Sunday, November 8, 2020

HBO’s R&RHOF Show | Lefsetz Letter

I guess you had to be there. For the mind-set. The sixties were cruising along as an extension of the fifties and then came the Beatles. They didn’t do it to become rich and famous, their goal was to stay off the factory floor as long as possible. These were not the sons and daughters of upper-class denizens, their playing was not just a stop before graduate school, this was their lives, it meant EVERYTHING!

And what was everything? It certainly didn’t include drudgery. Well, when they went on the road, there was more than a bit of that, but those are the dues you’ve got to pay to engage with your fans, and if it’s more about you than them you don’t even have to go on the road at all, can you say STEELY DAN?

So everybody in America’s got a crew cut. And then the Beatles come along and WHAM, BAM, THE FIFTIES ARE OVER! The Beatles wiped the map of everybody but the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, everybody else had no chance, because they were entertainers, the Beatles were more than that, THEY WERE OUTSIDERS!

Yes, they look cuddly in retrospect, but that’s not how the older generation saw them, never mind the preachers and believers who burned their albums after John Lennon’s famous statement. Then again, that was John Lennon, unfiltered. Wasn’t that the point of being an artist, doing it your way, not beholden to rules, and then the public resonated with you and your music?

Now what are left are mostly the trappings.

I almost turned the damn show off. It started with Dave Grohl. He’s the last rocker standing, so he always gets the gig, but we’ve learned that Kurt Cobain was the outsider, not Grohl. Grohl can exhibit the irreverence endemic to rock, but he’s part of the firmament, whereas the real rockers never were.

And then Luke Bryan starts to testify about the Doobie Brothers. I mean at least he’s a musician, and I’m a fan, but he’s bland and young and wasn’t there any true fan that could have read those words, Ted Templeman, anyone with gravitas, who could testify as to the impact of the Doobie Brothers such that we would believe it? And at this point, I was truly wincing, Dave Grohl and then Luke Bryan? Who next, Anne Murray?

The Doobies started in a biker bar. far from Hollywood. They were not dependent upon their education, they were foraging, going their own way as part of the music explosion in the wake of the Beatles. Never forget, after Ed Sullivan and the ensuing hits everybody picked up an instrument, EVERYBODY! Boys talked about amps the way kids today talk about mobile phones, we needed to get closer.

“You get me closer to God”

And this is when the show switched, when it started to get good, with NIN.

Sure, Trent Reznor now scores movies, but no one would ever categorize him as an insider. And that’s what he talks about, being alone in Pennsylvania, needing to make music to connect with his tribe. And after the initial whirlwind of fame, he questioned his status, whether he had anything left to say. That’s part of being an artist. If you’re not questioning your worth, if you’re not banging your head against the wall at times, if you’re even-keeled, be an accountant. Rock and roll doesn’t need you. You see rock and roll is a band of outsiders.

There, I said it.

That’s the opposite of the ethos today. Everybody is a member of the group. To the point where they’re anxious about saying what is uncomfortable, for fear of ruffling feathers. Hell, there are even books you can’t read in college, there are trigger warnings, how in the hell did we get so far from the garden?

Back then if you didn’t fit in, if you were a square peg in a round hole, you could not go online and find your people, YOU HAD TO LISTEN TO MUSIC! And the makers of such, the ones in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, were not only skilled, they had messages, they made you feel like you belonged.

And then the whole thing became corporatized. With corporate rock and then disco and then the whole scene imploded, ultimately revived by MTV and the videos it aired, but since then, after hip-hop, the only innovation in music has been the internet, the pipe, the distribution, was far more interesting than the music. Now music is a vehicle to become a brand.

Then again, that paradigm was introduced by the rappers, that’s why the segment on Biggie is so damn good. His life was crap. He had a dream. Most people did not believe, but he did. And when he broke through he needed to be the best. That’s a thing about hip-hop, unlike rock, it’s a competition. When you come from nothing, when you have nothing, you’re entitled to all the perks, all the trinkets, the victory lap, because society was conspiring to keep you down, now more than ever. But two-odd decades later, it’s only about the trappings. Biggie believed in the music.

The talking heads were not appropriate until Irving Azoff’s segment. Of course Don Henley should be the ringmaster. Why in every other clip did they not employ someone equally close to who was being honored? And not only were we exposed to all of Irving’s accomplishments, we were left with two main points, Irving’s belief in and defense of artists, and his irreverence.

The artists come and go at the label. Stop selling and you’re history, those people who were your best friends will become unavailable. The artists complain, but Irving stands up for them, if nothing else with Global Rights, the artists deserve MORE!

As for his irreverence… Irving was himself, his closer, referencing his children, was the cherry on the sundae. They only made one of Irving and he never compromised, which is why he’s survived. Too many others gained some success and sold out, forgot who they were, where they came from, but not Irving.

Quite possibly the “In Memoriam” segment was the highlight of the entire telecast. Eddie Van Halen got his due. But instead of Slash, I wish they had Jeff Beck, or Jimmy Page, or Allan Holdsworth if he didn’t die. Someone truly in the pantheon, who could talk not only about impact and technique, but the challenge of having an upstart doing your act, imploring you to push the envelope or get out of the way.

But Slash was light years better than Charlize Theron. I mean she had that thing with Stephan Jenkins, but she’s a movie star, not a rocker, she was eye candy to get looky-loos to tune in. Why? We expect that of the Grammys, not HBO, where ratings are irrelevant. The more true you are to the subject, the more people are entranced and bonded to you and salivating to come back next year.

And the truth is this show was so superior to any prior telecast they should never broadcast the awards ceremony ever again. Where the inductor frequently has nothing to do with the inductee (thank you Steve Miller, unlike all the youngsters, you’re not afraid to bite the hand that feeds you, you’ve still got your rock and roll spirit). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the private dinner, used to be an insider affair. And we all know what happens when no one is looking is much more interesting than if everybody is. A raucous party, that’s what they had. Now they do it in an arena, for the ticket revenue, Peter Grant would never allow that, then again, these are the same people who feel it necessary to include a far too long advertisement for the museum in the middle of the show. It was like Neil Portnow’s Grammy speech, time to get up and pee.

As for Whitney Houston… They did a good job of portraying her career arc, but she’s as far from rock and roll as Debby Boone. She was not an outsider appealing to other outsiders, she was not irreverent, she was a voice. Sure, she led the lifestyle and got off the rails, but so do finance and techie bros who make too much money. Rock and roll is a very small stage. You can get inside the tent, but to be on stage, we need very few people. That’s what the Spotify complainers just don’t get. WE DON’T WANT TO LISTEN TO YOU! After all, we can listen to the Doobies, NIN, Depeche Mode…

KROQ was an addiction, it was a club, either you were a member or you were not, to the point it literally caused the previous number one rock station, KMET, to change format. Talk about David slaying Goliath…

But KMET wouldn’t play “Don’t You Want Me.” And “Tainted Love.” Rock has to reinvent itself, or it dies. Which is why it’s on life support right now, there is no reinvention, just people riffing on what has been done before. And KROQ was the home of Depeche Mode.

“I just can’t get enough”

To hear this coming out of the dashboard of your car…it was the antidote to not only corporate rock, but the America that had suddenly become Reaganized. The Americans may have sold out, but not the English, they were testing limits. And the Depeche Mode sound was so infectious that the band could sell out the Rose Bowl, AND IT ALL STARTED WITH KROQ AIRPLAY!

That was the power of radio. That was the power of Rick Carroll’s KROQ format, the Roq of the 80s, Top Forty for a culture where the past was whacked and anything went if it was creative enough. You may think Soft Cell was a one hit wonder, but if that’s the case you were not listening to KROQ, where “Sex Dwarf” was in regular rotation, and oh-so-different from “Tainted Love,” back when the goal was not to repeat yourself.

But, once again, as good as Eddie Van Halen was, the star of the “In Memoriam” segment was the Queen of Rock & Roll, the progenitor, the man who was there at the beginning and was always in character and never truly faded away, the one whose music still radiates.


Forget the singing, when he shimmies his hips he puts Elvis to shame. Talk about sex incarnate.

You see rock and roll owes its soul to the Delta Bluesmen. Who definitely didn’t do it to get rich and famous. As a matter of fact, many who survived, legends, ended up getting straight gigs, their names were in the phone book, such that when college students wanted to feature them in the sixties, they could call them right up.

And the English cats, who also had little, who’d grown up just after the war, hoovered up those original blues records, twisted them and fed the result back to the U.S. And then U.S. musicians were infected and put their own spin on the sound. That is the story of rock. Made by outsiders who couldn’t do anything else wanting to be heard. They got that right in this show too, it’s not about the money, it’s about the art, that’s the goal of every true artist, to expose more people to their creations.

So, if you watched this HBO show you were ultimately sucked in. You looked past the non-musicians testifying who were out of place. And as a matter of fact, almost nothing said was worth listening to other than the words of the musicians, who created this music, who oftentimes didn’t even speak so well, because you see the music was their statement.

Music doesn’t work on TV, at least not today. Sure, back in the sixties, the seventies, when it was rare, it was a thrill to see your favorite on the screen. But the truth is you just can’t feel the sound, it doesn’t inhabit your body and soul, you can look but you feel the distance, whereas live, these acts cannot be denied.

So, the scripted parts were almost all bad. Even if the words were close to right, they were not expressed with the passion of a fan.

But that footage, those stories…

These people had no CV. They didn’t have rich parents. They truly took the road less traveled. They hung it all out for rock and roll. And this is what we loved about them, this is what drew us to them. They were not hawking perfume, all they were selling was themselves and their music, and that was more than enough. Yes, they had the C-word…CREDIBILITY! If you can’t say no, you can’t truly be a rock star. Rock stars have an inner tuning fork, and it’s based on feel, not books. They channel their emotions, and once they betray them they’re done, forget what the agents and label people tell you, the audience can tell the difference, they can SMELL the difference.

And all of the acts in this program, as well as Irving and Jon Landau, embodied this spirit. Irving and Jon were addicted fans, they needed to get closer.

Those day are through. Which is why I’ve argued for eons that the halls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be closed, or at least time-limited. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of our nation’s great treasures, with more foot traffic than it can handle, does not include Michelangelo. Once again, rock is a big tent for the listener, but not the creator. You’ve got to earn your stripes. And when you hear Whitney Houston talk about having more number ones than the Beatles you do a spit take. It’s not the same game, it’s not the same era, it’s not even the same charts, never mind the same distribution and listening avenues. Sure, they may still call it the “Hot 100,” but back then if you were number one, EVERYBODY KNEW WHO YOU WERE!

Not that everybody knew who Marc Bolan was. Truly he only had one big hit in America, the utterly infectious “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” But he was HUGE in the U.K. He and Bowie dominated the magazines and the charts in 1972, talk about influence.

But, once again, isn’t that just the point. It’s about the work, not the reach. It’s not really something you can quantify, just something you can feel.

And too many have been left out of the Rock Hall.

And too many don’t deserve to be inside, which Don Henley references.

But I must admit, somewhere in this endurance test of a TV show beat the heart of rock and roll. Sure, I could see it, but mostly I could hear it, and feel it, remember who I was and where I was when music was my only way of getting through.


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