Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part One

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Rolling Stone magazine recently stirred anger over its rock star-styled cover photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Marketing to young people’s fascination with beauty, celebrity, and danger is nothing new for RS.  They’re good at selling magazines, and they’ll undoubtedly sell a lot of copies of the Tsarnaev issue.

The RS Tsarnaev issue controversy deserves a blog post by itself, but that’s not what this one’s about.  RS is a bedfellow of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF).  And I’d like to talk about Halls of Fame here.

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Since Jackie Brenston‘s “Rocket 88” in 1951, rock music has had the power to galvanize young people.  I’m one of those who believes that the best rock also has integrity and adult appeal.  In the ‘50s and ‘60s rock music was the anthem of a generation.  Today it’s more the anthem of Chevrolet and Monday Night Football.

But, for better or worse, rock’s impact on popular culture is undeniable.  Unlike classical, jazz, country, or other types of music, rock is flexible in its form and delivery.  There are very few rules.  It can blend different genres.  It can have words (“Rocket 88”) or not have words (the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”).  It can be strident (the Clash’s “White Riot”) or peaceful (the Grateful Dead‘s “Dark Star”).  It can be poetic (Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) or a crude street rap.

Procol Harum, circa 1968

Procol Harum, circa 1968

It’s also brutally honest.  I can’t imagine classical, jazz, or country doing a musical equivalent of John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World.”

Rock is also cross-cultural and multi-generational, and it’s rarely static.  I listen to Bruce Springsteen on Friday evening after work, and Joni Mitchell late at night, alone, while wearing headphones.  Depending on the song, rock’s a drug that can affect the head, heart, or nervous system.  When I’m a little depressed, a soft-rock tune like Loggins and Messina’s “Brighter Days” can actually make me feel less isolated.  Sterling Morrison, the second guitarist in the Velvet Underground, once said that he considered music more important than politics.  I heartily agree.

Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols might agree, too.  Jones has his own memorable quote: “Once you want to be put in a museum, rock & roll’s over.”  Someday I’ll delve into what I feel the RnRHoF is all about, and why a lot of it is “bollocks.”  I’ll need a few beers for that one, though.

Sex Pistols, circa 1976 (left to right: Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten, Paul Cook)

Sex Pistols, circa 1977 (left to right: Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten, Paul Cook)

But since the RnRHoF is obviously here to stay, I feel a need to rectify some wrongs.  So for this blog post, I’m inducting the first five of ten artists not yet in the RnRHoF, but which I feel should have been inducted long ago.  Steve Jones won’t agree with this list, but that’s okay.  I love his band anyway.

Most people favor the music of their youth – me included.  But I’m not biased strictly out of nostalgia.  I really believe the high-water mark of rock music – with apologies to Elvis, Buddy and Chuck – occurred during the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.  So don’t expect Goo Goo Gadget on this list.

As Spinal Tap documentarian Marty DiBergi once said, “But hey, enough of my yakkin’… let’s boogie!”  Here are five artists to be inducted into the longitudes’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:

The Zombies: most baby boomers know their three hits: “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season.”  But anyone who has dared plunge beyond these knows this band had a treasure chest of beautiful, carefully 220px-Odessey_and_Oraclestructured tunes that should’ve been hits.  Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals were unique, and the group had not one, but two exceptional songwriters in Rod Argent and Chris White.  Next to the Beatles, the Zombies wrote maybe the prettiest melodies of any band from England in the ‘60s.  Not sure why the Dave Clark Five is in the RnRHoF and this band isn’t.

Jethro Tull: Tull began, like so many other Brits from the 1960s, as a blues band, but soon drifted into English folk.  They made a bunch of excellent albums: Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung, Songs from the Wood, and the part-live double LP, Living in the Past.  They were one of the most exciting bands to see in concert in the ‘70s, with leader Ian Anderson’s simultaneous humming and flute playing (inspired by jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk) and elaborate group costumes and theatrics.  tullTull managed the trick of appealing to “heads” while also achieving commercial success in both the U.K. and U.S.  Often classified as “progressive rock” (loosely defined as rock that borrows from classical or jazz, and frequently using organ, woodwinds, strings, or brass) they were actually quite unusual, mixing hard rock with blues, folk, and even baroque: challenging and intelligent music that was also listenable.  The RnRHoF likes “listenable,” but maybe not “challenging and intelligent.”  But Traffic was inducted nine years ago, so why not this similar group?

Roxy Music: another unclassifiable band, though often lumped in the progressive and “glam rock” genres, Roxy was one of the most visually exciting bands of the ‘70s.  The leader was a stylish former art student named Bryan Ferry.  He had a unique tremolo voice that could fluctuate between heavenly highs and deep lows.  He was also a gifted and underrated songwriter.roxy  Early on, Roxy was the quintessential “art rock” band (the visionary, multimedia artist/producer Brian Eno was an original member), but by the early ‘80s Ferry was writing more mainstream songs, though on a higher plane than most radio-friendly acts.  Roxy was very popular in Europe, but couldn’t get beyond cult status in the U.S. because they were too weird and sophisticated.  The RnRHoF likes weird only when it’s unsophisticated.

Moody Blues: the Moodies are a difficult case.  They wrote some of the most pretentious lyrics in rock, but these were accompanied by luscious arrangements and melodies.  The main songwriter was lead singer and guitarist Justin Hayward.  Hayward was extremely prolific, writing the FM classics “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon,” as well as “The Story in Your Eyes,” “The Question,” “It’s Up to You,” “Lovely to See You,” “Your Wildest Dreams,” “Gypsy,” and many more.moodies  The other members also occasionally chimed in with great songs like “Ride My Seesaw,” “Legend of a Mind” (“Timothy Leary’s dead…”), “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,” etc.  The band started in 1964 in Birmingham, England as part of the British beat boom, and they still tour today, although now they’re primarily an expensive nostalgia trip.  But their endurance, song catalog, and distinction of being the first progressive rock band have me scratching my head as to why only longitudes has inducted them.

Love: unless you were a hippie who lived in California during the late ‘60s or a rock critic with grandkids, you may not have heard of Love, rock’s first racially integrated band (along with the Butterfield Blues Band).  But they made one album that has guaranteed them rock immortality: Forever Changes, a psychedelic masterpiece that many rock historians rank with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.love  They started out in L.A.’s Sunset Strip in 1966, sounding like a garage-folk-rock band on acid.  Their legendary status rests on their first three records: Love, Da Capo, and Forever Changes, all of which feature some of the most innovative music and lyrics in rock.  Jim Morrison (the Doors) and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) idolized them.  The RnRHoF is still sleeping.

To be continued!

Edward Snowden vs. NSA: Nobody’s Right if Everybody’s Wrong

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For the past month we’ve seen a showdown between the U.S. government and a whistleblower named Edward Snowden.  Snowden is now on the lam and enjoying the benevolent protection of that citadel of human rights… Russia.  He skipped there not long after being a guest of honor in Hong Kong.  Now he’s looking for sanctuary in whatever country will take him – at this stage, possibly Venezuela.

Snowden is the U.S. government intelligence contractor who quit his job at Booz Allen Hamilton and fled to Hong Kong with loads of top-secret files tucked under his arm.  The 30-year-old went on a one-man crusade to expose how the National Security Agency (NSA) is amassing loads of personal information on American citizens; the NSA’s stated goal being to stifle potential acts of terrorism.  Snowden thinks the government’s massive surveillance has gone too far.  A boisterous Greek chorus is joining him.

This news story is interesting to me, because for the first time in a while, partisan lines are blurred.  Snowden’s defenders include a motley mix of anti-government, Obama-hating Republican-Libertarians, and free-speech, pro-democracy civil liberty groups.  His critics, on the other hand, include both the Obama White House and Republican hawks in Congress.  I’m just not used to seeing Sen. Lindsay Graham holding hands with President Obama.  This isn’t the way Washington typically works.

The story is also puzzling because, although a lot of Americans are now appalled at the 60-year-old NSA’s invasion of privacy, their elected leaders in Congress gave the green light years ago for domestic collection of information (not many people, including me, watch C-Span).  And many seemingly outraged citizens have no problem sharing their birthday, phone number, family photos, employment, education, religious and political affiliation, shopping preferences, etc. on Facebook.

After 9/11, Americans were very indulgent with the executive branch.  Congress granted the Bush White House broad powers, through the Patriot Act, to fight terrorism.  One byproduct of this was the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken after the start of the invasion showed 62 percent of the country in favor of Bush and Congress’s decision to go to war (which only shows that a majority in a democracy can be wrong).  Another byproduct was the use of torture on terrorist suspects. snowden2

Yet another was a warrantless domestic wiretapping program.  It wasn’t until 2007, after 40 lawsuits were filed, that this program supposedly ceased, resulting in amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).  Then came the election of 2008.  While President Obama opposed the Iraqi invasion, and condemns the use of torture, the NSA’s collection of information on Americans has continued under him.

Snowden may indeed have a point.  Maybe the NSA has become too intrusive.  Maybe it shouldn’t be digging into our phone and internet records and should stick to foreign communications only, which is what was originally intended.  We Americans want government to protect us, but not at the expense of our civil liberties…  I guess.  Isn’t electronic frisking at the airport a violation of a civil liberty?

I can’t help but think that Snowden is merely, as Bob Schieffer of “Face the Nation” bluntly put it in a recent commentary, “a narcissistic young man who thinks he knows more than the rest of us.”  I think Snowden’s apologists are too hasty to paint him as a hero.  Schieffer lauded Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, heroes to many, who spoke out against institutional injustice, but who were also unafraid to suffer the consequences (King served time behind bars and lived in constant fear of being shot… he was eventually assassinated in 1968).

Edward Scissorhands, on the other hand, absconded with government secrets – an act of treason – and now complains he’s being hounded by the government he betrayed…while in Moscow.  Talk about entitlement.

Snowden’s apologists see him as bravely taking on big government and taking a blow in defense of our (perceived) civil liberties.  That may be true.  But his methods leave a lot to be desired.  If Snowden were sincerely concerned about his country, and what the government is doing to its citizens, he would have used the Whistleblower Protection Act, rather than jumping on a slippery soapbox and jeopardizing other Americans’ security.  And instead of his “cut and run” to China, Russia, or whatever other country might offer him a cave to hide in, he’d show some backbone, return to the country he’s so concerned about, and suffer the consequences.

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(Note: my last blog post featured a quiz to commemorate 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg.  The answers to the quiz are as follows: 1. a  2. b  3. c  4. d  5. d  6. b  7. a  8. c  9. c  10. a.  The only one who got all ten questions correct was David Rasico of Goshen, Ohio.  Congratulations, Dave!  Stick around, in another 50 years you can defend your title during the bicentennial)