The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is getting ready to announce this year’s nominations. Instead of the usual Sturm und Drang about the Hall’s various imperfections I’ll just share some cool memories from my visits in 1998, 1999 and 2000. As it happens, I wasn’t a skeptic, but it’s worth noting that many who were have been converted by actually going there. Probably because experiences along these lines can be had every day.

Anyway my personal top five, in no particular order:

–Descending the escalator and hearing a large group of black school children who looked to be roughly second graders break softly into the chorus of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” en masse and on cue, when it came over the loudspeakers that play music throughout the day and then stop–en masse and on cue–the second their teacher went “sh-h-h-h!”

–Watching a couple of junior-high-age white girls sashaying up the ramp that constitutes the actual Hall of Fame, doing the hand motions to the Supremes’ “Stop In the Name of Love,” which was playing in the video viewing room next door.

–Reading the hand-written letter Janis Joplin sent to her parents when she left home for the last time, in which she constantly assured them she would be alright–this only minutes after passing a doorway where Pete Townsend was snarling back from a movie screen, saying, “They might be your fucking icons, but they’re my fucking friends!…And they’re dead!”

–Seeing the actual piece of paper where the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio sketched out the lyrics for “Rag Doll” immediately after witnessing the reaction a street urchin had to his handing her a five dollar bill (instead of the usual nickel or quarter) because, in the immediate aftermath of the Seasons’ initial success, he didn’t have anything smaller on him.

–Getting down on the floor to read a piece of paper in a special Elvis exhibit and having to stay there a while when I realized it was the official contract drawn up between Colonel Tom Parker and the Carolina Theater in Charlotte which is where my mother saw Elvis in fifty-six (part of a set of life experiences I wrote about at length here). That happened five minutes after seeing the only television still in existence which actually has the bullet hole Elvis put in it had convinced me nothing could top that!

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a human institution and so has its problems, some of which I’ve addressed here in the past. I’m sure the forthcoming nominations and ultimate selections will raise my blood pressure yet again.

But it’s worth remembering that these problems are very small in light of what it gets right–like providing a space to honor things that deserve to be honored, as opposed to only remembered:

Isley Brothers “That Lady/Live It Up” (Live Television Performance)

The Supremes “Stop In the Name of Love” (Live Television Performance)

Janis Joplin “Ball and Chain” (Live at Monterey, crossing over into the land from which there is no return)

The Four Seasons “Rag Doll” (Studio Recording)

Elvis Presley “Mean Woman Blues” (From Loving You)



SEGUE OF THE DAY (5/18/13–Lester Flatt and Ronnie Isley)

About this time a year ago, I found out I was going to have to replace my roof and my hardwood floors by the end of the year in order to keep my house insurable. These things got done, at the expense of reordering my life for months on end. And I’m just now returning to something like “normal” status, meaning, among other things, that my record player is fully operational again.

So here in the last week or two I’ve been pulling vinyl like mad, acquainting and re-acquainting myself as it were.

And sometime Saturday in the very early a.m., I was sure I had found the “new” acquaintance of the week/month/year when I discovered Flatt–on an old double-LP titled Bean Blossom (a live recording from Indiana’s Bean Blossom bluegrass festival in 1973 which I’ve had for years but have rarely played and never really paid strict attention to before)–turning “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” aka “The Theme From the Beverly Hillbillies” into a laconic, world-weary, working man’s blues.

Flatt’s studio version was already far dryer and a good deal more cautionary than the chipper version that resides in the national subconcious via endless re-runs, but here, he made lines like “poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,” sound like they were being sung from the bottom of a mine.

So that had to be it, right? The new thing most likely to expand my consciousness here in the latter stages of my recovery phase?

Really, I should know better.

No matter how tired I get, I should never forget that rock and roll is bottomless.

Not twenty-four hours later, I’m in my car listening to the final album in a stark-raving incredible five album set from the Isley Brothers which, in amongst the hardcore funk-rock and straight soul, features lots and lots of covers of White America’s AM Gold playlist circa the early seventies, nearly every one of which they transformed.

Seriously: “Ohio” to “Summer Breeze” to “Listen to the Music” to “Love the One You’re With” to “Fire and Rain.” Good records, great records, trash records. It would be easy to think it was just catch-as-catch-can, trying to keep up with the era’s insane recording schedules–easy except Ronnie Isley kept finding ways to make everything personal.

“Just yesterday morning,” he sings “they let me know you were gone.” And suddenly it hurts. There’s no distance, no comfort, no displacement, no opacity, no self-pity, just real fear and real transcendence. As if somebody or something is really and truly gone.

Same with “four dead in O-hi-o.” Same with “There’s a rose in the fisted glove.”

And so on and so forth.

But even with all that coming at me during my drive times this week, I wasn’t any way prepared for Ronnie to take on Jonathan Edwards’ consummately fey (and consummately catchy) “Sunshine,” which, I confess, I never knew meant anything at all after hearing Edwards sing it a few hundred times on the oldies’ stations of yesteryear (most often with me shouting right along, incidentally).

Here, it starts out sounding like a man who is standing next to Lester Flatt in that imaginary mine, shouting up–“Sunshine go away today, I don’t feel much like dancing”–and then follows along as he proceeds to lift himself up inch-by-inch until he can just about see the light.

But don’t take my word for it…go have a listen–as “He’s got cards he ain’t showing,” takes on new meaning in the mouth of a black man negotiating the fall-out of post Civil Rights America as the New Jim Crow began to meet the Old Jim Crow and he helps you ponder the paths not taken–bear in mind Ronnie’s own maxim that rock and roll was the only music that let everything in:

The Isley Brothers “Sunshine (Go Away Today)” (Studio recording)



…But it’s an amazing day in America when a million people (in this case in Watertown, MA and surrounding environs) are told–absent a declaration of martial law or any evidence of properly obtained search warrants–to first stay inside and then get out of their homes, one by one, while “law enforcement” storms through.

So far as I know, no one has objected.

Of course, I just spent the night flipping between CNN, FoxNews and MSNBC, desperately searching for signs of journalism–or at least the absence of brain death.

Came up empty, alas.

So if martial law has been declared, or search warrants have been obtained, or someone is objecting, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t know.

Because, to a man and woman, every television reporter on the scene knows the real reason for the excitement is their own presence.

And to think just a week or two back I was on the very tip of becoming really, really concerned because one of them (it happened to be Wolf Blitzer, back then, but no sense picking on him as it could have been anyone) got all shivery over the prospect of North Korea launching some nukes because–and I think I have this quote exact–“it would certainly be an interesting story!”

Yes, Wolf, nuclear war would be interesting! Even more interesting than a couple of mad bombers getting spooked when the FBI–ever vigilant–releases their photographs and they end up panicking and murdering a police officer (who’d a thunk it?…not us, the FBI assured everyone, using NBC’s Pete Williams as the conduit for covering their incompetence just as though he, or anyone else involved, would ever have thought to question it–let us not say that secret police forces lack cunning!).

Pretty good stuff.

Nuclear war, though….That’s a whole other level.

You would get mad screen time!

And a chance to cover really interesting stories. Like what can happen if somebody does object:

The Isley Brothers “Ohio/Machine Gun” (Studio Recording)

[NOTE: Part of me wishes I had transcribed the truly vile manner in which CNN’s Jake Tapper and one of his cohorts whose name I’ve blissfully forgotten trivialized the police officer’s murder on the way to breathlessly discussing, ad nauseum, the truly “big deal” of the subsequent man-hunt. Another part of me is glad I turned away….to Fox News, where some other titan whose name I’ve forgotten, managed a “shot a police officer, who, tragically, died” in the midst of a five minute monologue about his own feelings as he was covering this really awesome event!…Whew! For a minute there, I thought the bottom had been reached. This summer I hear the drumming indeed. Goodbye us.]