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Recently, there has been a spate of sports blogs that have tried to gauge the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. Not ranking them necessarily, but merely listing them. When the NBA officially chose the 50 greatest of all time in 1996, it was a momentous occasion indeed- 47 of those honored gathered together at the subsequent 1997 All-Star game (only an injured Shaq, a reticent Jerry West, and a deceased Pistol Pete were missing.)

Here we are, over 20 years later. We’ve seen an entire generation of players come and go since then, adding their own contributions to the NBA pantheon. To honor them, I’d like to post my own list of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

To do so, I had to kick out quite a few of the originals, each of whom was a giant in his own way. But I had to account for limited playoff success, a lack of accolades, and other nitpicks. Alas, this meant getting rid of:

  1. Nate Archibald
  2. Dave Bing
  3. Dave Cowens
  4. Billy Cunningham
  5. Dave DeBusschere
  6. Clyde Drexler
  7. Hal Greer
  8. Jerry Lucas
  9. Pete Maravich
  10. Robert Parish
  11. Bill Sharman
  12. Nate Thurmond
  13. Wes Unseld
  14. Bill Walton
  15. Lenny Wilkens
  16. James Worthy

Some brutal cuts here. It was arbitrary, but players who were arguably never one of the 7 or 8 best players in the league at any one time had to go, so goodbye Wilkens, Thurmond, Parish, and Worthy. Others had short primes (Maravich, Walton) or were the second-or-third-best guy on a good team (Unseld, Cowens, Cunningham, DeBusschere, Greer, Sharman, Worthy). I had to get rid of stat-padders (Lucas), a great citizen who nonetheless shouldn’t have made the 50 at 50 the first time around (Bing), and a guy whose game hasn’t especially aged well, Clyde Drexler– by far and away the toughest cut of them all.  I did keep three sublime “second bananas” or complementary players who might have had trouble carrying their own team: Kevin McHale, Sam Jones, and Scottie Pippen. To me, Pippen’s perimeter defense, McHale’s skills in the paint, and Jones’ penchant for last-second heroics and his 10 rings made them indispensable.

  1. Kobe Bryant
  2. Stephen Curry
  3. Tim Duncan
  4. Kevin Durant
  5. Kevin Garnett
  6. Dwight Howard
  7. Allen Iverson
  8. Lebron James
  9. Jason Kidd
  10. Steve Nash
  11. Dirk Nowitzki
  12. Chris Paul
  13. Gary Payton
  14. Paul Pierce
  15. Dwyane Wade
  16. Russell Westbrook

To me, Lebron, Kobe, Curry, Duncan, Garnett, and Nowitzki were no-brainers. Pierce’s all-around skills and clutch-time theatrics made him one of the last additions to the list, Paul may be the best all-around point guard the game has seen, Wade won 3 rings–including a Finals MVP, Payton is one of the very greatest perimeter defenders ever. Nash won two MVPs, and even if those were questionable, he revolutionized the game, and made it more fun, buoyant, and watchable. Iverson dragged a subpar team to the Finals, and is arguably the most culturally significant player of the new millennium. Kidd earned a ring with the Mavs and led an equally subpar Nets to two Finals appearances. Westbrook is now an MVP, made a Finals appearance, and repeated Oscar’s feat of averaging a triple-double. Howard might be my most controversial choice among the newbies, but I needed to include at least one post-Shaq center, and he’s far and away the best candidate. Pierce is the one exception to my customary “must make at least one all-NBA team” rule, but I’m okay with that.

So, that would leave my all-time Top 50 as:

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  2. Paul Arizin
  3. Rick Barry
  4. Charles Barkley
  5. Elgin Baylor
  6. Larry Bird
  7. Kobe Bryant
  8. Wilt Chamberlain
  9. Bob Cousy
  10. Stephen Curry
  11. Tim Duncan
  12. Kevin Durant
  13. Julius Erving
  14. Patrick Ewing
  15. Walt Frazier
  16. Kevin Garnett
  17. George Gervin
  18. John Havlicek
  19. Elvin Hayes
  20. Dwight Howard
  21. Allen Iverson
  22. Lebron James
  23. Earvin “Magic” Johnson
  24. Sam Jones
  25. Michael Jordan
  26. Jason Kidd
  27. Karl Malone
  28. Moses Malone
  29. Kevin McHale
  30. George Mikan
  31. Earl Monroe
  32. Steve Nash
  33. Dirk Nowitzki
  34. Hakeem Olajuwon
  35. Shaquille O’Neal
  36. Chris Paul
  37. Gary Payton
  38. Bob Pettit
  39. Paul Pierce
  40. Scottie Pippen
  41. Willis Reed
  42. Oscar Robertson
  43. David Robinson
  44. Bill Russell
  45. Dolph Schayes
  46. John Stockton
  47. Isiah Thomas
  48. Dwyane Wade
  49. Jerry West
  50. Russell Westbrook

What do you think? I’d be the first to admit how difficult it was to cut people from this list. Some of the hardest cuts were: Carmelo Anthony, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Tiny Archibald, Wes Unseld, and especially Clyde Drexler. Indeed, this list was so competitive, I had to cut some MVPs: Unseld, Bob McAdoo, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, and Derrick Rose. I kept Monroe on largely for his cultural impact on the game, bringing an array of street ball moves into the big leagues. And I almost put Yao Ming in for similar cultural reasons- namely, his role in expanding the league’s reach globally. If you would have made any different choices, let me know in the comments!

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A small change

I will post more here soon– sorry to have left the Countdown dormant. Between 5 weeks of grading hell (why did I assign my students so much writing? Why are so many students enrolled in my classes this term?) and writing an article for a Canadian theological journal, time has been crunched.

But I want to post publicly a small change in my #RockHall2018 predictions. I’m swapping out Dire Straits for Eurythmics. The Eurythmics, in my mind, have the winning formula: profound influence on post-2000 pop, and an iconic visual style as the voting committee reflects the MTV age.

So, just to recap: I think the #RockHall2018 class will be: Moody Blues, Radiohead, Bon Jovi, Nina Simone, The Cars, and Eurythmics.

Having said that, I now think any number of surprises could happen. I originally perceived Moody Blues as a mortal lock, but that seems perhaps less likely the more I think about it–a similar prog group, Yes, struggled to get in on their first ballot and in terms of influencing the overall direction of rock and roll, they just aren’t as strong as I once thought. Bon Jovi? Raw critical contempt for them may hurt, whatever the fan vote says. Radiohead seems less of a surefire thing, especially with competition from Rage. So, we will see! Maybe The Zombies, who are creeping up in the fan vote, will secure a spot. Judas Priest could very well succeed, especially if the Nom Com has been adding more metal-friendly voters on the sly. Rage could win under the right circumstances. So could Link.  And that’s saying nothing of any little games that may happen with the other categories. Will Sister Rosetta be an Early Induction as many suspect? Others think Nina Simone is primed for Musical Excellence. The great–and frustrating–thing is that it is so hard to gauge how any of this will develop. For all we know, we may get a face-palming choice like Sting for Musical Excellence or something.

We’ll see! Voting closes in a little over a week. And with a ballot this strong, it would be hard to come away disappointed from whatever class develops, unless we get another monochromatic or exclusively male set of acts again.

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So…we are now about 4 or 5 weeks out from the Rock Hall announcing its nominees. At this stage in the game, we’ve heard predictions from almost all of the Rock Hall monitors with blogs or websites of their own. I encourage you to click on links taking you to the well thought-out, persuasively argued predictions from Troy Smith, Michelle Bourg, E-rockracy, Tom Lane, Donnie Durham, Charles Crossley, and the star around which we orbit, Future Rock Legends. Lots of other people made predictions on the Future Rock Legends board or in my comments section, but I had to draw the line somewhere, or a fun weekend activity would devolve into tedious number-crunching. Please accept my apologies if your picks weren’t included in this analysis.

One name is notably absent from this list, and that is Philip, who hosts Rock Hall Monitors. Earlier in the summer, Philip wrote a conscientious post encouraging the Nominating Committee to put out a ballot consisting entirely of women and/or persons of color as a means of addressing endemic discrimination in our society. It got a lot of pushback from many quarters, but Philip stuck to his guns. Rather than post a “protest prediction,” he abstained from making choices this year. I likewise urge you to read what he has to say.

To recap, my own picks were: Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, LL Cool J, Nina Simone, The Zombies, Janet Jackson, War, J. Geils Band, Soundgarden, Eurythmics, Nine Inch Nails, Link Wray, The Smiths, Warren Zevon, Roxy Music, The Shangri-Las, The Spinners, Moody Blues, and PJ Harvey.

Each list had its own character, as always. Troy favored lots of returning nominees, especially from last year’s set. Charles’s list is almost a half-protest: he has 8 picks nobody else chose, and lots of choices from rock’s earlier years. I tended to focus on who has been a bit more high-profile as of late, and developed a two-years-out-of-three philosophy that is probably absolute nonsense.

But all of these lists share some common assumptions: more and better female nominees, a wide range of genres, and a strong presence from Tom Morello, Questlove, and newcomer David Grohl. With the exception of Troy, we all think the Hall will tone down the strong 70s classic rock flavor of the last two years.

Of course, we don’t know if there are more new members, or if some older members of the nominating committee have been shown the door, or left of their own volition. But that is what makes this so fun! Can we master the mind of the notoriously unpredictable Nominating Committee?

Between the 8 of us who made predictions, we agreed unanimously on four artists: Radiohead (the obvious first-year nominee), LL Cool J (a returning nominee who seems like the logical choice for the next rap act), Janet Jackson (a guaranteed ratings boost and one of the greatest hitmakers not in the hall), and Link Wray (who is projected to benefit from the new Rumble movie and Stevie Van Zandt’s brazen endorsement.)

At a near-unanimous 7? Everyone pegged The Cars except for me.

6 out of the 8 think Rage Against the Machine will be on the ballot on their first eligible year, and The Moody Blues will be on the ballot after a quarter-century of eligibility!

5- a narrow majority- are banking on 80s alternative mainstays The Smiths; the Nine Inch Nails; (both nominated for the Classes of 2015 and 2016 but passed over this year) and in the wake of Chris Cornell’s death, Soundgarden.

Half of us can foresee Eurythmics, Warren Zevon, and Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk shows up about half the time, and David Letterman gave a very public nod to Zevon in last year’s ceremony. But for half of us to pick Eurythmics because it basically “feels right?” That’s…interesting.

Three votes for a lot of acts- many of them returning nominees who may or may not show up: The Spinners, War, The Zombies, Roxy Music, Joe Tex, and Bad Company.

A tiny minority of two predictions each for: Nina Simone, Carole King, J. Geils Band, The Marvelettes, Los Lobos, Joe Cocker, Pat Benatar, and Black Flag.

And, of course, there are some elliptical choices. I was alone in suggesting The Shangri-Las and PJ Harvey. Michelle’s were Judas Priest (a popular choice last year), Carly Simon, The Commodores, and Big Star. Troy was delightfully all over the map with MC5, Boston, Peter Frampton, Donny Hathaway (!), Chaka Khan, and Steppenwolf. E-rockracy went with one-and-done nominees Jane’s Addiction and Procol Harum, alongside Motorhead, Foreigner, X, Todd Rundgren, and Alanis Morissette. X was an especially clever choice that would satisfy punk fans and those clamoring for more women in the hall. I wish I had thought of it. Donnie was alone in suggesting Patsy Cline (the only pure country artist on any list), Mary Wells, Kool & the Gang, and the late, lamented George Michael. Charles Crossley had an armada of unique picks: John Coltrane, The Guess Who, The Clovers, Wu-Tang Clan, Roy Brown, Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi, and Big Mama Thornton. FRL went with an artist who has been generating a lot of chatter on the site’s message boards (Stevie Nicks) as well as Chuck Brown, Billy Preston, and finally Harry Nilsson in the singer-songwriter slot. Tom Lane didn’t have any picks that weren’t shared (and it’s not like he was being derivative; he was one of the first to list his predictions! Go figure.)

Recent nominees that none of us predicted include The Cure, The Replacements, Depeche Mode, Bad Brains, The Meters, The JBs, and Sting. Other noteworthy absences were Willie Nelson, A Tribe Called Quest, The MonkeesSmashing Pumpkins, any blues act whatsoever aside from J. Geils, Mariah Carey with nearly twenty #1 hits, and the recently deceased Glen Campbell.

What do you think, readers? There are some great picks I wish I had thought of: X, Joe Tex, Stevie Nicks…and I have a funny feeling about The Guess Who this year. But every year, the Nominating Committee surprises us and makes us consider an artist that nobody saw coming. At any rate, in a little over a month, we’ll see who was right.

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who would you see?

My friend and fellow Rock Hall guy, Donnie, posted an interesting question on Facebook. If you could go back in time and see any five artists perform in each decade– who would you pick? Here’s my answers.

1950s:
1. Peggy Lee: a great, versatile talent we don’t talk about today. You wouldn’t have wanted to hear “Fever” live in some badly lit nightclub?
2. Tom Lehrer: Arch, sarcastic, and smarter than everyone in the audience.
3. Harry Belafonte: The calypso craze made Belafonte perhaps the first black teen idol to make it into the mainstream market.
4. Little Richard: Undoubtedly the best showman from rock and roll’s pioneer generation (sorry Elvis), Little Richard’s show would have been gospel and flimflam all rolled into one sexually ambiguous ball of energy.
5. Sam Cooke: One of my favorite singers at a time when he was turning gospel into soul.

1960s:
1. Hamburg-era Beatles: Even McCartney and Starr will tell you the band stopped trying on stage once the screams and shrieks made them inaudible. Instead, I want to see five Beatles on uppers in the Top Ten Club, slowly honing their craft and becoming the greatest rock and roll band ever. I might also try to make out with Astrid if Stu isn’t watching.
2. Aretha Franklin: She’s the Queen of Soul. You think I’m wasting one of my picks on The Dead?
3. James Brown: Brown. At the Apollo. Not to be missed.
4. Nina Simone: I’d give anything to watch her act vacillate between easy lounge music and prophetic condemnation of Jim Crow.
5. Sly & the Family Stone: When they had their shit together, they were the greatest band of their time.

1970s:
1. Elton John (Captain Fantastic era): I saw him a few times since the mid-90s, but I would have rather seen him wearing feather boas, playing loads of deep tracks, and with the full range of his soaring tenor voice intact.
2. Linda Ronstadt: As her Parkinson’s worsens, I realize this is another act I’ll never see live IRL. Instead, take me back to the 70s, with her powerful cover versions and the best pipes in the Top 40. (Also, 1974-era Ronstadt is my celebrity crush.)
3. Allman Brothers: Rock and roll’s greatest (and most disciplined) jam band.
4. The Who: They say that put on the best concert ever in the city of Buffalo at Rich Stadium. The rain starting coming down the minute they began “Love Rein O’er Me.”
5. Parliament-Funkadelic: Let’s see who won that epic battle between parliament’s “get down” and “get up” factions.

1980s:
1. Queen: Was there any greater frontman than Freddie Mercury at the height of his powers?
2. Michael Jackson: Or any all-around performer better than Jackson at the height of his?
3. Bruce Springsteen: I was going to put Guns N Roses in this spot, but screw them. I’ll take a three-and-a-half-hour spiritual experience at the Meadlowlands.
4. Kool & the Gang: Multiple people tell me that this was the best concert they ever went to. I have to see for myself.
5. Dire Straits: Mark Knopfler is currently sitting at the top of my “I need to see this guy before I/he dies” list.

1990s:
1. Nirvana
2. TLC
3. Jimmy Buffett: when Parrothead-mania was still in effect, but he wasn’t overcharging for concert tickets yet
4. A Tribe Called Quest: I’d love to have seen the rap group I most respect.
5. Great Big Sea

2000s:
1. Amy Winehouse: One of the greatest voices of her generation, gone too soon.
2. Enter the Haggis
3. Lady Gaga
4. Alicia Keys
5. Macy Gray

2010s:
1. Sara Bareilles: 
2. Mumford and Sons: There are places where emergent Christians have written masses centered around “Sign No More.”
3. Florence & the Machine
4. Zac Brown Band
5. Aloe Blacc: His take on Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” blew me away. Should me way more famous than he is.

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The story of our lives is written in the music we hold dear. It’s true. Most artists have something akin to Picasso’s “blue period” or Sinatra’s “Capitol years” signaling a particular epoch in their development. Likewise, most listeners have a “college phase” or a “breakup era” or a “dad rock turn” where their habits take some kind of twist that speaks to the changes in one’s lives. As I take stock of the changes in my life over the last five years: getting married, publishing a book, a spiritual turn toward progressive Christianity, I realize that a signal change has happened to me as a listener of rock and roll. After more than fifteen years of deep fandom in which I listened to every droning saxophone solo and chivalrously defended them against their manifold critics, I have fallen out of love with Chicago.

Ah, Chicago. Ever since I could drive, they were among my very favorites. Being a Beatles fan is no special virtue. Everyone– well, all except the sour contrarian- likes The Beatles. It’s square one for any familiarity with contemporary popular music. Similarly, my abiding love for Elton John was hardly eccentric either. Perhaps I faced some pushback during my teenage years when “haha, Elton’s gay!” passed for witty repartee. But being conversant in Elton John’s music was more of a blessing, even if it took a while for it to feel that way. Most of my meager success in life has hinged on getting 55-year-old middle-managers in human resources named Debbie to feel sorry for me, maternally supportive towards me, or see some glimmer of potential in me. There is no quicker way to get into Debbie’s good graces than a robust conversation about Elton John. None.

But Chicago? Being a millennial Chicago fan took balls. Defending their greatness when pushed by record collectors, hipsters, punks, and Big Star fans named Gabe was a challenge that I relished. It all began when I was in a freshman in high school. After seeing them by accident in 1997 (they were touring with The Beach Boys and we had no other choice), I bought, in possibly the whitest move I have ever made, a copy of The Heart of Chicago, 1967-1997. On cassette. At Wal-Mart.

But I fell in love with that greatest hits album. There were the songs I knew Chicago did (“Saturday in the Park”, “Make Me Smile”), songs I knew but I didn’t know Chicago did them (“If You Leave Me Now,” “Beginnings”) and songs I enjoyed, which I hadn’t ever heard before (“Will You Still Love Me?”, “Wishing You Were Here”). I became hooked. The knack for a great melody, the punchy horn lines, the willingness to get political and speak to their times. I loved all that. I sang “Look Away” at karaoke. I learned how to play “Just You’N’Me” on piano. I quit my school’s concert band because our conductor wouldn’t let us play Chicago. (I also quit because I thought marching in uniform was fascist.)

I had to have it all. Slowly, I bought their entire catalog in some form or other. CDs for Christmas and birthdays, cassettes I found in the stacks at Big Lots, and records at garage sales. Every album titled after every roman numeral in existence. I even paid a shady dude $20 for their “lost album” Stone of Sisyphus. And there were concerts. Between 2001 and 2010, I had seen them six times. Including taking my then-girlfriend (who wasn’t a fan) to a show on the night of her college graduation. She immediately thereafter took a summer course in Senegal and broke up with me upon her return. Smart girl.

But none of that mattered. When Chicago was one of only five or six acts I listened to closely, every record seemed….kinda good. Even Chicago 19, drenched in synthesizers, curdled with overproduction, and blighted by Diane Warren ballads. Even Chicago XIII, a manifesto on how democracy can, at its worst, exalt mediocrity. All 8 members wrote songs for the record, unhindered by the fact that only 3 were competent composers. Even saxophonist Walt Parazaider got in on the act with a song called “Window Dreaming” containing lines like “gigs are fun/ when they’re done/ feel so down/ act like a clown.”

But most galling of all was their exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On Chicago message boards (yes, I was a moderator…thanks for asking!) we railed against their long exclusion from the exalted halls of Cleveland. We gnashed our teeth as, year after year, the likes of Brenda Lee or Jimmy Cliff or The Ventures got in before our heroes. We had decided, collectively, that those dummies on the committee just didn’t know good music. It was all rigged against Chicago, a petty feud perpetuated by a jealous Jann Wenner.

In hindsight, I can diagnose the problem clearly: I simply lacked a broad palette of musical experiences by which to judge Chicago. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. If you only listen to 70s Top 40 out of context at the turn of the millennium, of course Chicago will sound good. I liked Chicago because my tastes and experience hadn’t developed to the point where I could evaluate them on their merits. I was the suburban couch potato who thought the Whopper was the best hamburger ever made. I was the undiscerning dittohead who thought Reagan was a great president.

My development as a music listener might have been better off if I had some kind of mentor who could have broadened my musical horizons. An uncle who was into punk and could have me listen without prejudging it. An older brother to hook me onto The Smiths. Maybe if I lived in a more diverse town, I might have gotten an earlier insight into hip-hop, or soul, or latin music. As it is, I had to educate myself, late in my twenties when I was finished with grad school and had the time and headspace to commit to the project. I listened to James Brown performing at The Apollo. To The Talking Heads making use of new tools and a palette of different genres. To Otis Redding singing his heart out. To Joni Mitchell crafting another heartbreaking masterpiece that echoed across Laurel Canyon. And with each new experience, Chicago’s oeuvre seemed a little less special, a bit more like hackwork. And I came to see them as a group that profited- perhaps more than any other artist of the 70s- from our culture’s tendency to exalt white mediocrity while pushing black excellence into the shadows. The same world that bought more Osmond records than Jackson Five records. A world where Mariah Carey can rack up 27 Top Ten hits- almost all of which she wrote- and not be taken seriously as a Rock Hall candidate. Where Green Day got rich whining about suburbia while Nina Simone earned peanuts preaching against injustice. That world.

So, here’s my take on Chicago through the lens of a reluctant maturity: Chicago was a very fine band that put out a few overwrought but ultimately quite good albums during their first few years. Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago V are essential for any quality rock and roll collection. Terry Kath was a somewhat sloppy and unfocused but undoubtedly talented lead guitarist. Danny Seraphine should be on any reputable list of the greatest rock drummers. Peter Cetera was a serviceable singer whose bass lines, at their best, approached the melodicism of McCartney’s. James Pankow was a very capable arranger. While chestnuts are ripe for discovery on some of their other records, the band’s overall output quickly diminished. At first, their refusal to edit bloated double albums into listenable single ones hurt them. Then coke-fueled sessions led them to believe directionless atonal noodling was cutting-edge jazz. Their success deluded them into thinking that anything they could possibly record could be a hit. For a while that was true, but in time, the hits stopped. In a Faustian bargain, they managed a second act in the 80s. But it came at the cost of sidelining their horn section and putting out anonymous power ballads and touring on the oldies circuit. And so, a band with some potential never developed the drive, the soul, the world-sight that every great artist has.

And their fans- at least this one- moved on. Do I hate Chicago? No, of course not. But they have fallen into their most fitting destiny- a solid, perpetually joyful, unchallenging guilty pleasure. In the scheme of things, that’s not a bad legacy either.

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Last time, I listed 20 ideal recipients of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Musical Excellence Award. I am now going to pivot to Non-Performers. In doing so, I realize that there is a fine, sometimes arbitrary line between these categories. I suppose many of these individuals are performers in some aspect or another. But their work behind the scenes took priority. In no particular order, my 15 picks for Non-Performers for the Rock Hall’s consideration.

  1. Robert Moog: Um…he invented the electronic synthesizer. Even if EDM isn’t your bag, imagine Depeche Mode, or Van Halen’s “Jump”, or 70s art rock or Abbey Road without this remarkable instrument. He’s in the Inventors Hall of Fame– so why not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
  2. Rick Rubin: What a great career, what an eclectic mastery of production. He started Def Jam, an institutional pillar of hip-hop. He produced great albums for artists all over the map, ranging from Jay Z to The Black Keys to Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Tom Petty to…ah, you can look it up for yourself. Put this man in the hall.
  3. Sylvia Robinson: I’m shocked that her life hasn’t been made into a musical at this point. She started out as half of the Mickey & Sylvia duo that had a hit with “Love Is Strange” back in the 1950s. Flash forward 15 years, and a largely forgotten starlet has lightning strike a second time. She records some music with Al Green and scores an R&B #1 with “Pillow Talk,” one of the first true disco records. Using money from her recent success, she starts Sugarhill Records, and ends up producing the first rap song to break into the public consciousness, “Rapper’s Delight”– strapping on a bass herself to emulate the famous Chic bass line. Goes on to produce “The Message” for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Holy Crap.
  4. Alan Lomax: It’s the 1930s and America is in the midst of the Depression. One of the cleverer moves of the New Deal was to give artists and intelligentsia something to do in hopes the they wouldn’t foment a bloody revolution out of ennui and material deprivation. Accordingly, Alan Lomax and his father John, two ethnomusicologists, were dispatched down South to study the music of rural- and particularly black- America. His oral history projects allowed Jelly Roll Morton and other artists to record their thoughts in addition to their recordings. His radio shows broadcast folk music and so-called “race music’ to the rest of the country, the conduit by which many Americans became aware of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly.
  5. Burt Bacharach & Hal David: One reason this famous songwriting team hasn’t gotten in is because their compositions evoke cocktail hour, plastic on the furniture, and beehive hairdos on housewives. View them, if you like, as the progenitors of adult contemporary, music informed by rock and roll designed for older listeners. Hey, that’s how Journey got in. And Bacharach-David compositions hold up just as well: “Baby, It’s You,” “Walk On By,” “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” “Wishing and Hoping,” “I Say A Little Prayer for You.” Milquetoast songs, perhaps, but that’s partly because of who recorded them. Listen to Aretha’s “Little Prayer” and you’ll hear the power that’s dormant in these compositions.
  6. Joe Meek: When I was an 18-year-old studying in London, little did I know that every time I walked by Holloway Road on my way to the Highbury & Islington tube stop, I was passing by rock and roll’s holy ground. Using electronic wizardry with a  homemade control panel, Joe Meek is credited with the development of reverb, extensive multi-tracking, physically separating instruments during the recording process, and sampling in his nondescript studio on Holloway Road. Paranoid, drug-adled, and a gay man during a time when same-sex acts were still illegal in the UK, Meek did not live an easy or serene life. He ultimately killed his landlady before turning the trigger on himself. Strangely, Nick Moran’s film Telstar barely moved the dial on raising awareness of this singular visionary.
  7. Bob Geldof: One of the elements of rock and roll’s story that I most appreciate is its charitable and beneficent impulses. Live Aid and Band Aid were overblown, overhyped, and rightly mocked by Faith No More’s “We Care A Lot.” Most of the money didn’t get to the people it was intended for in Africa. Worse, much of the largesse ended up in the hands of the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu, who used much of  Live Aid’s beneficence to build the largest army in Africa. For better or worse, Geldof epitomizes the rock star as a saint, a patron, a champion of a good cause. As one Atlantic article notes, Geldof’s Live Aid efforts “raised questions about the efficacy of celebrities advocating for foreign aid, but it also undoubtedly changed the nature of fundraising by introducing the factor of high visibility thanks to celebrity philanthropists.” Did it matter? Consider the take of Chris Martin of Coldplay: ““It made my generation feel like caring for the world was part of the remit. Rock and roll doesn’t have to be detached from society.”
  8. Don Cornelius: Questlove has allegedly already got his sights on inducting this Soul Train maestro. For over two decades, Cornelius brought the best of R&B into American televisions. In so doing, he broadened Philadelphia soul, 80s R&B, and (reluctantly) hip-hop beyond black and urban environments. Over the years, EW&F, The Spinners, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, The O’Jays, Lenny Kravitz, Run-DMC…you name it, they were aboard the Soul Train at some point in their careers.
  9. Wolfman Jack: American Graffiti probably immortalized him as the very voice of rock and roll for a certain generation. His canus lupus schtick was always a reminder of rock and roll’s primal power and barely concealed camp. Deejays are an overlooked part of the rock and roll story, and honoring the Wolfman would be a powerful corrective.
  10. Butch Vig: If we’re going to run the board on producers, let’s get Vig in the hall, huh? If we’re going to induct the best 90s grunge bands, it’s sensible to include the dean of 90s grunge producers. That was Butch Vig behind the panel on Nevermind, Siamese Dream, and other classics of that era. When you consider grunge’s obsession with personal authenticity, producing for its darlings must have been one of the greatest challenges in the industry during the early 90s.
  11. Florence Greenberg: Imagine how challenging it must have been to start your own record label as a woman in the early 60s.  (It wasn’t easy.) But let’s say you go for it, and then your daughter finds a group of classmates to record for you who ultimately call themselves The Shirelles. You sell their record contract to Decca but stay on as their manager. (Do you know any other female managers for musicians during that era? I don’t.) But- surprise!- Decca has no idea how to market four black teenage girls. So, Decca lets the girls go, you start another record label, promote the hell out of them with the meager resources at your disposal, and get kickass songwriters like Luther Dixon and Carole King to write material for them. Group goes on to record “Baby, It’s You,” “Boys,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and one of the single best recordings of the early 60s, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
  12. Joel Whitburn: Sometimes, a great hobby can turn into an incredible career. Whitburn collected the Billboard charts faithfully as a teen in the 1950s, charting the rise and fall of records with passion of a fanboy and the thoroughness of a Supreme Court clerk. In the decades since, Whitburn became perhaps the single biggest authority on music charts. I’ll bet that every time a radio station has noted a record’s peak position on the charts, or how long it’s been on the Hot 100, they are citing some research that had its origins with Whitburn.
  13. Bernie Taupin: Look, when I wrote my 100 Greatest Elton John songs series five years ago on this blog, I took a number of justifiable shots at Bernie. He invented the word “Turtlesque,” “Indian Sunset” is riddled with anachronisms, and the level of misogyny was shocking even for the mid-70s (“Dirty Little Girl,” “Island Girl,” “All the Girls Love Alice,” etc.) Nevertheless, you can’t induct Elton John without Bernie Taupin. At his best, Taupin was startlingly fresh, earnest, and daring. When you consider that lyrics about Elton’s temper (“The Bitch Is Back”), a gender-bending glam rock band (“Bennie and the Jets”), and a vengeance-driven Confederate (“My Father’s Gun”) all worked, it becomes clear that Taupin is a pop wordsmith of the highest quality.
  14. Norman Whitfield: Marvelettes fans notwithstanding, the Rock Hall has done right by Motown many times over. But if they still want to mine Hitsville, USA for more rock ‘n roll goodness, Norman Whitfield deserves some plaudits. He piloted The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Marvin Gaye through the late 60s and early 70s, more or less inventing psychedelic, socially-conscious soul music in the process. So, in other words, he’s the guy who was responsible for the finished product of…let’s see…both Motown versions of “Grapevine,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (one of the best produced songs of all-time, imo), “Just My Imagination,” “War,” and (sigh…) “Car Wash.”
  15. Greil Marcus: Nobody likes a critic. More often than not, their reviews bring out the worst in musicians, the worst in readers, the worst in themselves. But Greil Marcus has consistently been one of the sharpest, most insightful, and least punchable of the rock and roll literati. His Mystery Train, written over 40 years ago, might well have been the first indispensable book on rock and roll. An excerpt from an interview he did not too long ago: “We’re driving back down the Peninsula to Menlo Park on Skyline, which is this two-lane mountain highway. It’s completely lonely; there aren’t any lights — it’s two or three in the morning. And this voice comes on the radio and seems to be coming from far away. “When I’m thirsty, some sparkling wine will do real fine, indeed. But right now, baby, it’s some of your loving I need.” It was so spooky. I had no idea what this was. I wrote about it in my first book, Rock and Roll Will Stand, in 1969 — I talked about it as something I heard once, would never hear again, would never know what it was. That’s part of what rock & roll is, part of what the radio is — hearing something once that will haunt you the rest of your life.”  That’s Greil Marcus. He doesn’t need to waste time convincing you he is smart because he actually is smart.

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For the last few years, coverage of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been the Northumbrian Countdown’s bread and butter. Sure, I will comment on the state of Walt Disney World, or modern politics, or even religion from time to time, but the fact remains: a vast majority of the traffic that gets to this site arrives because of something I’ve written about rock and roll. So it might be surprising to know that I never visited the hallowed halls of Cleveland. And this is in spite of being a three hour drive from the museum during my grad school days in Buffalo, and a four hour drive from my current digs in Rochester.

Why did it take so long? For years, my absence was for petty reasons: I refused to visit until Chicago was inducted. Their induction in April, 2016 took care of that obstacle, however the best weekends for visiting were hampered by the Cavaliers’ victory parade, the RNC, and my perpetual difficulties traveling. But on July 1, I finally made it! And so did lots of other people. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was crowded…it was easily the most crowded I have ever seen any museum. At first I thought that it was because of the new Power of Rock exhibit, but the true factor quickly became clear: the Cleveland Browns’ stadium was a quarter mile away, and was hosting a U2 concert later that evening. As you can imagine, that would lead to some congestion in the Rock Hall earlier that day!

As far as my impressions go, the museum has a lot going for it. More than anything else, the museum makes you feel like rock and roll is a holy thing. The great glass pyramid keeps your eyes gazing toward the top, giving the visitor a sense of grandeur that reminds me of my visits to London’s Gothic cathedrals in terms of imparting majesty. The museum feels like an interactive journey through the sacred. It was affecting to see the handwritten lyrics for “London Calling,” or the piano that Jerry Lee Lewis abused to get the riveting pulse he needed for “Great Balls of Fire.” As a hopeless Beatles fan since I was 10, the Fab Four artifacts took my breath away- to see Ringo’s drums from the Shea Stadium era, or an actual outfit worn by one of The Beatles in a photo I’ve seen dozens of times felt to me as though a myth was becoming real and tangible.

Yet the museum was insistent on making sure we understood its narrative. There was really no way to proceed except by going through early influences, winding through thoughtful exhibition space on gospel, country, and blues influences on the genre. Unlike, say, the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, this isn’t a “choose your own adventure” kind of museum. There’s only so many ways you can get through it. After this introductory material- Elvis! Followed by rock’s early years, and eventually, the showcases take a geographic focus, with Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, and London all taking center stage. The Rock Hall even dedicates a great deal of space to justifying its Cleveland roots, with Alan Freed taking a key part in the narrative, and posters for the Moondog Coronation Ball. From there, space is dedicated to various keynote artists: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Bowie, Prince, and the like.  But one needs to get through the final stages- contemporary descendants of rock and roll- to complete the journey. The Rock Hall’s very design forces the visitor to confront hip-hop, Adele, Janelle Monae, and other modern standard-bearers. The message is clear: rock and roll headed off in many directions, and guitar-based acts are not the only, or even the most important, part of that legacy. In fact, the lack of 70s classic rock bands stood out baldly: Aerosmith, Chicago, Boston, Cheap Trick, — all of those were downplayed.

One area that surprised me with its spartan qualities were the plaques denoting who had been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during each year. That was it…just a name, with no explanation of who Percy Sledge was, or why Brenda Lee was significant. However, a sign nearby solicited ideas for #RockHallHonors to figure out a more suitable way to acknowledge those who climbed the mountain and got inducted.

But as I left, I noticed a few things that stood out by their absence. For one, the museum was wholly focused on artists and musicians. The effect rock and roll had on crowds, listeners, dancers, was never fully explored. That, to me, leaves the visitor wondering his or her own role in this story, and makes music something that is passively received- a notion that I am sure most rock and roll experts- including those on the museum board- would contest. One encouraging movement to rectify this came across in a series of interactive booths were your choice of rock icon (Mary Wilson, or Smokey Robinson or Michelle Phillips or Alice Cooper) elicited your favorite concert memories or who you think should be in the Hall of Fame. (I gave a pretty cogent case for Nina Simone, if I do say so myself.)

Moreover, why does rock and roll matter? Perhaps the museum treats this question as self-evident, nevertheless the question remains — why do we listen to rock? Why do we care about it? The museum didn’t offer any coherent answers, and perhaps there are none to be had. But if I ran this particular zoo, I’d have maybe spent more time on Dylan’s impact on, say, ’68 in America; the Plastic People of the Universe inspiring Prague Spring; Live Aid’s noble failure to combat poverty– or its relations to modern politics, racial identity, fashion, or attitudes toward sex. Aside from a strong section on censorship of rock and roll that touched on why the genre was seen as dangerous, the exhibitions chose not to engage with these issues.

In the end, though, these are just some rough sketches from a historian who reads too much and thinks too much. All told, I had a great time- especially once the crowds died down. Nevertheless, I encourage those in charge of this project to more overtly engage the question of “why rock and roll matters” beyond celebrating this pantheon of great figures and allowing these Midwestern pilgrims to glimpse at relics and curios. Even so, I didn’t get to see everything this time around- and I will gladly be back. Despite my critiques, this is a museum that Cleveland can be proud of. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Nina Simone get in. And The Zombies. And Kraftwerk. And Janet Jackson. And…

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