Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Friday, March 16, 2007

#35 – Wack jobs, crack smoking, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

It’s funny, sometimes, the ways in which your dreams come true.

When I was in high school, I had a part-time job with an equipment rental company in Manhattan that contracted with hotels to provide on-site A/V support: microphones and sound systems, video projectors and screeens, that sort of thing. And precisely 20 years ago this month, one of my jobs was setting up the Grand Ballroom in the Waldorf-Astoria for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I don’t recall who was being inducted, because we were not allowed anywhere near the ballroom once the event was underway (they brought in their own people to operate the gear).

But I do remember stuffing myself into an ill-fitting suit jacket and dress slacks and winding a tie around my neck so I could look presentable while crawling along the red and gold carpeting, strapping down audio and electrical cables with gaffers tape. I also recall the contractor’s site manager---who seemed to live, at least, part-time in the equipment storage room---whipping out two jumbo vials of crack after we’d finished the job.

He wanted to celebrate in a rock’n’roll manner.

I declined to join in, but I was fascinated. I’d never seen crack before, and I can still summon the vaguely metallic chemical scent it produced when he smoked it in his stubby glass pipette, sitting in a swivel chair in the storage room with his feet up on a steel shelf stacked with overhead projectors. I immediately recognized the smell as a major component of his strange, nearly-overpowering body odor.

I felt bad for the guy, which I guess is why I lent him $10 to go out and score another vial, knowing I’d never see the money again (I didn’t). Later, when he’d smoked all his rocks, I did join him in a couple of Bud tall boys, which we emptied while listening to music on a beaten-up radio, switching between an oldies rock station and a Latin station. He never drank while smoking crack, he explained---it kills the buzz. But afterwards it apparently helps relieve the bugs-under-the-skin sensation you get when you crash.

Anyway, this past Monday I found myself back at the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. But this time, I was actually an invited journalist---the supposed power of blogs once again cowing the old guard into opening the gates in the hope of remaining relevant. In fact, they even broadcast the event online, since no cable network (let alone broadcast network) wanted the event.

Ah yes: the warm, maternal folds of the Internet. It will never reject you, no matter how dubious or long-winded or culturally-slipping your content may be.

It was, to be honest, a dream come true. Once again I put on an ill-fitting suit jacket---very possibly the same one from my high school days---and dress slacks, and wound a tie around my neck. And once again I was not allowed into the ballroom: instead I was directed to a room in another part of the hotel, where journalists were gathered to watch the event on video monitors.

Having worked in the Waldorf, of course, I knew the service corridors around the ballroom pretty well. And before Aretha Franklin was into the first verse of “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”---part of a tribute to the late Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records---I was up in the main event, standing besides a cute dykey girl operating a studio-scale video camera atop a pedestal.

I missed the dinner, which from the looks of the half-eaten plates was a beef tournado with asparagus. But I did snag some of the chocolate mousse dessert that one of the waiters slipped me. (Too rich and a bit over-sweet, but the price was right.)

Now, I know I’m supposed to dis this event: the smugness and moneyed self-satisfaction, the exclusivity, the hordes of tuxedoed and designer-gowned corporate lackeys congratulating each other for their hipness and rock rebelliousness, applauding themselves for finally inducting the Ronettes---who saw less than $15,000 for their classic recordings, despite an ongoing lawsuit, and who, according to the scuttlebutt, were finally allowed in only because Phil Spector, the talented producer/shyster and Hall of Fame backroom player who had reportedly blocked their induction for years, was on trial in Los Angeles for the murder of a starlet and thus indisposed---and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the first-ever rap group to be inducted, although the overwhelmingly white, over-40 crowd seemed more impressed that newly-minted corporate CEO Jay-Z was on hand to validate the event by reading a lukewarm tribute off his Blackberry.

But even though I’d been reduced to sneaking into the event itself, I couldn’t hate on it. Aretha, who I’d never seen in person before, sounded awesome. So did the Ronettes, even with a stand in for Ronnie Spector’s sister Estelle Bennett, who apparently had throat problems. Patti Smith, who I’ve always revered (see post #26) , began with a solid cover of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which she introduced as “an anti-war song” to the overstuffed and unresponsive crowd. She followed it with “Because The Night,” which the suits seemed to know, and then, after an introductory spiel about how she was now going to play her late mother’s favorite song, the one “she liked to vacuum to,” her band ripped into “Rock’n’Roll Nigger,” which absolutely killed. It would have been the most thrilling moment of the evening even if it wasn’t followed by the Rev. Al Sharpton paying tribute to the late James Brown. But if the beauty of the segueway was lost on much of the inebriated crowd, that only made it sweeter.

That was the night’s most thrilling moment, but not its most moving, at least for me. That was R.E.M. playing “Gardening At Night,” from their 1983 debut, Murmur. Bill Berry, looking much thinner but much the same as he did before he quit the band in 1997 after a brain hemorrhage, was behind the drums, oonching things along at surprising moments as he alwasy did. Michael Stipe was again incanting indecipherably, Mike Mills was hitting the high notes, and Peter Buck was playing those borrowed Byrds licks like a punk kid playing dressup in Dad’s fancy hippie clothes.

I’d grown up liking a lot of rock bands, but R.E.M. were the first band I can say I truly loved. It’s hard to say why, precisely. There was just something so charmingly un-rock’n’roll about their rock’n’roll, at least in their early days. They had these beautiful and mysterious songs which seemed to channel powers the bandmembers themselves couldn’t quite comprehend, and they performed them as if they were in their basement jamming out in front of a mirror. Which in a way, given their audience, they were---though they may have actually been, say, in the Beacon Theater. That’s where I first saw them, on the Reckoning tour in ’85, when I was 15---my very first rock show. It was one of those moments I might call an epiphany if that word wasn’t so debased, and the whole idea of connecting it to rock’n’roll didn’t seem so cliche.

That said, I have no adequate words for it. But I’ll always remember the show as a great, heart-opening experience. And I’ll always remember their little reunion Monday for the flicker of that remembered experience: standing on my toes in the Balloom so I could see around the camera-woman, hoping the security goons wouldn’t ask to see the wristband I didn’t have, and being transported out of myself to a place where I didn’t have to worry about them, or how sleep-deprived I was going to feel the next morning with the kids at the daycare center, or how maybe I hadn’t quite come as far along in life as I’d have liked from that day twenty years ago crouched in a hotel storage closet in a shabby suit pounding tall boys with a crackhead. It was a place where I could savor a feeling of limitless, propulsive possibility---the place I’m perpetually relieved to find that music can still take me to, and the reason I keep writing to you. xxoo.