I look forward to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony every year. I stopped caring long ago about whether or not we should care about the Hall of Fame, when I realized something very simple: it's not really about trainspotters and armchair critics such as you and I, analyzing and discussing who is and isn't worthy to be inducted next to industry giants such as the Eagles and David Crosby (twice!). It's about people who actually do deserve the award and who really, really, really appreciate the honor.
I came to this realization back in 2007 during the induction ceremony for Patti Smith. Now, Smith by then was a few years' overdue for induction. Her status as a critical darling "musician's musician" meant that while she wasn't guaranteed to get in soon, she would probably get in eventually. If you were to compile a list of all the people in rock who probably don't need any more affirmation to prove that they are incredibly awesome and influential, Smith is near the top of that list. She influenced half the people who influenced all the people currently bumping on your iPod. And yet . . . up on stage clutching her statue, Smith started to cry, talking about her late husband Fred Smith and how he had been certain she would be inducted . . . eventually. When the day finally came, it meant a lot to her, and it was great to see.
So that's why I pay attention every year. While there may be any number of less deserving nominees, and always the obvious picks who hardly need the additional recognition, there will always be those who really do deserve it, and who deserve to have the recognition and respect of their peers validated in as definitive a way as possible. 2009 is a good year for comparison: yeah, Metallica were always getting in on the first eligible ballot, and yeah, they certainly deserved it. Run DMC were similarly "sure things." But you know who probably appreciated the award most that year? Bobby Womack and Little Anthony.
This year was an odd year. There were no young first-ballot inductees, it was all old folks who had either been overlooked in previous years or simply forgotten. Alice Cooper, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Darlene Love, Tom Waits and Neil Diamond. Of them all, the biggest surprise was obviously Waits, another one of those "critical darlings" so firmly entrenched on the far side of the mainstream that one could easily imagine him never getting the nod. I've never been the biggest Waits fan but it was still nice to see him get the nod. (Maybe it's time for one of my periodic attempts to get into Waits?)
New Orleans funk had always been one of those genres that people claimed never got any respect from the Hall, so putting in Dr. John and Leon Russell in one fell swoop, while long overdue, certainly felt like "unfinished business." Dr. John basically looks like Dr. John always has, but Leon Russell - if you've seen his picture recently - has obviously seen better days. He's practically a ghost - Wikipedia says he's only 69 but you could be forgiven for thinking he was twenty years older from his pallor and obvious weakness. By all accounts Elton John apparently resurrected the man after a string of debilitating illnesses and an end-of-career depression: it's always truly great to see that kind of belated but long overdue respect and recognition for someone who obviously very desperately needed it.
Darlene Love is someone who was similarly appreciative, even if she had - comparatively speaking - been doing fine for herself, still performing. When I heard she was 70 you could have knocked me over with a feather - since when can septuagenarians pull off those kind of plunging necklines?
It was nice to see Bette Midler induct her, although - sorry, Bette - you might have a while to wait before your induction. You've got a triple curse: you're primarily known as being a "standards" singer (hardly the most popular artist in today's climate), you spent a disconcerting amount of time in the schlocky adult contemporary ghetto, and you've never taken yourself particularly seriously. How many people remember the glory days of her sui generis "Divine Miss M" cabaret / rock show / Borscht belt comedy revue? Maybe if you come out with some super-serious Americana roots think produced by T Bone Burnett and / or Rick Rubin you've got a chance.
Alice Cooper deserved his shot, but it's not hard to see why it took so long. The Hall of Fame basically operates under the guiding principle that if it wasn't getting 4-and-a-half star reviews from Rolling Stone in the mid-70s, it doesn't count as good - with the exception, of course, of groups who have sold hundreds of millions of records. Which means that groups and artists who may not have been critical darlings in their time but who have nevertheless proven to be singularly influential and of enduring quality might be stuck waiting. Black Sabbath had to wait a long time for their induction, despite the fact that they are (obviously!) one of the most influential bands of all time. Greil Marcus never wrote an essay about Ozzy Osborne's relation to Herman Melville, no doubt. Cooper was overdue even if you could still sort of sense some of the gray-hairs in the audience bristling when he brought a choir of blood-stained schoolchildren for a rousing chorus of "School's Out." If Sabbath and Cooper are in I think we will probably live to see Kiss inducted, but it will undoubtedly be the most grudging acknowledgment in the history of awards show.
But of course, the big name of the night was Neil Diamond. His induction was so overdue that Paul Simon made a point of leading off his induction speech with the fact that it was twenty years overdue. I think he might have been eligible for even longer than that, but the point stands: how is it that we're even still talking about this in 2011? I mean, seriously, you're not going to find many fervent Diamond fans in the under-fifty set, but the fact that he wasn't inducted decades ago is simply perverse. To his credit he responded in kind during his acceptance speech. He was obviously drunk, had not bothered to prepare any words other than a backhanded "fuck you" to Paul Simon for slagging on Barbara Streisand during his induction speech, and spent half the time taking pictures of the crowd with his iPhone. But then he launched into a pitch-perfect rendition of "I Am, I Said," and at that point it was almost kind of funny to see someone who, let's be honest, was at one point one of the biggest mega-superstars on the planet before settling down to be just a normal garden-variety superstar, slumming for a long, long, long overdue recognition from the Hall of Fame. Like, "fuck all y'all, when I'm done here I'm going home to sit in my sapphire-encrusted hot tub and watch season four of Mad Men on a plasma screen TV the size of Ecuador."