VH1 has had a lot of success with countdown shows and lists of superlatives: Rock's Hundred Greatest Women, the Hundred Greatest Songs, etc. We are rolling out the Hundred Greatest TV Moments this summer and the Hundred Greatest Albums in the
fall. It has fallen on us now to assemble the mother of them all, the Hundred Most Important Events in Rock History (it'll have a more euphonious name by the time it gets on the air). I am coordinating the lists, suggestions, and opinions of a preliminary group of experts, to create a ballot that will go to a wider voting body.
(The best part of these projects? Getting the handwritten ballots back from the artists and seeing what Johnny Cash picks as the greatest songs of all time, or who George Harrison ranks as the 100 greatest artists. The votes are confidential--we record the stats and put them in a computer and then the original ballots are locked up or destroyed. I have been tempted to swipe a souvenir, but I didn't do it.)
This Most Important Moments project is already causing fistfights in the conference room. First, there's a generational divide--how do you decide if the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens means more than the deaths of Tupac and Biggie? And what do you do about the tendency of so many people to pick deaths as historical moments? Certainly Kurt Cobain's suicide was a landmark that really affected how people viewed his music--and arguably marked a turning point in rock that sent us down the weird road where we now find ourselves. But I'm real uncomfortable with the notion that the deaths of Sam Cooke or Jeff Buckley or even John Lennon should be counted as big events. I'd rather focus on Cooke making "A Change Is Gonna Come" or Buckley's stand at Café Sine or Lennon's "War Is Over if You Want It" campaign.
The arguments start because while no one means to be morbid, tragedies stand out in our memories and focus our emotions in ways that stay with us. So everyone over the age of 35 remembers where they were when they heard Elvis died, but you can't get a lot of consensus on anything else about him. Go ahead--list in order of significance his walking into Sun Records, recording "Hound Dog," going to Hollywood, getting drafted, the '68 comeback special, and making "In the Ghetto."
You see why this gets sticky. You're dealing with touchstones in people's lives, and folks get real hot under the collar when they're told that their epiphanies are worthless to everyone else. What's more important--"A Hard Day's Night" or "Saturday Night Fever"? Dylan's motorcycle accident or Madonna's Sex book controversy? Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk on Motown 25 or Michael Jackson's tabloid scandals?
This is one of those situations where our rational adult brains ("It's all personal, its all subjective, it's all trivial") break ranks with our buried childish need to assert our own preferences over everyone else's ("Chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla! You're lying!"). It must be why people love reading other people's lists of the greatest anythings. It's fun to get mad at the idiots who made up the list when the list you could make is so much more accurate/tasteful/thoughtful.
This came up again today as I filled out my ballot for the first round of nominations for next year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As mad as people outside the voting body get about who does and doesn't get into the Rock Hall, it's nothing next to how mad the voters get with each other. "What do you mean Jackson Browne is more important than the Moonglows?" "How can you compare Tom Waits, who never had a hit, with Aerosmith, who have been making hits for 25 years?" "Leonard Cohen isn't rock 'n' roll!"
That last one is where I reach for my revolver. Where I grew up, top-40 radio played the Kinks into Aretha into Johnny Cash into "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron." To me, rock 'n' roll is very broad, very inclusive. Funk, disco, folkie singer/songwriters, and synth-pop bands are all outgrowths, offshoots, sub-divisions of rock 'n' roll. The best thing about rock always seemed to be its limitlessness, its ability to absorb blues and reggae and British music-hall songs and keep on rolling. I hate the idea that rock 'n' roll is limited to one little corner, whether that's Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis or Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. I can't believe Randy Newman is not yet in the Hall of Fame any more than I can understand why Slim Harpo is missing. But then, a lot of people feel the same way about Black Sabbath and Roy Buchanan.
Voters are e-mailing each other to lobby for personal favorites. A strong effort is being made on behalf of Miles Davis. This has me really torn up. I think there is a good case for Miles Davis being the most important musician of the 20th century. And certainly Bitches Brew, Miles at Fillmore, and the albums that followed shaped fusion and a lot of the funk that grew out of it. But--in complete counter-logic to everything I just said about rock's inclusiveness--I have a very hard time getting my head around the idea of Miles as a rock musician, on any level. He was living, breathing jazz. Yet I would not hesitate to vote for Mahavishnu John McLaughlin or Herbie Hancock, who built careers out of Miles' castoffs (and, by the way, came out of Miles' band). So how can I not vote for Miles Davis for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? One part of me says I could vote for Miles Davis for the Country Hall of Fame. And yet--Laura Nyro isn't in. Steely Dan isn't in (I'll bet they'd vote for Miles). Gram Parsons isn't in. My head hurts.
You have to have put out your first record 25 years ago to be eligible, and as it happens 1975 was a pretty lame year for debuts. The list of newly eligible artists starts with Amazing Rhythm Aces, Ambrosia, and Angel and goes downhill from there. There are two shoe-ins on the list (Peter Gabriel and Patti Smith) and a couple of worthies (Nils Lofgren) who may have to wait a little while for their shot.
That means that this year, like the last couple of years, will be dominated by deserving musicians who have been passed over before. I can't imagine Queen and Aerosmith won't get in this time--but I don't know why they didn't get in last time. Lou Reed and Paul Simon are giants and everyone knows it--the only reason I can figure that they are not at the top of every ballot is that each has been inducted as part of an act (Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel) for which they provided the vision and wrote all the songs. I assume voters want to take care of artists who have not been in once before they double up. Although this does not explain Eric Clapton's already being in three times.
Finally I filled out my ballot, changed my mind four times, and sent it along. When the final results are posted in the autumn, I'll be as mad as everyone else.
I got a request recently from Men's Journal to reprint in a book a list I made for their end-of-the-'90s issue of the Greatest Albums of the Century. This was my kind of poll--I was the only voter. I looked back at my selections and was appalled. Where were Every Picture Tells a Story, It Takes a Nation of Millions, and Bridge Over Troubled Water? How could I have included Beth Orton and left off Rickie Lee Jones? Why did I put Paul Kelly on and leave the Faces off?
See, that's the weird attraction of these silly, meaningless rankings. You could always do a better job yourself, even when you're the one who did it.