fame is - at its heart - about as rock 'n' roll as Pat Boone (who they haven't inducted yet but, hey, there's still time), I couldn't help being pleased that the Ramones and Heads were not being ignored by the Hall and getting the respect they deserve. This has not happened to so many other great, mega-influencial rock 'n' roll performers who have not been admitted despite having changed rock 'n' roll and American culture forever. But the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame is not really about rock 'n' roll in the first place. It is, first and foremost, about marketing and tourism.
The first performer of the night was the definitive soul man, R&B giant Issac Hayes, known by the kids of today as the voice of Chef - the cartoon character with the salty chocolate balls - on South Park. Hayes got the ceremony off to an excellent start by conducting and performing a killer rendition of "The Theme From Shaft." Hayes looked amazing, like he's barely aged since the '70s. His voice is as powerful and inherently cool as ever.
When it came time for him to accept his award Alicia Keys welcomed him in and did a nice job. Hayes gave a gracious, dignified acceptance speech that took one strange turn when he used his time in the spotlight to address "all the guys that are sitting on my royalties," urging them to practice some business ethics and humanity and to give him and his contemporaries what they're due. It's likely that some of those he was addressing may have been in the audience. He gave a shout out of sorts to scientology, which was also kinda weird. He'd perform again on several occasions throughout the evening, including performing with Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame, in a tribute to his old boss at Stax Records, Jim Stewart.
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam introduced the Ramones. He has a mohawk now and was wearing a Ramones t-shirt and carrying a bottle of wine. His long, rambling, monotone speech went on for perhaps longer than some of the Ramones' earliest performances at CBGB. Eighteen minutes, as reported by one paper. He quoted something that Johnny Ramone supposedly once said when someone asked him why the Ramones songs were so short. They're fairly long songs, Johnny reportedly said, that are just played very quickly. What else did Vedder say? Too much, but not really a whole lot. It was severely and mercifully edited for TV to a fraction of the original length. Elsewhere in the ceremony, Green Day performed a few Ramones songs ("Blitzkrieg Bop," "Rockaway Beach," and "Lobotomy.") and this was, of course, no substitute for the real band but since singer Joey Ramone succumbed to cancer last year a Ramones performance was completely out of the question.
As for the Ramones' speeches, they all had something in common with the Ramones' music and were the best examples all night of a band knowing how to get something across with purity, purpose and without wasting anyone's time. Their acceptance speeches were, in the classic Ramones style: short, sweet, and straight to the point. Johnny Ramone went first, making some brief remarks before concluding with the words "God Bless President Bush and God Bless America." Tommy Ramone (aka Tom Erdelyi), was eloquent and articulate as always, not only giving thanks to Ramones' core cast of Seymour Stein, Hilly Kristal, Arturo Vega, Monte Melnick, and CJ Ramone, but also such early influences as Iggy, the MC5, and New York Dolls (none of whom have been inducted) and others, as well as the Ramones' NY contemporaries for making a "vital music scene." Even, he noted, when the band members of the Ramones weren't getting along, they were "truly brothers." The Ramones' induction, he said, meant everything to Joey. The Rock Hall would not allow CJ Ramone (who was in the crowd) to be inducted because of his relatively late arrival into the band. Marky followed by thanking the band's even earlier influences and Dee Dee, looking dapper in a red suit jacket, was the last Ramone at the microphone. He was a riot.
"Hi, I'm Dee Dee Ramone and, uh, I'd like to congratulate myself and thank myself and give myself a big pat on the back. Thank you, Dee Dee. You're very wonderful. I love you." This got some appreciative laughs from the crowd and it was one of the rare amusing moments in a long, drawn out evening. It was also the most punk rock moment of the whole evening, not that there was much competition for it.
It goes without saying that the induction committee nominated the wrong Heartbreakers. In the sea of real, raw power rock 'n' roll, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are, at best, a nice little sailboat or, at worst, a leaky canoe. Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers were, well, maybe not a battleship, but at least a pirate ship that you wouldn't wanna fuck with. That band will probably never be inducted, which is understandable, although hopefully the New York Dolls will eventually make it in. Jacob Dylan was there to introduce Petty and his band. Dylan recalled a time years ago when he saw Petty's daughters and, awestruck, thought, "Jesus, your dad is Tom Petty!" When the band came out, Petty looked as though the undertaker could've applied a little more color onto his gaunt, pallid face to give him more of an appearance of almost being alive. Has he been going for the same skin lightening treatments as Michael Jackson? With his pink sunglasses, he looked like Elrod the Albino. Petty's acceptance speech was modest and humble enough aside from a moment of mad delusion in which he claimed that his Heartbreakers were the "best fucking band in America," which we can forgive him for since it was probably just the formaldehyde talking. When he and his Heartbreakers played some songs, including "American Girl," it wasn't particularly exciting or energetic, but it wasn't any worse than most of the evening's performances, the lamest of which perhaps belonged to Stray Cats' frontman Brian Setzer, who wasn't being inducted.
Setzer was there to help induct Chet Atkins. Setzer's musical contribution to the evening was a couple of snippets of lackluster, unmoving, stillborn guitar instrumentals that were more rockabye baby than rockabilly. Unlike Setzer's best work with the Stray Cats, the short, dull pieces he played weren't entertaining even for kitsch value. He was illustrating some techniques that Chet Atkins once showed him. A lame solo artist, Setzer still might make a good roadie for the Reverend Horton Heat. Setzer treated the crowd to what he referred to as "guitar nerd talk" between the instrumentals. Or was it "nerd guitar talk?" I'd hate to misquote him. In short, he was boring.
Darlene Love was there to induct her old pal Gene Pitney. Pitney's overblown performance of "Town Without Pity" was deadly dull, even though it's a great song. His voice was terrible compared to what it once was. He sounded more like Ethel Merman than the young Gene Pitney. There's kind of a superficial, synthetic coolness about him that isn't really convincing and, unless you buy into it, he ultimately comes across as small, unimpressive, and plain.
Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis, apparently a tremendous Talking Heads fan, introduced that band. He gave a nice speech before the Heads came out, saying that he still remembers where he was when he first heard "Psycho Killer." When he first took to the stage, he called Eddie Vedder a genius and said that, while the Ramones songs might have been two minutes long, Vedder's speech was not. It was actually a very short speech, Kiedis said. It was just spoken very slowly. When the Heads came up, Tina Weymouth spoke first, giving special thanks to CBGB owner Hilly Kristal and inviting him onto the stage. A very classy move, a wonderful gesture and classic rock 'n' roll moment. The typically gruff- looking club owner looked fantastic. Well-groomed like I've never seen him before and wearing a tuxedo, Hilly could've passed for some genius Harvard Professor being honored at a Nobel Prize awards ceremony. Chris Frantz spoke next, thanking the Rock Hall for giving his band a "happy ending" and thanking the music fans of New York. Jerry Harrison was next and, mentioning a skepticism he once held for the Rock Hall of Fame, said that being inducted was a huge honor. I, for one, was glad to hear of his skepticism. As honored as the Heads, Ramones and all the other performers were and maybe should be over being inducted, is the Rock Hall's induction process and ceremony any less bogus than any other similar industry event? David Byrne spoke last, thanking his bandmates and the musicians who have played with them. Byrne and his bandmates looked happier with each other when they left the podium than went they walked up to it.
The Talking Heads reunion performance wasn't everything it should have been and not just because maybe they really didn't need to reunite 18 years after falling apart. They were, of course, good. How could the members of The Talking Heads, God bless them, playing together not be good? But it was tainted by several factors. Up on the stage of the ballroom, under the most undramatic stage lighting possible and in an extremely sterile, unrock 'n' roll atmosphere, there was something flat about the whole thing. Could they have reformed for a lamer, more black-tie, whitebread occasion? Could there, in general, have been a more overprivileged and undeserving audience? At least the Ramones and Hilly Kristal and some scattered other New York rockers were there to see it, but a large percentage of the crowd consisted of music industry moguls and their spouses, stuffed shirts, and socialites who have probably never set foot in CBGB in their lives. Let those people have Gene Pitney and Paul Shaffer. They deserve them. VH1 didn't even let you see the entire Talking Heads reunion performance secondhand on TV. If you saw it at home, you were 2,500 dollars short and two days late to hear The Talking Heads perform "Psycho Killer," which VH1 chopped right the fuck out. "Life During Wartime" and "Burning Down the House" were excellent. At the end of the night, The Talking Heads were part of one of the most awful "all-star jams" of all time (including Darlene Love but, thankfully, no Ramones), on "Take Me To The River" with Paul Shaffer, the event's musical producer, joining in and desecrating the reunion even further. The "all-star jam" didn't go too well between the time-wasting technical difficulties between songs and lame performances by some of the participants. "Take Me To The River" was done TWICE to try to get a better version for TV, and was ultimately not used in the VH1 special. Also on stage throughout much of the evening were members of Paul Shaffer's super cool band from Late Night With David Letterman. More lame celebrity jams followed, some featuring Jewel and the pretty boy singer from Matchbox 20. They dueted on an unfathomably bad, weak rendition of George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun." It was a dismal, lame end to a dismal, lame evening.
Who knew that all that was needed to bring The Talking Heads back together was a perhaps even well-intentioned committee deciding to declare that band was as excellent, innovative and accomplished as we already knew they were? As if such a committee's declaration makes it official. The Talking Heads were a great band when they started, when they ended, and throughout all the years they haven't been together. Their work remains brilliant with or without the inconsequential distribution of trophies from the business that proclaimed itself the Rock Hall of Fame, a business that often rewards acts that - while popular or commercially successful - couldn't be more undeserving. Yeah, Iggy and the Sex Pistols will, no doubt, eventually get in, even though the MC5, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and other essential rockers might never. But for TOM PETTY or BILLY JOEL to have been inducted first, before Iggy and the Stooges? For Aerosmith to have been inducted and the New York Dolls to have not been? That's not only completely fucked; it's evidence of the Rock Hall's real agenda.
In the Rock Hall's defense, there are some good people involved in it who, no doubt, have a sincere love and deep knowledge and understanding of rock 'n' roll. Seymour Stein, former president of Sire Records and an early advocate of the Ramones, is the president of the Rock Hall. Danny Fields, Phil Spector and Lenny Kaye are on the nominating committee as well as some well-known rock writers (Jon Savage, Dave Marsh). This isn't enough to redeem the Rock Hall and some of its fatal flaws. Billy Joel is not rock 'n' roll, although he has sold more records than the Stooges ever could have. Some part of the nomination committee, which also includes creepy Rolling Stone magazine bigshot Jann S. Wenner - has definitely been playing it safe. Rock 'n' roll was never supposed to be about playing it safe and, besides, it's the bad elements - the rebels, the outcasts, the deviants and the fuckups - that made rock 'n' roll so great in the first place, not the Billy Joels, who are unoffensive to the mainstream, but irrelevant. Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-ling" wasn't about about the tinkling sound of a bell on a child's toy. It was about Chuck's black dick. Yes, the Hall voted Chuck in a long time ago. They had to. He's seminal. His induction, like those of all the other essential, early-era rockers who were accepted into the Hall early on, are the cornerstones on which the organization was able to claim some sort of credibility and validity. They couldn't ignore Chuck Berry, nor could they ignore the Ramones. Especially since they've snubbed the immeasurably influential Sex Pistols, Stooges, Black Sabbath, MC5, and other undesirables that your average ticket-buying tourist with a family in tow doesn't necessarily want to see. It would be the Hall's own credibility at stake, not the Ramones, if they hadn't inducted the band this time around, especially this close to Joey Ramones' death.
There were presenters, performances and speeches that I will not go into here in depth, or at all. Many were boring. I have already forgotten some of them and am working on forgetting others. Jewel, the great poet, was there, inducting Brenda Lee, originally a child star and rocker of the '50s and '60s. She now looks something like Mrs. Garrett from "The Facts of Life." More information about Brenda Lee's induction and performance of "I'm Sorry," which brought the film "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane" to mind, can be found elsewhere in this giant cesspool we call the Internet.
Overall, it was a night with far more lows than highs. The liveliest moments? The first few songs of the Talking Heads induction and the Ramones' speeches. Particularly Dee Dee's. Why his? Because it made the most sense. He was thanking himself, not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Without the Rock Hall, he's still Dee Dee Ramone, someone who had a hand in changing culture forever, and that's an important thing. Far more important than the Rock Hall. Without the Ramones, Talking Heads, Chuck Berry, Elvis, or even any of the great talents who have been inducted without really having much to do with rock 'n' roll at all, like Isaac Hayes, the Rock Hall is nothing. Except guilty. Guilty of often pushing forward the most profitable and popular performers that will bring a few more tourists to their Cleveland museum while neglecting the flowers in the dustbin, those artists who aren't necessarily as marketable but who have been far greater revolutionary forces than Billy Joel. This year, there were some exceptions. But we should remain cynical and skeptical. This sort of ceremony, supposedly all about honoring the greatest talents in rock 'n' roll, is just an extension of the same problem rock 'n' roll has always faced. Corporate entities are calling the shots and profiting more than the rockers themselves. Same as it ever was.
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