Tuesday, March 20, 2007

An Impressionistic Overview of the Live Feed of the 2007 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Ceremonies, Part One

After sitting through the four-hour telecast without benefit of intoxicants of any kind, I'm hard-pressed to reproduce the mood in the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria where the event was held from the standpoint of the participants. And so, your sobsister can only make observations of the sort a squirrel might make while perched on the branch outside your bedroom window watching you make the angels cry.

We begin in the historical present with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner memorializing Atlantic record chief and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (hereafter "R&RHoF") founder Ahmet Ertegun. Wenner is closer to growing into the somewhat-less-dissipated-Kris-Kristofferson look for which he's been striving for years. He starts by giving a shout-out to a "Suzan Evans" who apparently retired recently. From which position or organization, we, the non-insider schlemiels, are not told. (Research reveals she had held the position of executive director of the R&RHoF since its inception and was the person who, in response to the Sex Pistols' 2006 letter declining to attend their induction ceremony by indicating that "Next to the SEX PISTOLS rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain", perkily stated, "They're being the outrageous punksters that they are..." Clearly, anyone who can publicly use the word "punksters" in a sentence and not be beaten senseless with bondage pants must be a person of some gravitas in the industry. Ms. Evans, in shiny red and classic forehead-shrouding bangs, offers a fixed tightlipped smile in response to Wenner's acknowledgement that serves to spotlight just how far her lipstick had overshot the natural outlines of her lips. Color inside the lines, Ms. Evans, color inside the lines.)

This completed, Wenner launches into his elegiac speech in memoriam Ertegunis. At the first mention of Ertegun's name, a mild swelling of applause from, by the long camera shot to which we're treated, about a tenth of the audience. Whether this comes from apathy, ignorance, or frontloaded intoxication is hard to know. Cut to the Unsmiling Widow Ertegun. (Mica Ertegun is a world-class designer and from the camera's perspective a woman with a short nose, a very long upper lip, and very dark lipstick on narrow lips which combine to lend her face a striking, hewn quality. Here is a series of photos from an event staged at the Met by Ahmet and Mica Ertegun to celebrate Turkish culture and not the unfortunate tendency of Turks to behead Armenians and persecute the outspoken among their own, an event peopled by the rich and, at the same time, famous, those who can and, in many cases, do have their faces ironed on the thighs of Ukrainian virgins before emerging at dusk to feed. Possibly at the necks of unsuspecting pedestrians. Luminaries of all stripes and facial tautnesses abound. So, you, for example, might stand between Tom Stoppard and Joan Didion and make amusing chit-chat, while I would be over here shoveling canapes into my Whole Foods shopping bag.) Back to Jann who states, "Ahmet was the greatest record man who ever lived. He signed the greatest rhythm-and-blues, jazz, pop, and rock artists of all time." Up in Hyperbole Heaven, John Hammond Sr. armwrestles Ertegun to a draw.

Wenner's speech is punctuated by his lipsmacks. Cottonmouth recognizes neither status nor venue.

The speech itself is, by turns, self-serving (you mean you don't care how close Jann Wenner was to Ertegun and his family?), condescending ("The glee, as he (Ertegun) would tell some story based on some prank for the twentieth time, was irresistible."), obsequious, and flat, even when detailing Ertegun's numerous contributions to American culture. The uninspiring prose (doesn't Wenner run, like, you know, a publishing empire? couldn't he have prodded one of his better scribes to pen something that didn't sound like a laundry-list of noble vaguenesses and admirable generalities? one would think that being practickly-Ertegun's-son might've yielded a funny/touching/interesting anecdote or two to flesh out the outline Wenner chalks out in the still air before him) is made even deadlier by Wenner's apparent unfamiliarity with it. He chokes up near the end. Which forces out. The words in. Short, almost disconnected. Phrases. And we segue into the white-serifed-text-on-black-background "In Memoriam" section

I'm not sure who devised this tribute format. Doubtless a cruel man, for it is embarrassingly-close kin to Arthur Godfrey's Applause-Meter. A name and photo are flashed onscreen. The audience responds with greater or lesser applause, cheers, whistles, or, mostly, silence. Which makes for a very clear sense of each person's position in the Pyramid of Posthumous Popularity and Prestige. Example: "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow - no applause. Buck Owens - applause. Syd Barrett - rousing applause and cheers. We close, many unapplauded deceased music industry figures later, with a photo of Ahmet Ertegun. Which gets more of a response this time--now that the audience has been shamed into recognition--but still not "Syd Barrett" applause. Cut to the Unsmiling Widow Ertegun (hard to know whether her stone-facedness--and she bears a not-unflattering resemblance to Buster Keaton--is due to her bereavement or her displeasure at Wenner's boilerplate elegy). Cut to Clive Davis seen calculating how much applause he'll get during his three seconds of "In Memoriam" time. In the background, we see Susan Sarandon, left index finger in ear, on her celly. A little respect, SS. You can wait a few hours to hear if Liberal Splendor won the fifth at Santa Anita.

Then a short bio film about Ertegun narrated by bandleader Paul Shaffer, a man not destined to become famous for his voiceover work. The video itself is informative by what it doesn't say, misleading in what it does. (This is a more revealing interview with Ertegun in Slate.) Several explicit references to his capacity for alcohol. References to which one might wish in eulogizing a Turkish Muslim to soft-pedal. And to his magnetic charisma with women. Pete Townshend even talks about how Ertegun "without any hint of, you know, a sexual thing" could make even a man feel like he was the most important person in the world. (I wonder if ol' Pete has to qualify a lot of statements with that disclaimer since his Troubles.) So...was Ertegun an alcoholic skirt-chaser? Is this what I'm supposed to infer from what I'm being told? Did someone decide that simply extolling the virtues of his professional achievements was insufficient? Were Ertegun's fabled art collection and boldface circle of friends insufficiently sexy? I suppose playing to the R&RHoF one needs to push the whoo!-whoo!-partay-animal button.

Then the first few bars of "For What It's Worth" play-on Stephen Stills who rather peevishly begins by stating that the short film was "a lot to follow, they pretty much used up my speech". Gee, Steve, good thing you weren't quite so easily overawed at Woodstock. That would've sucked, huh? Stills' moist-eyed appearance notwithstanding, he delivers an affecting reminiscence of Ertegun's visit to a Buffalo Springfield recording session. The anecdote, of the sort that Wenner might've been well-advised to include in his own puff pastry, ends on a good, strong line. Unfortunately, Stills decides to continue speaking and descends into a morass of verbiage regarding Ertegun as a "true original", Ertegun as the savior of Black culture in America, Ertegun as an "original", Ertegun among the "frozen chosen at St. Johnny's" (a too-hip-for-the-room reference to Ertegun's college years at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland), and, in summation, Ertegun as a "true original" whose like we shall "never see again in our lifetimes". Applause from the audience, including the Widow Ertegun who remains unamused by these encomia.

Stills then introduces Aretha Franklin. She is helped onto the stage and launches into the first of two numbers in honor of Ertegun, "Don't Play That Song". She is not in good voice this evening. She sounds winded and her upper range is inaccessible. Later, she will allude to some health issue. The band--as usual, an expanded version of Shaffer's "Late Show with David Letterman" house combo--is tight behind her. Their support is needed. That said, this is one tough fucking room. A long shot of the stage shows a bunch of tables laden with leaden middle-aged white men and their consorts, not one of whom appears to be willing to conform to God's original plan for her hair color. Is there a single brunette in the audience? How about a Negro? Short answers: no and unlikely. I can't imagine Ms. Franklin is not disappointed by her failing voice this evening, for, in addition to paying formal tribute to Ertegun, at one point during this first song, she offers an extemporized shout-out to "Ahmet, Jerry (Wexler), Arif (Mardin), Tommy (Dowd)", the men at Atlantic who were so instrumental in shaping and promoting the best albums of her career, two of whom (Ertegun and Mardin) died in 2006. Her usually-sinuous voice is hoarse and coarse. It will not improve during her next number, "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)", although she gamely explores the depths of her range to compensate for losing the diva end. At song's end, she interrupts her adventures in melisma to note that she's "a little husky tonight" and to lead the audience in a toast to Ahmet Ertegun and to his wife, Mica. All very nice. Then she asks the Widow Ertegun or, as she refers to her, "Mica Ahmet Ertegun" to "stand and take a bow so people can see you". Except *whoopsie* Mica Ertegun is already standing. Not a tall woman, apparently. No.

And with that faux pas made, she is escorted from the stage. And the house lights dim for the next segment.


David B. Weber said...

Here's the key: you made me care, and be amused by, something I wouldn't give two shits about otherwise..even to the point where I went and read all the supporting material about Ahmet..

the sobsister said...

Thanks for writing and thanks for taking the time to wade through a long piece. Much appreciated. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

What crisp and witty writing! I stumbled across this article and was thoroughly entertained. You have a bit of Oscar Wilde in you, for sure. ;)

the sobsister said...

Thank you very much. It's kind of you to say so. I'm glad you enjoyed it.