Thursday, March 08, 2007
How to Get Into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for Dummies
On March 12, R.E.M. will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe more or less invented and perfected “alternative” rock, wrote a string of great albums, built their audience on their own terms, had a few mammoth hits and were pretty much infallible until the departure of Bill Berry in 1997. The Hall is a ridiculous institution, but it's a well-deserved honor.
Then, in the "Undeserved" column, there’s Patti Smith. She’s pretentious, overrated, musically forgettable. But she has friends and fans (like Michael Stipe) in the right places, so she’s in. Like few others, she has been able to convince the rock intelligencia that she is Hall of Fame material, in spite of making perfectly decent but very ordinary music. In fact she could write a book called How to Get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for Dummies. For those of us who don’t have time to read the entire volume, I’ll top-line it for you.
• Position yourself as a poet whose outlet just happens to be rock music
• Adopt the androgynous, unshowered hollow-cheekboned, war-baby look perfected by late-60s Mick & Keith
• Have a clear connection to the Ramones (Smith also got her start at CBGB)
• Marry a fellow critic’s darling (Her late husband was Fred “Sonic” Smith of the equally overrated proto-punk band the MC5.)
• Sport a guitarist who moonlights as a rock critic (Lenny Kaye, who also compiled the critically hallowed garage-band comp Nuggets)
• Trash a religious, political or musical idol on your first album – this will make you “important” (Horses starts with the line “Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine”)
• In interviews, casually drop the “right” references: Dylan, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Mappelthorpe, Brian Jones
• At photo sessions, assume the pose of a high priestess or sha-woman rock & roll survivor (see above).
• Have one hit song, so critics can say you "briefly dabbled with mainstream success" (“Because the Night” written with Bruce Springsteen)
To her credit, Patti Smith has a nice voice and an excellent stage presence, as I saw at a Tibet House benefit in the 90s. A few years later, I saw her bring up the rear of the Greenwich Village Halloween parade by playing on the bed of a moving truck — a cool gesture and brilliant homage to the Stones. She admirably dropped out of the music biz for several years to raise her family.
But is she really any better musically than, say, the Go-Go’s? Here was a truly pioneering, all-woman rock band, playing their own instruments, having their way with male groupies, partying as hard as Van Halen, and writing instant-classic pop tunes like “Our Lips Are Sealed” that sold millions and still sound great today.
Yet on March 12, while the rock elite hails Smith as a poet, prophet and priestess, the Go-Go’s and other equally deserving without the right street-cred — XTC, the English Beat, The Jam, Squeeze — will huddle outside the Waldorf, sharing a smoke and a bottle of Night Train.