Although not averse to visiting should I get to Cleveland, I have never considered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be a meaningful institution. The only “hall of fame” that means much to me is Major League Baseball’s, the oldest and by far the hardest to get into. Although imprecise, there are also established criteria by which candidates are judged: the number of wins for a pitcher, home runs or batting average for a hitter, etc. How do you rate musical performers? Popularity? Originality? Influence? Musical ability? Longevity? Equally mysterious, at least to the layman, is the identity, or qualifications, of the 600 “rock experts” who decide who is inducted. Almost every year someone is inducted who befuddles me, and this year, no exception, it is Joan Baez. She’s a wonderful singer, an admirable political activist and, see my review, a delightful performer. But did she have, as the judges supposedly require, “influence and significance to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll”? Come on!
To begin with, Joan Baez is not a rock’n’roller, which she admitted following yesterday’s announcement. She is a folk singer. Her principal pop music credits are cover versions of songs by Bob Dylan and The Band. So much for her “influence.” Is she the least qualified member of the RAFHOF? I think so, although a glance at the list of Hall members suggests some competition, mainly from Bobby Darin (1990), who, after the very minor pop classic “Splish Splash,” never sang another rock ‘n’ roll song in his life.
Very few performers can or ever will live up to the inaugural Hall class (1986) of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, James Brown and, although we’re already slipping a little, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. The following year saw the entry of clearly second-tier, but still very influential, performers like Bo Diddley and Bill Haley; but the inclusion of Eddie Cochran established that a singer need not have more than one “hit” to reach the Hall. Sam and Dave had two hits, but they made the grade in 1992. Janis Joplin must have been chosen in ’95 for her persona, as her music, take away “A Little Piece of My Heart,” is hardly memorable and barely listenable (my conclusion after seeing the movie “Blue”). The Young Rascals (1997) were a fine pop group in the late ’60s, but their songs hardly stand out from the work of a dozen other bands. 1999 saw the induction of both Del Shannon and Bruce Springsteen. If I were Bruce I would’ve felt insulted. Bonnie Raitt (2000) is a hard-working industry favorite but not much of a rock ‘n’ roller or commercial success. Ditto for Laura Nyro (2012) and Bill Withers (2015). In fact, those are three singers who routinely prompt me to change the channel. Leonard Cohen (2008) fits in the Joan Baez wing of the Hall, although he at least wrote his own music, and a lot of it. When you examine the output, however, of Ritchie Valens (2001) – “La Bamba” and “Donna,” that’s it – you suspect the voters are weighing diversity as a criterion.
The Sex Pistols (2006) refused to attend their induction ceremony, calling the Hall a “piss stain,” which of course fits their character like Dylan’s snubbing the Nobel proceedings, but I won’t argue. How much the Hall of Fame has now become a commercial product, with a need to have acts justifying the HBO telecast, I don’t know. This year’s other winners – and I’m thinking of Yes, ELO, and Journey, not Pearl Jam – had a signature song and a couple good records each, but it’s hard to distinguish them from, or rate them above, the ones that didn’t make it: the Cars, Zombies, J. Geils Band and Steppenwolf. All of them are a far cry from past inductees who would constitute a meaningful Hall of Fame: the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, John Mellencamp, the Four Seasons, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Eric Clapton. Then again, it’s possible that this year Tim Raines will get into the real Hall of Fame.