Inductees to the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced yesterday.
As Slate noted, bands like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Kraftwerk were passed over in favor of Rush. It’s strange to put two such different bands into the same huge, gooey melange that is the Hall of Fame nominations. Looking through reactions across social media, I’ve noted more than a few expressing disgust that so few perceived “greats” have been admitted, somehow looked over in favor of more popular, mainstream acts.
I have a whole-hearted indifference to the entire affair. Like the Grammys or the American Music Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame represents little of the true state of popular music, much less its fandom or current culture. It’s a fond museum piece that’s made a formerly-dangerous artform respectable. Certainly more upscale than the AMAs but far less distinguished than the Kennedy Center Honors, the Hall of Fame seems like a quaint exercise in industry back-slappery designed to garner as much hate as adoration. Any reaction is a good reaction in the music industry of 2012.
But the position of rock and roll as dangerous, unsavory, ill-mannered, lecherous, and immoral has become as pre-packaged and pre-fabricated as the soon-to-be-extinct Twinkie. Was it ever thus? Perhaps. Artists have always known image is important -though maybe they felt it a little more in August 1981. It follows then, that while bands that have changed, so have listeners –our listening habits, of course, but beyond that, our expectations around what popular bands should be, how they should sound, and how they should present themselves to the world at large.
The past few decades, it feels as if the world of rock and roll has turned into a meticulously-micro-managed PR affair, complete with stylists, makeup artists, nutritionists, fitness consultants, an army of assistants, and a bucketful of “I’d-like-to-thank-God-and-our-fans”-style honors from supposedly respectable societies. All this grooming, primping, praise and applause, happens while maintaining an air of groundedness and connection -to roots, family, country, God, whatever it is we, as a society, are supposed to cherish in our own lives. This “just like us” corollary is, of course, laughably false: no one’s family is perfect, everyone has complicated relationships with their God, and very often we think of hometown roots as either desperately uncool or hipster-fied beyond all recognition (but that’s the point, isn’t it?). Yet the quest for conveying authenticity continues. It seems awfully important to an awful lot of rock and roll people.
This quest tends to express itself lately in unexpected collaborations. Should we be surprised hiphop and rock have blurred, the respective heroes from each striking poses that reflect and relay the supposed “rebellion” of the other? Nothing seals so-called “street cred” like skipping across (pre-approved) cultures -or generations, a fact I was reminded of in reading that none other than Sir Paul McCartney will be joining the surviving members of Nirvana for tonight’s Hurricane Sandy 12/12/12 benefit concert in New York. Purists may make faces, but there’s something simultaneously clever and nauseating about two generations of music icons purposely diluting their beloved respective brands -to what, create something new? Perhaps, though it seems there’s also a deliberate attempt to attain some kind of cool creative “cred” in the process. Authenticity through dilution? It seems like a way of holding on to the creative spark, however weak, dull, and muddy the spark itself may be to outsiders.
So where are the true rebels, you may ask? Where are the mouthy ones, the daring ones, the hell-raising risk-loving leaders? Where are rock and roll’s authentic voices? It’s an ever-changing thing, hard to define, harder yet to hold and not snuff out. But when I think of the phrase “rock and roll,” I don’t automatically think sex and drugs; I think of daring, I think of risk, I think of being challenged and even a bit (/a lot) unsettled. I think of a band like Pussy Riot and Tinariwen. I think of PJ Harvey and Fela Kuti. I think of Pearl Jam and The Virgin Prunes, of Grinderman, of Run DMC, of Public Enemy (who did, by the way, also get inducted yesterday), of Massive Attack, Throbbing Gristle, The Cramps, of Patti Smith, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Scott Walker. I think of Meshell Ndegeocello. I think of Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen and Little Richard …and and and. Artists with something to say, something to prove, a unique way of saying it and an incredible propensity to create various levels of thought, reflection, insight, perspective -even discomfort in listeners/viewers. They’re artists with a visual side (or defiantly non-visual, as is the case with Pearl Jam, a statement in and of itself) as well as a brash, beautiful sonic side. They don’t need to prove their groundedness; they answer only to their respective muses. There’s an authenticity that stands firmly outside grooming too, even if some (hello Misters Cave, Bowie, Cohen) maintain(ed) an intoxicating air of smashing, scintillating physicality.
So while I applaud the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s far-overdue recognition of disco with its induction of Donna Summer (and she was so much more than that, by the way), and its symbolism in terms of an ever-expanding, all-encompassing genre of sound, the award means little, if anything, becoming more and more of a footnote in my perennially growing musical palate. I don’t love awarded artists any less, or any more, for the nods they do or don’t receive. I’m sure they’re well award rock and roll has changed -some for good, some for bad. It isn’t what it was. It won’t be. But so long as we all stay curious, educating ourselves about the past while adding our way through the thick fog of the future, perhaps we’ll find a place where rock and roll actually matters again. Maybe we’ll land at a spot where a perfect face matters far less than a messy, chaotic, imperfection-is-perfect sound. That would be a true rebellion indeed -and maybe just what we’ve been waiting for.
Myers is a true music afficionado. As well as being a musician and songwriter, he’s a damn great music journalist, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Guardian, the Georgia Straight, and the Globe and Mail, among others, keeps a very fine blog where he offers a mix of observation, wit, insight, and just plain love for the hybrid beast that is rock and roll.
Rundgren is a multi-faceted, multi-talented person who’s difficult to get a handle on. He produced albums by The Pursuit Of Happiness, Steve Hillage, the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, The Band, Cheap Trick, The Tubes, as well as Hall and Oates’ War Babies and XTC’s Skylarking (which features their mega-hit, “Dear God”). He released a ton of his own material including Something / Anything? , which contained his best-known work like “Hello It’s Me” and the classic-rock-radio staple”I Saw The Light“. He revolutionized studio technologies and instrumentation. He appeared on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s with Prince. His anthemic, catchy “Bang The Drum All Day” is used widely in commercials. People know his work, but they don’t know him.
Myers’ work gets no closer to really knowing him or plumbing the depths, but it does dig (deep) into his methodologies and techniques within a studio context -an approach that illuminates the hard work that goes on in the rock and roll world, past the boring media stories of drugs and debauchery. Mind you, this video, with Rundgren sporting theatrical costuming and makeup, implies a kind of gritty-glam debauchery that has a direct connection to none other than Lady Gaga herself. Rundgren, influential? Durrrr.
Fabulousness aside, it was the chapter detailing the making of Patti Smith’s Wave that I found most enthralling. Featuring interviews with group members Lenny Kaye, Iva Kral, Richard Sohl, Jay Dee Daugherty, plus producer Rundgren, and the lady herself, it’s a fascinating portrait the ties that bind people, creatively, personally and professionally. Myers’ approach is very detailed and thorough here, as through the entire book; his examination of tunes I’ve long loved -like “Frederick” and “Dancing Barefoot” -were fussy, yes, but they were also genuinely thrilling, and shot through with a musician’s instinctual understanding of the finer points of sonic creation. A Wizard, A True Star is a mix of clinician and musician, mixing the creative and the technical into one fascinating, heady mix.
Paul was kind enough to offer up his own insights into his latest work, and its subject.
Describe Todd’s ultimate role in rock and roll in one line.
My whole book kind of makes the case that Todd Rundgren’s best instrument is the recording studio itself. Sure he’s a great vocal arranger and powerful singer, not to mention a flash guitarist and serviceable drummer, but if you look deeply at his entire 40 year career, there’s a very identifiable way in which he sculpts and blends performances (his own and his clients’) together into something that sounds, for better or worse, like a ‘Todd Rundgren Production’. Oops that’s more than one line!
Why do you think Todd isn’t in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
The Rock And Roll Hall is a very political body, a lot of great rock artists don’t (or didn’t) have the political capital to grease their nomination into Cleveland. And, of course, Todd has a kind of Orson Welles reputation; there’s much respect for his craft but on a personal level he has been known to bend a few noses out of joint over the years. Maybe Jann Wenner, who has a lot of pull on the RRHOF board, doesn’t like him. Who knows? Also, Todd has often exuded a kind of “who cares” attitude about the whole thing, so maybe they’re put off by that and would rather induct ABBA, whom I love, but can’t see as “rock and roll”.
Why did you decide to do a studio-focused book?
Todd has two parallel careers, as an artist and as a producer of other artists, so once I decided that the studio was his milieu, if you will, it seemed like that was the best setting to tell this incredible story of album after album, and I knew I had to get both Todd AND the artists he produced to tell their story incredible stories. I’m reminded of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’s autobiography and film “The Kid Stays In The Picture”, which opens with a great quote: “There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth.”
You go into a lot of detail in the studio in terms of production and instrumentation; for instance, when I read the chapter on Patti Smith’s ‘Wave’, I came away with a whole new appreciation of her work and the dynamic within her band. How does this kind of detail help the average music fan get to know Todd’s art? I make no secret that I am a musician who has also produced recordings, but I am married to a woman who is not a musician but who loves a good story. So I write a little bit for her, as a test “layman”. I tend to split the difference, conversationally, when I tell music stories to her and that’s what I wanted to do here. I don’t make movies, but I love hearing how “green screen” and CG effects are done. My goal is to give the layman just enough information to understand the significance of what is being discussing. Having said that, one of my favourite passages is where Todd describes the effect on Grand Funk (Railroad) singer Don Brewer’s voice on “We’re An American Band”, the Cooper Time Cube. It’s a delay effect that I’d never heard of before, and Todd had to Google it during the interview to see if he even had the name right.
You explore the role Todd played in music / studio technology; how much do you see his influence in things like Autotune, and even something like GarageBand?
I say in the book that over the last decade Todd became less involved with bands, probably due to the fact that the technology for self-recording (some of which he either designed or requested) is so advanced that it has reduced the ‘perceived value’ of a producer. I say ‘perceived’ because I think, just as a bunch of great actors can read surely read a bunch of great lines from a great script without a director, in the end a good director is always welcome. I don’t think Todd had much to do with Autotune, but definitely the spirit of Todd’s original experiments with multi-tracking lives in digital recording software of today. A band like Pomplamoose, who openly film themselves overdubbing all the instruments might appeal to Todd, I’ll have to ask him.
What do you think Todd’s legacy will be 100 years from now?
I would hope that Todd’s legacy will fall into the pantheon of similarly adventurous recording pioneers such as Les Paul, Brian Wilson and the later artists such as Trent Reznor and Prince (both of whom have cited Todd as an early influence). Musically, I think his piano based ballads on Something/Anything? and Hermit Of Mink Hollow will be re-appreciated by the coming crop of bedroom musicians.
Father, son, holy ghost… or maybe Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe.
You decide who’s who.
I’ve always been fascinated by trinities in all their variations -from biblicalstories to ancient symbols to any number of torrid love triangles, there’s something about the concept -and even look -of “three” that endears itself to me.
While I’m sad it took this kind of event to bring this calibre of artistry together, I hope it has the intended effect. I’m also hoping for more awesome trinities. I wasn’t as nuts about Patti paired with some-or-other two gents at last fall’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrations at Madison Square Gardens:
Then again, re-watching this clip after a long while, it strikes me that each performer has such a deep, personal connection with this (admittedly gorgeous) song, and really, it doesn’t work to have it sung a la Muppets, in a big huge lump. Sometimes three really is a crowd.
And sometimes, as proven this past Saturday in Arkansas, it absolutely isn’t. Bravo Eddie, Johnny, and Patti. More, please.