Rock Hall: How about a little bit of ladies first?

My research assistant, Maude Bascome-Duong, and I finally had some time to crunch the numbers on the Rock & Roll Hall Hall of Fame nominations for 2022 and the results are mixed. While I applaud the nominating committee for putting Dolly Parton, the Eurythmics, Dionne Warwick, Kate Bush, Carly Simon and Pat Benatar on the ballot, numbers wise, the selection field still skews predominantly male.

Dionne Warwick

More than a third of the acts have female members, and all of those six acts have their women front and center. Not bad! But when you look at the total number of potential inductees, women account for only 12.77% of the nominees. (This is the more important number, because every living inductee gets a vote.) Yes this is higher than the current percentage of women already inducted into the Hall of Fame, but we need an infusion of women to be inducted to get their total percentage into the double digits. As I’ve argued before, this can only happen if the Hall of Fame inducts more female groups. We need the six women of Fanny to be inducted to begin to balance out the four men of Rage Against the Machine. The nominating committee seems to have a particular allergy to all female acts: Once again there are none on this year’s ballot. Fear of a female planet?

The other most egregious omission is any female rapper. The fact that Eminem has been nominated before Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Roxanne Shante is shameful.

The nominees are also more than 80% white. I repeat: The fact that Eminem has been nominated before Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Roxanne Shante is shameful.

Here are four acts that better be on next year’s ballot or I’m calling for a Lysistrata: Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Labelle, and Fanny. Also for goddess’s sake, induct Big Mama Thorton as an early influencer this year. In Janet Jackson’s immortal words: Induct more women.

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The man who taught me the art of the lede

On February 5 the man who first taught me to be a journalist passed. There is no greater testimony to the profound impact Raymond Schoenfield had on me than the fact I became a journalist, and then a journalism teacher. Schoeny, as his students at Beloit Memorial High School knew him, had the number one quality to be a good instructor: love of subject. In class, in the offices of the student newspaper The Increscent after school, in passing in the hall, Schoeny would always ask your opinion of the latest news, or pull you aside to recommend a good book. I went on to get a BA at Brown and a Master’s in Journalism at USC, but no one taught me more than this pale, tall, high school professor with the big glasses and thinning combover. He and social studies teacher Lloyd Page treated us teenagers as intellectual equals and guided us to be critical thinkers. Schoeny made the Increscent offices a sanctuary for nerds and misfits. I was the editor in chief my senior year, and my bestie Cindy Hahn – not a nerd, but still one of us — was my girl Friday. There was a whole wonderful cast of characters there. It was a haven not just for writers, but for photographers, cartoonists, designers, sales people, etc. We would skip pep rallies and hang out with Schoeny. He was our Gandalf, a benevolent father figure with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. But he was also very serious about teaching the importance of good journalism, and the Increscent had the awards to show for it. He taught me to think deeply about literature and writing. I wrote a paper comparing Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata under his direction, which is a pretty crazy thing to do in a public high school in a small Midwestern town, and his high praise made me want to be a critic.

I last saw Schoeny when I was inducted into the Beloit Memorial Hall of Fame, which I think he had not a little to do with. He lost his eyesight in his later years, which seemed like the cruelest twist of fate: this voracious reader, blinded. His wife Joyce was always by his side, and he was proud of his kids. If you want to do something about the future of journalism, join me in donating to the scholarship fund in his name. https://statelinecf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?funit_id=1223

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Rock Hall on a roll?

Last night’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony gave me hope for the future of the institution. Opening the show with Taylor Swift inducting Carole King was a brilliant choice perfectly timed given the week of Tay-Tay trending. And how great was it to start the evening with King’s classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the first song performed by an all black all female group (The Shirelles) to reach number one in the United States. King, Tina Turner, and the Go-Go’s were my three top choices among this year’s nominees and all three made it in. The selections covered a diverse array of genres and eras, from a Brill building songwriter and singer to Kraftwerk’s electronic innovations to hip-hop pioneers Jay-Z , LL Cool J and Gil Scott-Heron. There was even a sui generis rock band, the Foo Fighters. I loved the generosity of the evening, the way rappers honored rock and roll and rockers honored hip hop. And I loved the repeated displays of girl power.

But — and given that I am a Rock Hall scold, you knew there had to be a butt — I’m still immensely disappointed that the Rock Hall had to undermine the gender parity of the acts inducted in the main categories by only inducting men in the supplemental categories. I also think it was a programming error to end the evening with Foo Fighters instead of Jay-Z, although I admit it allowed me to go to bed a little bit earlier. I’m not saying that Foo Fighters didn’t deserve to be inducted (they didn’t), but Hova’s speech was so powerful, funny and moving, it was the high note note we should have ended with. Closing with a rap act also would have signaled once and for all that the Rock Hall is inclusive of all the genres that have been birthed since the integration of music in the 1950s and 60s. (Fuck you Gene Simmons.) I understand that the hall probably wanted to close with Paul McCartney, who inducted the Foo Fighters. But Paul seemed more like everyone’s favorite drunk uncle (at least we got that tradition out of the way for Thanksgiving week) than a great finale.

What would have been real fire would have been to end with the usual all-star band playing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Can you imagine Jay-Z and LL Cool J trading off verses on Gil Scott-Heron’s classic proto rap? With Carole King on piano! Plus the Go-Go’s as backing singers?! Instead we got the usual tired narrative of rock and roll through the lens of white men.

Because, of course, the revolution can not be televised.

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What my students taught me during the pandemic

I wrote about my experiences teaching at Zoom university for two and a half semesters, the parts I never want to do again, and the parts I hope to hold on to forever, for LMU Magazine.

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The power of Patti

No artist has had a bigger lifelong influence on me than Patti Smith. She showed me a new way of being when I was a struggling teenager and in the four decades since has remained an example of how to move through the universe pursuing your artistic dreams and personal values. I’ll never forget the first time we connected in real life: I just about lost it when I hit play on my answering machine and heard her voice. I first interviewed her back in 1995, when she was just beginning to perform again after taking a long pause to raise her kids, and then mourn her husband; that became my one and only Village Voice cover story.

Patti Smith at Pappy & Harriet’s Aug. 31.

It had been many years since we last spoke, so I shrieked once more when I listened to a voice mail at work and it was Patti. She is the only celebrity I know who responds to interview requests by calling journalists directly, rather than scheduling an interview through flacks. I happened to be in a small Minneapolis town in the midst of a cross country drive when I called her back, and as I left her a message, a train drove by, blowing its whistle. “Nice train soundtrack,” Patti texted me.

We eventually had an hourlong, somewhat discursive talk, the highlights of which made it to my Los Angeles Times story. As in ’95, she’s back from another pause – this one pandemic forced, not lifestyle chosen — and I felt honored to be the person chronicling her return. We talked a lot about the climate, but none of that discussion made the story. “We’re living in the midst of enormous, enormous crisis environmentally, in every way, whether it’s flooding or drought or fires,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for us as a species because the only way it’s going to work is for us to globally respect…. And I feel for our children.”

This week, from Tahoe to New Orleans to the Northeast, Americans are struggling under the devastating effect of Anthropocene folly. Smith, who has had two of her few shows since 2020 cancelled partially or completely because of severe summer storms, seems to be a bit of a rainmaker. As my husband and I drove to Pioneertown to see her Aug. 31 show at Pappy & Harriet’s, the sky darkened and suddenly, there were flash flood warnings in the middle of the desert, during a mega drought. The outdoor show was postponed a half hour; only a little rain fell, but the wind was powerful. Patti took the continued disruption in good humor, accepting mother nature howling in the mikes as unexpected backing vocals.

Still, it was all a little unnerving. As the world knows from her infamous performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan, Smith has a habit of losing her place; there were a lot of forgotten words and misstarts at Pappy’s. Also, a lot of laughter between her, her son Jackson on guitar, and Tony Shanahan on piano, bass, guitar, and vocals. The hipster honkytonk is one of my favorite places in the world, so it was amazing to see her there, in such a small venue. Her voice is stronger than ever, so deep and rich. Still, it was a bit of a ramshackle performance. Patti admitted she was wearing her “pandemic pants”: bleach stained, loose, and comfy. The crowd loved her, she loved them back.

Tony Shanahan, Flea, Patti Smith, and Jackson Smith at the Ford Sept. 3.

Friday at the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills – another one of my favorite venues – they played an almost identical set, but it was a totally different show. Flea joined on bass, giving the band a bottom they needed (though I still missed Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty). Smith’s messy braids were gone, though a couple times during the night, she started to plait her long salt and pepper locks again. So were the pandemic pants – but she did have to button up her fly after the first song, “Grateful.” It was a perfect California night, the palm trees and hillside behind the band lit up like a fairytale grotto. Patti was still joking and informal; when Flea left the stage at one point, she explained he had to pee. But there were only a couple stumbles. Patti was on fire. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her deliver as note perfect a performance as her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “1000 Miles Behind.” Smith is well celebrated for her shamanistic performance style and poetic lyrics, but she is not as appreciated as she should be for the timbre and power of her voice. She also covered Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun” and dedicated her reggae song “Redondo Beach” to the late Lee Scratch Perry.

Patti Smith and Flea at the Ford.

By the end of the evening, for a rendition of “Land” that was a bricolage of itself, Smith seemed to be in a trance. Even Jackson looked at her with a mix of awe and concern. Seeing her perform with her offspring beside her and still be so unapologetically herself is another life lesson she has given me. You could see in the eclectic, female-friendly audience how many of us have followed Patti into, as she puts it, the “sea of possibilities.” (Though she told me in the Times interview that she can’t swim; does this mean she has never actually pissed in a river?)

She closed both shows with the song that has become her most celebrated anthem, even more than “Because the Night” (which she also performed): “People Have the Power.” Once the pied piper of misfits, Patti Smith is now, as she likes to call, herself a worker. Happy Labor Day weekend.

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Sea lubber

Little by little. I keep telling myself that. Take it slow. Patience is not this patient’s virtue. I want to run, dive, swim underwater as long as I can hold my breath, and then do the crawl straight out to the horizon until I don’t feel the cold of the Pacific anymore. That’s my usual mode of immersion — well, okay, I do more of a shuffle-for-stingrays than a run. But lately, nothing has been usual.

My biggest fear about having surgery was not being able to swim. You might as well lock me up in a dungeon if you are going to deprive me of water. It’s my exercise, meditation, therapy, habit, and habitat. Keep me on land too long, and I dry out like a slug.

So when I first stuck my toes back in the Pacific after four weeks of exile, I could feel my flesh rehydrating. As I walked gingerly through the wash, the life force ran up my legs to electro-charge my failing heart and douse my brain with dopamine. Two days later, when I had worked up the courage to submerge, I lifted my feet from the earth and lay my body horizontal on salt water. The pain in my core vanished. Freedom from gravity, from the planet’s pull on mass, from the weight of the upper half of my body stacked on the lower half, released my poor, pulverized nerves. The cold Cabrillo water, with its healing salt crystals, worked its medicinal magic. I had been worried that swimming could hurt me, but instead — like it always does — it was my cure.

When I returned to shore from my first wade in the water, a shiny white object beckoned from the wet sand. I thought at first it was a shell, but it turned out to be a different piece of animal: the bone of the top bill of an aquatic fowl, like a duck. Of course, there aren’t generally ducks in the ocean. Gulls, herons, cormorants, pelicans, egrets, sandpipers, and willets — the local species — all have very differently shaped beaks. The mystery bone is a strange, macabre gift but beautiful: delicate, ivory, dotted with pinhole calligraphy. Another masterpiece by Mother Nature.

We are trapped in bodies, until we are not.

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The Rock Hall Class of 2021: 3 Steps Forward, 7 Steps Back

It sounds great. The Go-Go’s, Carole King and Tina Turner — my top three choices among the year’s nominees — all being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as performers, at long last. (Turner and King were inducted previously, but not for their solo performance work.) Half of the six acts being inducted into the performer category are female, and almost half (46.67%) of the individual musicians are women. (If, say, original drummer Elissa Bello were being inducted with the Go-Go’s, there would be total gender parity.) Given the hall’s horrible track record – a paltry 7.63% of total inductees prior to this year are female – this looks like progress. “Head over heels,” I tweeted when I awoke this morning to the news, referencing a Go-Go’s song (but you probably knew that).

But scroll down a little further. In addition to the six acts being inducted as performers (the men are Jay-Z, the Foo Fighters, and Todd Rundgren, if you care), the hall took the unusual step this year of inducting three acts under the Early Influence category, three under Musical Excellence, and one for the Ahmet Ertegun Award, for non-performers. Guess how many of those seven inductees are or have female members? Here’s a hint: It’s the same number of women who were in the 17 acts inducted into the hall during its first year, 1986.

That’s right: zero.

After years of criticism for their entrenched sexism and creeping racism, Cleveland’s music institution seems to be attempting to change course. Under the leadership of new chairman John Sykes, who has called for more diversity and inclusion at the clubhouse founded by the patriarchs of the record industry, the hall offered a diverse selection of nominees this year, yielding a fairly strong slate of inductees. (Though Foo Fighters over Fela Kuti? Todd Rundgren over Dionne Warwick? Really?!)

Three steps forward, seven steps back: the all-male slate of additional inductees skews the count back toward its stone age past, making the total percentage of female inductees 28 percent. Okay, that’s nine times better than the 3.45 percent of 2020’s winners (ie, Whitney Houston), but then that was a pathetically low bar. This year’s class rectifies the long-term trend of gender imbalance by a measly half a percentage point: Now, 8.17% of inductees to the hall over the past 35 years have two X chromosomes.

And most egregiously, still not a single business woman has ever been inducted into the Ahmet Ertegun non-performer category. (King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weil have all been inducted as songwriters, along with their male partners.)

I applaud the Rock Hall’s efforts to honor artists who have been too long snubbed by voters, particularly Kraftwerk and LL Cool J. I have no issue with any of the seven deserving acts that have been added onto the main category; Gil Scott-Heron, Charley Patton, and Clarence Avant add diversity to a hall that started with impressive racial balance but has increasingly skewed white. But given that special committees handpicked by the Rock Hall selected these inductees, you might have thought they would have checked their gonads at the door. Why not honor Chaka Khan, Big Mama Thornton and Sylvia Rhone as well?

La plus ca change …

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