Hall pass

Iggy Pop will have to die.

Apparently nothing short of flatlining will get the Dionysian punk godfather into the good graces of voters for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That point was put in bold print with the Hall’s recent announcement that the Dave Clark Five will join John Mellencamp, Madonna, The Ventures, and Leonard Cohen as 2008 inductees.

Iggy’s legendary band, The Stooges, have been eligible for induction into the Hall since 1994, and over that time, we’ve seen the brilliant likes of the Mamas and the Papas and ZZ Top make their way through the VIP entrance while Iggy and his old bandmates continue to stand with their noses pressed to the glass.

Well, truthfully, Iggy probably doesn’t care that much about the honor. He surely knows that the Hall of Fame is an absurdity, for at least two reasons.

First of all, rock ’n’ roll is purported to be outlaw music, and putting outlaws into a museum is a bit like naming a military base after a revolutionary. It doesn’t wash. It’s like Mick Jagger said during his 1989 Rolling Stones’ induction speech, in a quote taken from Marcel Duchamp: “Americans are funny. First you shock them, then they put you in a museum.”

For big stars like U2 or Bruce Springsteen, Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are just an excuse to get dressed up for a night and make self-congratulatory speeches about what brilliant, groundbreaking rebels they’ve been. The ceremonies only take on real meaning when the forgotten underdogs get in: when we see the humility of a James Burton or Percy Sledge, or when departed, unsung virtuosos such as Benny Benjamin or James Jamerson get their due recognition. For such figures, the Hall means career validation, a sense that someone noticed what they accomplished. At least for a moment, it can actually make you glad that the whole shabby enterprise exists.

But even if you accept the concept of a rock ’n’ roll museum, the selection process has been a head-scratching disgrace. After the Hall voters got past the first few years of obvious selections (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones), they obviously lost their bearings. Revealing a deep, nostalgic baby-boomer conservatism, they consistently favored pleasant but minor pop acts from the ’60s (Gene Pitney, The Young Rascals, Lovin’ Spoonful, Mamas and the Papas) over truly groundbreaking artists from the ’70s. Both Black Sabbath — which created the musical template for heavy metal — and the Sex Pistols — which did the same for punk rock — were snubbed for years, before finally earning induction in 2006.

The Hall also began an annoying habit of honoring jazz artists who bear only the most distant relationship to rock, and would probably refuse the honor if they were alive to receive it. It’s
belittling and dishonest to shoehorn Billie Holiday and Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sure, Holiday influenced several rock artists, but so did Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin. Does that mean they also belong in the Hall? And just because Davis employed electric instruments on Bitches Brew doesn’t mean he was playing rock ’n’ roll.

In the 1990s, the surest way into the Hall was cardiac arrest. The Hall snubbed Frank Zappa for three years, then suddenly deemed him worthy after his December 1993 death.

The Velvet Underground also came up short at the ballot box for three years, but when founding guitarist Sterling Morrison died in August 1995, they were immediately voted in.

Paul McCartney got little consideration for his post-Beatles career until his wife Linda died in 1998. Then, by some strange coincidence, he won acceptance into the Hall later that year. His old bandmate George Harrison, eligible for induction as far back as 1995, got no love from the Hall until cancer took him in 2001.

Joey Ramone died in early 2001, and the Ramones won induction a few months later. It was the band’s first year of eligibility, but it’s easy to wonder if Hall voters would have recognized them if not for the martyred-frontman effect.

The Hall’s selection process is based on three criteria: popularity, influence, and quality of work. By this set of standards, you can make a legitimate case for 2007 inductees Van Halen, who’ve sold zillions of records and greatly influenced the sound and style of hard-rock guitar playing, even if much of their work is infantile tripe. It’s harder to make an argument for a minor band like Traffic: a middling seller and negligible influence, with only sporadic moments of excellence. Beside, if Traffic’s status is so undeniable, why did the Hall wait until 2004 to let them in, when they were eligible in 1992?

This year, we’re again saddled with choices that make no sense except for the Hall’s apparent need to provide a sufficiently lengthy induction-ceremony TV special on VH1. Madonna, Leonard Cohen, and The Ventures are certainly deserving, although the latter two could have been picked ages ago. But what makes John Mellencamp worthy, aside from the fact that he’s chummy with Hall czar, and Rolling Stone founder, Jann Wenner? I’ll give him credit for transforming himself from a manufactured joke named Johnny Cougar into a well-intentioned journeyman. But let’s not pretend that he’s some kind of pathfinding genius.

Even the Mellencamp travesty looks excusable next to the inclusion of the Dave Clark Five. A nondescript, business-savvy pop band that floated in on the British Invasion freighter, the DCF enjoyed a steady run as a hit machine until psychedelia wiped their corny exuberance off the map in the late-‘60s. Their trademarks were outrageous layers of tape echo and a penchant for unison vocals.

Neither the band’s drumming leader nor his mates had a lick of personality or originality, but they left behind a handful of enduring pop-rockers: “Glad All Over,” “Catch Us If You Can,” “Here Comes Summer,” “Bits and Pieces,” and “Anyway You Want It.” Anyone of those songs will bring a smile to your face if they pop up on oldies radio, but, at the same time, if the group had never existed, would any of our lives be poorer for it? When was the last time you spoke to a musician who said they were inspired by the Dave Clark Five?

The selection serves as a make-up vote after last year’s debacle, in which Wenner — determined to get a hip-hop act in the Hall — ignored the final ballot, and used a deadline technicality to sneak Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five in ahead of DCF.

This Duval-County-like vote tampering was ironic on so many levels. Wenner, the ultimate self-congratulatory baby boomer, a man who reportedly stopped listening to new music in 1975, pushed out a band from his heyday in favor of a seminal hip-hop group. Pop nostalgists, who are Wenner’s only true constituency, turned on him and branded him a “rock ’n’ roll fascist.”

Meanwhile, The Jam, the Buzzcocks, The Replacements, XTC, Doug Sahm, Alex Chilton, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, the MC5, the B-52s, the New York Dolls, and Iggy Pop sit on the sidelines. They’d be best advised not to hold their breath. •

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