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.)
While Smith was wearing her radical bona fides on her sleeve, Diamond continued plugging away at his day job, writing and recording one hummable tune after another, including (gasp!) the patriotic anthem “Coming to America.” Yet Diamond, whose largely apolitical career began more than a decade and a half before Smith’s, and who has outsold Smith roughly 25 to one, had to wait until 2011 for his induction; Smith got her call in 2007.
Still, we shouldn’t read too much into the political angle. Though ideological bias is surely a factor in the nomination and election process — bet the farm that Charlie Daniels, who once published an open letter in defense of the invasion of Iraq, will never make the cut — it cannot by itself account for the overriding quirkiness of the Hall of Fame’s roster. For example, James Taylor and Jackson Browne both performed at the proto-Green No Nukes Concert in 1979, and both are in the hall. But Carly Simon, who also performed, and who in her heyday was a bigger star than either of them, has yet to be enshrined.
Indeed, if you take a step back, the hall resembles less a roll call of immortals than a high-school clique rooted in the anti-establishment ethos of the late 1960s. The sophomoric perception of coolness, rather than any discernable artistic or popular measure, seems the coin of the realm. Thus, a third-tier band like Buffalo Springfield gets in because two of its members — Stephen Stills and Neil Young — went on to perform at the boomer-hallowed Woodstock concert, whereas the Monkees, who rivaled the Beach Boys as the biggest American act of the decade, get shafted because they were put together by an entertainment conglomerate. (Ewww, like a corporation, man!) To be sure, rock and roll has always embodied a puerile spirit of rebellion and restlessness; nevertheless, you’d think that the passing decades would have taught even its diehard fan base that there’s scant difference between, say, the Spice Girls and Niggaz With Attitude, that Posh Spice and Ice Cube are both fictional characters — one a little girl’s lunchbox fantasy, the other a grumpier Stepin Fetchit. (The Niggaz, in fact, turned out to be better actors than the Girls.) Yet NWA is a mortal lock to make the hall once they become eligible in 2013 whereas the Spice Girls have no more chance of induction than the Partridge Family does — though both, by the criteria of record sales, fan base, and lasting influence, should get in long before Patti Smith. (Smith versus the Archies is a tougher call.)
The question of criteria, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla in every discussion of the Hall. Despite the fact that rock and roll is an avowedly proletarian art form, its Hall of Fame is even more of an elitist enterprise than most comparable institutions. Think about it. If I want to argue that Bobby Murcer belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, I can bring forward verifiable evidence — career stats, individual awards, team championships — to support my case. I’ll lose, based on that evidence, but at least I’ll have the satisfaction of engaging in a fair and open debate. What satisfaction is available to a fan of Grand Funk or the Moody Blues? All the verifiable evidence — again: record sales, fan base, lasting influence — points in their favor. But their case is denied, year after year, by a priesthood of industry insiders, who may take into account verifiable evidence, but in the end decide based on their own Beavis and Butthead aesthetic: “That kicks ass!” versus “That’s lame!”
So here’s a suggestion: Give the fans a voice. Keep the current requirements — artists become eligible 25 years after their first recording — but once the journalists and music execs have made their selections, let the people vote to induct one overlooked artist from every decade . . . one whose career began in the 1950s, one from the 1960s, and one from the 1970s. In 2015, open the fan voting for the 1980s and close the voting for the 1950s. Oh, and no prepared ballots with pre-screened candidates. Nothing but write-ins. As John Lennon, the patron saint of rock and roll, once sang, “Power to the People!”
If there’s a rock-and-roll heaven, I don’t think Jimi Hendrix will mind keeping company with Karen Carpenter.
— Mark Goldblatt’s latest novel, Sloth, was published last summer by Greenpoint Press.