The news that Neil Diamond has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came as a shock. Not that I thought him undeserving. His influence on American popular music ranks only a notch or two below Bob Dylan’s — and unlike Dylan, whom I revere, Diamond consistently sings on key. What came as a shock was the fact that he wasn’t already a member. To be sure, I haven’t kept a close watch on the doings of the hall. The concept itself has always struck me as bizarre. A Hall of Fame for rock and rollers is like a Twelve Step Program for anarchists. It goes against the grain of the thing.
That said, Diamond seemed like a no-brainer. The guy’s sold over 100 million records worldwide and written dozens of memorable songs. Off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’m leaving out several obvious ones, I came up with: “Cherry Cherry,” “I Am . . . I Said,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Holly Holy,” “Play Me,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “I’m a Believer,” “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “You Don’t Send Me Flowers,” “Forever In Blue Jeans,” and “Longfellow Serenade.” I’ve heard an entire bar, drunks and teetotalers alike, sing along to “Cracklin’ Rosie” on the jukebox, an entire stadium sing along to “Sweet Caroline” over the loudspeakers. If he’s not a first-ballot rock-and-roll hall of famer — as peculiar as such a question sounds — then who is?
Except it turns out that Neil Diamond isn’t — or wasn’t — the only glaring omission from the hall. Also on the outside looking in are Billy Idol, the B52s, the Bangles, Blood Sweat and Tears, Carly Simon, the Carpenters, the Cars, Cat Stevens, Chicago, Deep Purple, the Doobie Brothers, Duran Duran, Electric Light Orchestra, Glenn Campbell, the Go Gos, Grand Funk, the Guess Who, Heart, Jethro Tull, Jim Croce, Joe Cocker, John Denver, KISS, the Monkees, the Moody Blues, Motley Crue, Olivia Newton John, the Pointer Sisters, Rick James, Slade, Ted Nugent, Three Dog Night, and Tom Jones.
I’m not arguing for or against the artistic merits of any of the performers on that list — compiled from conversations with friends over the last several days. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about half of them in years. (I confess, however, that I still vacuum to Tom Jones’s songs, especially “Delilah.”) Evaluative debates, when the topic is rock and roll, rarely rise above the Olbermann-level of discourse — which is a silly, scream-y place. I wouldn’t even be writing about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if not for a name that jumped out at me as I was cataloguing the exclusions, an inclusion so incongruous that it called into question not only the induction criteria but the coherence of the institution:
Patti Smith is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I mean, c’mon. Patti Smith? Why not Yoko Ono?
Granted, Smith is intermittently literate — which sets her apart from the majority of her drooling punk-rock contemporaries. She also hung around with several indisputable talents, including Dylan and Bruce Springsteen (who incidentally owes more to Neil Diamond than he’s ever acknowledged). It was Springsteen who penned Smith’s only hit, “Because the Night” — though Smith jettisoned several of Springsteen’s unpretentious verses and contributed stilted ear-gaggers such as “Love is a banquet on which we feed.” She also had the right look, a kind of feminine hybrid of the Rolling Stones and the Ramones. Lastly, it should be noted — if only in passing — that Smith has the right (which is to say, knee-jerk leftist) politics: She’s petitioned for the release of cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal and protested America’s support of Israel in its ongoing war with Palestinian terrorists. In other words, like so many of her generational peers, she remains in the diaper stage of moral reasoning; she’s never come to grips with the reality that the underdog is sometimes rabid, and she continues to react, as do so many graying baby-boomers, as though might invariably makes wrong. (For an insight into perpetual boomer infantilism, compare their ridicule of “Just say no!” as a drug policy with their embrace of “Give peace a chance!” as the height of geopolitical sophistication.)