March 19, 2010

King of Rock?

Reading Peter King's weekly pro football column on the Sports Illustrated website is a guilty pleasure.  For one thing, for a guy who writes the most popular football column around King doesn't show a whole lot of football acumen.  Whether he is picking games, analyzing the draft, or choosing his all-pro team, King leaves many of his readers scratching their heads.  Even worse, he is not a very good writer, prone to cliches, self -righteousness, and an artificial folksiness that you just have to ignore.  A typical King entry: "The folks at Webster's might want to consider using a photo of Kurt Warner next to the definition of "courage."  Heckuva a football player, and an even better human being."  Yuck.

Still, King always provides an incredible amount of information, rumors and quotes from all 32 teams.  He has the best Rolodex in the business and football people give him the dirt.  There would be no way to have a feel for what goes on around the league without reading King's column.  The guys at ESPN know more about football but they can't touch King for the sheer breadth of his weekly reportage.

So Peter King remains an enduring guilty pleasure.  Even in the offseason I try to catch his column.  There are times, however, when King apparently has run out of things to write about football and lapses into other areas of expertise, and this past Monday's column was enough to curdle the milk in one of King's cherished Starbuck's hazelnut lattes:

Cool story in the Boston Herald Sunday about the great omissions to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not in: KISS, Chicago, Neil Diamond, Yes, Tom Waits, Def Leppard, Dire Straits, The Commodores. I wasn't sure of the great injustices there (except for Neil Diamond, with his incredible 37 top-40 hits), but then I looked at the roster of inductees and found: The Stooges, Spooner Oldham, Bobby Womack, The Ventures, The Dells (eight top-40 hits), Gene Pitney, and let's not forget Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Sometime, when you think me and my fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame Committee members are off our rockers, please refer to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that excludes KISS and includes The Dells.
I actually like KISS, or at least like them enough to have the KISS My Ass tribute covers album. KISS was a mega-sensation from 1975-77. They had some huge songs and were one of rock's most successful bands at a time when people were wondering if rock was dead. Their makeup and theatrics are enduringly famous and have made the pantheon of Halloween costumes. They probably deserve a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, eventually, though it would be more for their fame and fortune than for their musical chops. But still, a noteworthy band that made its mark.

But does Peter King even know who The Dells are?  They have been together for over 50 years.  They sang "Oh, What a Night."  They backed up Ray Charles and Dionne Warwick.  They consulted on the movie The Five Heartbeats.  They had hit albums spanning from 1955 to 1981.  In R&B circles their harmonies and vocals are revered.  King cites their eight top-40 hits as if it were a demerit.  Do we even need to review the musical greats who had only one top-40 hit, much less eight?  Maybe Peter thinks that Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Randy Newman and the Grateful Dead should all get out of the way for KISS as well?  That's just the "one hit wonders" much less other great acts with less Top 40 hits than The Dells.  Okay you get the point: number of Top 40 hits is no way to judge a band's greatness.  Just because the preteen Peter King didn't have a Dells poster next to his Farrah Fawcett poster over his bed doesn't mean KISS has gotten the snub from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But King also throws around a couple of other names: The Stooges.  Bobby Womack.  People that King thinks need to take a back seat to the legend of Def Leppard.  Let's take Womack first.

Q: What do Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Janis Joplin, J. Geils Band, Sly and the Family Stone and Quentin Tarantino have in common?  A: They all worked with Bobby Womack, used his songs, had him play in their backup bands.  Now, nobody is even suggesting that this roster of collaborators can hold a candle to the band with a) the greatest one-armed drummer in the world and b) the greatest strip club song of all time, but I will point out that The Dells and Bobby Womack are both R&B legends.  I'm guessing Peter King doesn't have a lot of Frankie Beverly and Maze CD's in his collection.

As for The Stooges, all I can say is if you want to know how we ever got to grunge and alt-punk, not to mention how we got to KISS for god sakes, start with The Stooges.  Their influence on American rock is massive.  They didn't make a ton of music but what they made carries a raw energy that sounded like nothing else coming out of the music scene 1969-73, something primitive and dangerous, an energy I'm not sure has ever really been surpassed.  KISS wrote some nice power pop tunes, but nobody ever cites KISS as a musical influence.  The Stooges were influential and don't deserve King's dismissal.

I'm not going to get into as much detail with Spooner Oldham but here are some of the people this great organist has played for and written songs for: Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge on "When a Man Loves a Woman," Janis Joplin, Wilson Pickett, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Everly Brothers.  A legendary musician and songwriter, but unfortunately an R&B legend and, therefore, does not pass muster in the eyes of musicologist Peter King.

In sports, an athlete earns hall of fame consideration based on the numbers: home runs, touchdowns, goals.  While there is always room for debate every time an Andre Dawson or Bruce Sutter is voted into the Hall of Fame, the debate rages over relatively narrow discrepancies in opinion.  Sports fans look at the player's career statistics.  Some athletes are clearly qualified, most are not, and a few have resumes that straddle the fence.  But everyone agrees, more or less, on the criteria.  They are readily and easily identified.

Music operates on a different frequency.  The achievements, the influences, not easily quantified.  In football we might argue that one running back was truly great while another back with similar statistics benefited from a great offensive line, but the two players are both trying to gain yards, score touchdowns.  Musicians make music for all kinds of reasons, for all kinds of audiences.  Yes, there are numbers available - album sales, Top 40 hits, Grammy Awards.  That tells us who won the popularity contest, perhaps, or who got marketed the best.  But music doesn't happen on a court or between the hash marks.  There is no shot clock, no three strikes and you're out.  Every song is painted on a blank canvas.  While there may be rules to making music, those rules are meant to be broken.  Trying to distill the creative process and its impact on each and every listener down to sales figures is like ranking orchids.  That's why a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can never be taken as seriously as its sports-related counterparts, and why citing the number of Top-40 hits a band has is irrelevant at best.

I get the feeling Peter King judges bands on how often he saw their cassette tapes offered for sale in the Columbia House music catalogs. "11 albums for $1.  What a great country we live in."

1 comment:

Muggsy Mutombo said...

Great to learn that James Brown & Ray Charles have yet another thing in common.
Thanx for the rock & roll history. Very much appreciated!