Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

by Len Vlahos)

The Scar Boys — my debut young adult novel and the reason Powell's was nice enough to invite me to write something for their website — is the story of Harbinger "Harry" Jones. When Harry is eight, a group of older boys tie him to a tree during a thunderstorm. The tree is struck by lightning, Harry is badly disfigured, and his life is blown apart. Convinced he has become a hideous monster to other children, Harry has trouble fitting in. It's not until he finds himself playing in a band (The Scar Boys) as a teenager that he finally starts to find his way.

Early readers of The Scar Boys have picked up on the book's anti-bullying message. While I hope Harry's story can, in some small way, help readers understand why abusive behavior is so very wrong, that's not really what the book is about. Or, at least, that's not what it's about for me. (Like all books, the meaning of The Scar Boys is, I suppose, in the eyes of the beholder. As a first-time author, it's hard to wrap my head around that. But I digress.) For me, The Scar Boys is a kind of love letter to music and, more specifically, to rock and roll.For me, The Scar Boys is a kind of love letter to music and, more specifically, to rock and roll.

The backdrop for the book — a teenage, touring punk-pop band — is lifted directly from my own past. I dropped out of NYU film school halfway through my sophomore year to go on the road with the Woofing Cookies. I played guitar, sang background vocals, and wrote a bunch of the music. (If you're curious, you can still find Woofing Cookies on YouTube.) I did all of that in the 1980s, the same decade in which The Scar Boys is set. It's also the same decade the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was founded.

I recently saw a list of the nominees vying for induction into the Rock Hall in 2014, and I found myself wondering what Harry and the fictional Scar Boys would think about it. This is a partial list of the nominees:

The Replacements
Hall & Oates
Cat Stevens

At first blush, these artists don't have a whole lot in common. My recollection is that in middle school, KISS fans would give wedgies to Hall & Oates fans, and while you can draw a pretty straight line from Chic to N.W.A. (passing right through the heart of Grandmaster Flash), I'm not sure there's a lot of overlap in the fan base.

But on closer inspection, I wonder if maybe this list has more in common than you might think. For example, at one time or another, each of these artists has had at least one song on my iTunes playlist ("Le Freak," "Express Yourself," "Moonshadow," "Unsatisfied," "Black Diamond" — both The Replacements and KISS versions — and "Rich Girl," to name a few). So maybe, just maybe, the Rock Hall is onto something here.

But then again, maybe not.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was founded in 1983 with a mission of, this from the Rock Hall website, "[celebrating] the music and musicians that changed the world. With that, one of the Foundation's many functions is to recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll by inducting them into the Hall of Fame."

On the face of it, that seems like a laudable goal. But for some reason it has always, from the moment I first heard it 30 years ago, left a bad taste in my mouth.

Rock and roll, from Chuck Berry to Lou Reed to Kurt Cobain (Nirvana is another nominee this year), has never been about history. It has always been about the moment, the here and now. Rock and roll is a rebellion against history. The psychedelia of the 1960s rebelled against the Leave It to Beaver gestalt of the 1950s. The punks of the 1970s rebelled against the bloated self-indulgence of the 1960s. The hair bands of the 1980s... okay, I'm not really sure what that was all about, but you get the idea. How can you possibly enshrine rebellion in a hall of fame?

I've been to the Rock Hall twice. The first time was a decade ago when I was taking my nephew from Connecticut to Universal Studios in Florida for his 13th birthday and our flight was connecting through Cleveland. We had a four-hour layover and we used that time for a quick visit to the Rock Hall. I was so focused on keeping my nephew safe, happy, and entertained that I didn't give the museum any careful scrutiny or thought. My only recollection was of being underwhelmed.

The second trip was several years later. This time I had a leisurely afternoon to spend at the Hall and was ready to be, well, whelmed. I tried to blot out my previous experience, and I was even kind of excited as the featured exhibit was all about Springsteen, one of my favorite songwriters. I walked through the door in the right frame of mind; I was ready for the Rock Hall to win me over.

It did not.

From the badly lit glass cases holding "memorabilia," to the underpaid hipster telling me that I couldn't use my iPhone to take photos, to another underpaid hipster wanting to take my photo holding a guitar in front of a green screen (so they could later sell me a print, presumably of me on stage with The Rolling Stones or Black Sabbath or Donny and Marie), to the loudspeaker entreaty to "be sure to visit our F.Y.E. gift shop on your way out," the Rock Hall was like a bad dream after eating one too many burritos. It had as much to do with rock and roll as Disney's Hall of Presidents had to do with American history.

I will readily admit to liking some of America's more homogenized offerings. I can get caught up in the occasional sitcom; I enjoy summer blockbuster movies; hell, I've even been known to watch American Idol from time to time. But at least Idol doesn't pretend to be something it's not. It acknowledges its corporate masters on every episode and does nothing to hide its sole reason for existence: to make a buck.

The Rock Hall is serving exactly the same masters and exists for exactly the same reason, but it has tried to coat itself in a veneer of sincerity, legitimacy, and cool. They've monetized Keith Moon's drumsticks, The Edge's first guitar, and Elvis's Cadillac. The Rock Hall is so sterile, so manufactured, that it is the very antithesis of actual rock and roll.The Rock Hall is so sterile, so manufactured, that it is the very antithesis of actual rock and roll.

I first saw The Replacements — my favorite of this year's nominees — on their "Let It Be" tour at around the same time the Rock Hall Foundation was getting off the ground. The very name of The Replacements' album, Let It Be, was, according to front man Paul Westerberg, meant to show that nothing is sacred. It wasn't a jab at the Beatles album of the same name as much as a statement that rock and roll is a living, breathing thing that grows and moves one.

The Replacements were playing Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ, a cramped space that couldn't possibly hold more than 200 people without bringing out the fire marshal, and the opening act was a very young They Might Be Giants. It was loud. It was raucous. It was glorious. Trying to connect that experience to what I saw in Cleveland is just not possible. To imagine The Replacements enshrined — strike that, embalmed — in a hall of fame makes me kind of queasy.

When I think about it, I'm pretty sure that's how Harry and his friends would feel, too. There's a scene in The Scar Boys where Harry and Johnny are lying on the floor listening to records, when they stumble across the first album from Black Flag. They're taken by its honesty, its rawness, its immediacy. The album is great not only because of what it is, but in part because of what it's not.

If the purpose of the Rock Hall is to perpetuate great music for future generations, then perhaps a museum of artifacts in glass cases isn't the answer. If the purpose is to make money, then for crying out loud, just say so.

None of this is meant as a criticism of the artists inducted into the Rock Hall, nor is it meant to suggest that you can't enjoy the museum if you're in Cleveland. Just go understanding that you're on a trip to an amusement park and not on a pilgrimage to someplace holy. If you really want to celebrate all that rock and roll is, find out where a local, up-and-coming band — a real-life Scar Boys, if you will — is playing, and go. Watch, listen, open your mind. That, IMHO, is and always has been the only way to perpetuate the spirit of rock and roll.

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Len Vlahos is the author of The Scar Boys. He is the executive director of BISG and the former COO of the American Booksellers Association, where he worked for the past 20 years. At the ABA, he had overall responsibility for ABA's Winter Institute. So he knows booksellers and booksellers know him. Vlahos has also worked in indie, chain, and university bookstores, was an on-air personality for a commercial radio station in Atlantic City, and worked for a time for Internet marketing guru Seth Godin. He was in a punk rock band in the mid-1980s. The Woofing Cookies toured and their music was played on dozens of college radio stations coast to coast.