Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Institutionalized

It was pushing midnight and Robert Plant was halfway through a rambling extemporization during which he heaped praise on Ahmet Ertegun, claimed to have not worked a lick after 1969, claimed to not remember anything that happened after 1969, thanked Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Bernard Purdie, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Arthur Lee, and Lee Michaels for saving England from Herman's Hermits, and claimed specifically to not remember anything about television sets. Somewhere in there, though, his showbiz charm gave way to a brief bout of existential anxiety.

"I never wanted to do this," Plant muttered, interrupting himself. "I always thought we'd always be rebels."

Anyone who doubts that this aside said something poignant about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--anyone who believes it's merely ridiculous--should compare Ertegun's assertion that the members of Atlantic Records' Buffalo Springfield, whence sprang Neil Young and Ertegun's inalienable right to introduce him, were "really crazy revolutionaries."

"Right, Ahmet," I whispered to Nuggets compiler, Patti Smith guitarist, Soul Asylum producer, Waylon Jennings ghostwriter, program essayist, and history M.A. Lenny Kaye. "Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, and Stephen Stills."

I mean, whatever you think of Robert Plant (who, hey kids, sat right in front of me at a table that by the end of the evening was littered with empty Lite bottles), he has lived the basic rock and roll paradox of not dying before he got old. Ertegun has merely observed and exploited the paradox, most recently via the burgeoning institution which hosted its 10th Annual Induction Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria on January 12. An early inductee into the hall himself, and rightly so, the Atlantic founder was a prominent performer at the Waldorf, as was Rolling Stone/Wenner Publications' Jann Wenner, who I bet also gets inducted someday, and who inaugurated the ceremony by informing Ertegun that the main room at the I.M. Pei-designed Cleveland facility would be dubbed the Ahmet Ertegun Exhibition Hall and then reading off a long list of biz notables--David Geffen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jann Wenner, and Tom (is that right?) Warner were among the names I caught--whose generous contributions had made this honor possible. In fact, Ertegun and Wenner spent more time onstage than Plant and Page. Granted, in total minutes maybe it just seemed that way. Anchored by outcast bassist John Paul Jones (who thanked Peter Grant and "my old friends for finally remembering my phone number"), the hotly anticipated Led Zep reunion did take place, kicking into high gear after Neil Young replaced presenters Steve Tyler and Joe Perry and Plant's personal tub-thumper sat in for the eternally overmatched Jason Bonham on "When the Levee Breaks"/"For What It's Worth." But for sure the two bizzers were up there more often.

In the past, it's been my policy to close my eyes and hope the Hall of Fame would go away. Invited onto some early version of the nominating committee by its inventor and executive director, former entertainment lawyer Suzan Evans, I put in an ethics check with Greil Marcus, who had also been approached, and without much ado we agreed that the idea made us queasy. To this day neither of us has so much as returned a ballot. Still, in 1994, with Neil Young, P-Funk, and Al Green all nominated 14 years after I had ranked them one-two-three in the '70s, I was tempted. Since the Hall of Fame was here to stay--since it will probably open for business around Labor Day 1995--why not do my bit for my formerly unorthodox faves and help the Velvet Underground at the same time?

Eventually, I decided that hegemony and I were still better off apart. But then I was asked to write a Green bio-tribute for the program. I love Al Green, love him, and whatever reservations I have about this institution, there's no question it has boosted the self-esteem and earning potential of aging geniuses like Bo Diddley. Green certainly wasn't starving, but he had never managed to release his Arthur Baker-produced pop comeback Stateside. I couldn't say no. My payment was a ticket to the dinner, which isn't as niggardly as you might think--seats go for $1500 and $1250, and Jann Wenner himself pays. As a result, I would get to witness this big-ticket bash, which I'd never thought about attending before, the way the moguls intended--although a few journalists sneak out to a table in the back, most of the press is confined to a video-equipped back room where inductee press conferences usually overlap with the next presentation.

Since most of the objections rock scribes level at the Hall of Fame come down to taste, I'll keep my own roll call brief. The worst current omissions are P-Funk, the Velvets, Joni Mitchell, and my beloved Shirelles. I agree with Dave Marsh (who first kept his distance, then joined the nominating committee at the request of his buddy Jon Landau) that while the oft-derided Four Seasons belong, their selection renders the paucity of '50s vocal groups--the "5" Royales would be my top choice, the Spaniels or Moonglows second (although note that the Orioles got in as "early influences" this year)--doubly regrettable. But race isn't the issue, and neither is gender--for me the biggest ringers aren't Bobby Darin and Elton John, but LaVern Baker and new inductee (on her ninth go) Martha Reeves, robust singers with skimpy songbooks whose formal and cultural contributions were nil. More troubling is the way it promulgates what might be called corporate history.

Baker recorded for Atlantic, where Evans had her offices when she called me, and Reeves was on the other mythic r&b label, Motown. Atlantic has had 14 (of 85) artists inducted (with Darin, Ruth Brown, Sam and Dave, and perhaps Clyde McPhatter dubious as well) plus Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Doc Pomus, and Leiber-Stoller; Motown has six (only Reeves problematic) plus Berry Gordy and Holland-Dozier-Holland. Don't get me wrong--with the exceptions noted, all of the above belong in any pantheon, and I could give a shit that living legends Ertegun and Wexler are on the nominating committee. After all, the nominating committee isn't even where final decisions are made. Those are up to an electorate that now comprises some 600 or 700 bizzers, journalists, and inductees, perhaps 60 per cent of whom respond, and as committee member Danny Fields told me, "Attempts to make it bigger have not made it hipper." Nonetheless, the exceptions do rankle, as does the current location of Evans and her New York staff at Rolling Stone. Cynics in Cleveland point out that the $5 million bizzers have kicked in is a pitifully small portion of the museum's $93 million startup costs. But no one is so un-American (or so ignorant of rock and roll) as to expect that this discrepancy will discourage the biz in general, or WEA and Stone in particular, from making money off the status and buzz the Hall of Fame is designed to generate. That's how hegemony works. And you'll pardon my sensitivities if it still makes me queasy.

Then there are the ideological issues. When traditions are institutionalized on a grand scale, the only viable alternative to official good taste is official bad taste, which sometimes has the virtue of inspiring nay-sayers but is otherwise even worse. Up against this inevitability, however, the journalistic stance I can live with (pax to nominators Marsh and DeCurtis, Loder and Robinson) is quizzical opposition. I welcome such bulletins from Cleveland as the directorship of Ohio-based Mapplethorpe champion Dennis Barrie, the planned one-hit wonder and New York punk exhibits, and the rapid growth of the museum archive. And I go along with the hall's foundation myth--the hallowed theory that rock and roll was a racially, sexually, and generationally liberating heartland revolt against the stodgy showbiz pop of the early '50s. But especially in its tasteful Hall of Fame version--which has a hard time with street-corner doowop (not musicianly enough), female-identified females like Joni Mitchell and Shirley Owens (not rockin' enough), and the growing suspicion (which I reject) that the Great Schism of 1955 was no such thing--this theory is at least as worthy of challenge as any other received truth, and such challenges are mounted most uncompromisingly (if not always most effectively) from outside.

Finally, however, one reason everybody from me to Ahmet love rock and roll is that it resists its ruts so much more energetically than anything else you got--Ertegun and Wenner invoke the Hall of Fame's "dignity" to very little avail. Academy Awards night has generated its share of weirdness and static, but not like this. Almost every year it's marred and/or humanized by the rancor of groups gone sour--Paul barely alluding to the solo music John is being inducted for, Ray Davies dissing his brother Dave, John Fogerty refusing to jam with Stu and Doug, Sam refusing to go onstage with Dave's widows--and artists gone bonkers. Inexorably, what was once a spontaneous in-house affair is evolving into a money-making spectacular--MTV will broadcast a two-hour edit of the proceedings at 9 tonight, January 18--so perhaps it's an augury of scripts to come that this year was relatively tame. There was nothing to compare to the time Phil Spector went on about Zamfir, Roger Whitaker, Slim Whitman, and the U.S. invasion of Panama before being led off so someone else could introduce the Platters. But there was still plenty of evidence that rock and roll musicians, to their credit, don't quite know how to comprehend the canonization process.

Eddie Vedder told how he'd watched Neil Young, whose portion of the post-induction jam consisted of "F*!#in' Up" and a song no one I asked had ever heard before, flee the cataloguing of his own tapes, "a man overwhelmed by his body of work." Having jump-started the show and slain the room with a heedlessly full-throated "Take Me to the River," Al Green returned to his humble act with renewed acuity: "I don't know about all this greatness. I just want to keep on keeping on. How about that?" The most charming comment came from the sole surviving Oriole, Johnny Reed, who'd driven cross-country in a mobile home to attend: "Thank all of you for this wonderful . . . what do you call it? Oscar?" But it was Plant's aside that best evoked the dilemma Suzan Evans's brainchild has called down on us.

Green and the Orioles, after all, represent the kind of entertainment tradition that canonizes itself only as an afterthought, in a last-ditch attempt to extract a few more profitable years from immemorial audience loyalties. That's not what happens in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is predicated on the conscious aestheticizing of such traditions--first by classy impresarios like Ertegun and Wexler and Sam Phillips (but not such crude rivals as Leonard Chess and Syd Nathan), later by folkies and art-school rebels (to give Plant's exact words their due) forming the '60s bands who are being inducted now, and after that by Hall of Fame sure shots like Aerosmith and long shots like, say, the Clash, who are inspired by them. But since one of the attractions of these aestheticized entertainment traditions is that they're anticanonical--"vital," rude, anti/nonbourgeois--it feels weird to start making the same old claims of timelessness and dignity that were trotted out for the art they were a respite from. And this discomfort is compounded by rock's parallel identity as a youth music, especially as one's physical survival clashes more and more irrevocably with the physical excesses rock and rollers initially identify as intrinsic to their youthfulness--which is why Janis Joplin and Duane Allman and John Bonham were honored posthumously January 12, and also why Tyler and Perry are on the wagon and Waylon Jennings retires to his trailer for cereal and low-fat milk.

For scoffers, these contradictions are merely ridiculous, but for those who live them, they're just a complexity of life--sometimes troubling, always fascinating. Anything that people love is going to be canonized one way or another, and for all my queasiness I can think of lots ways bizzers make greedier pigs and/or more pompous asses of themselves than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like it or not, rock and roll now has a moderately long and more than moderately obscure history--people's art does tend to fade quickly into oblivion even now. If nothing else, the Hall of Fame can serve as both as an elementary school--received facts and theories are better than the none most kids now have at their command--and as a postgraduate resource where new facts and theories can be put together. Sure its proportions are wasteful and ungainly. But this is America, not to mention rock and roll. And have you ever been to the Louvre?

The fabled jam session lasted two hours, at least a third of which was devoted to get-your-shit-together. Last up wasn't Page, Plant, Lee & Young but Martha Reeves, the Vandellas, Al Green's backup singers, dancing presenters Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson, and dancing nonpresenter Natalie Merchant performing "Dancing in the Street." Earlier Jon Landau had claimed Martha & the Vandellas would have deserved induction even if they'd never recorded anything but this song and "Heat Wave." I snorted. But although I was sorry Plant and Young and Green weren't there to take a verse or two--was that their ego or Martha's, I wonder--when this paean to racial, sexual, and generational liberation was actually soaring through the air, I felt suddenly magnanimous. What the hell--she can be in my canon too.

Village Voice, Jan. 24, 1995