Monday, April 30, 2012

The Ego And How To Use It

So the inductions are passed, though we’re still waiting for the airing of the ceremonies.  As awesome as some of the speeches and performances are said to be (and here’s hoping HBO and whatever outside production company involved doesn’t chop it to ribbons), the real story surrounding the inductions remains the antics of Axl Rose and his letter to the Foundation refusing to show, refusing to accept that he’s been inducted, and refusing anyone to claim to speak on his behalf.  A lot of people rolled their eyes, many shook their heads.  Some held up Wile E. Coyote-styled signs with “DRAMA!” written on them.  Pretty much everyone figured it was a case of a rock star’s ego getting in the way, and that it was another tantrum, an attempt to up the ante as it were, from previous situations involving David Lee Roth, the Sex Pistols and others. 

To be completely fair, Axl’s letter did raise two salient points symbolized in his refusal: he felt that his current line-up of Guns N’ Roses was, in his opinion, also worthy to be included in the band’s induction along with Slash, Duff, and the others; also, by not showing up, he was preemptively shooting down any rumors of reunion with said previous members.  The latter is actually pretty sensible.  They’d hoped the same thing with the inductions of Talking Heads, the Police, and goodness knows whomever else; plus according to Axl, similar reunion rumors were alleged to have been instigated whenever two or more of the old lineup’s members were at the same venue at the same time.  So he’s pretty sick of having the murmurs teem, and the induction ceremony would be the grand petri dish for such rumors to multiply like bacteria.  Why let them flourish when you can take care of them before they even start?  The former point is primarily a matter of opinion; however, it does once again raise the issue of missing members, which was also an issue in the case of fellow inductees the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and to a lesser extent, the Beastie Boys (should long-time deejays be included?  Apparently not). 

But for the most part, it was just Axl being angry and petty.  Whatever his reasons, not showing up was the wrong way to go about addressing them.  Forgetting that induction is about the fans, the music, and the overall effect it has on all of us, Axl tried to make it all about the minutia of membership and the behind-the-scenes vitriol.  Axl could just have easily addressed both points by thanking his current lineup, whom he’s been with for a long time and will continue to perform with.  So why not do it with a little more class, like Metallica did when naming their overlooked influences, or the two members of Van Halen who showed up and were gracious despite Van Halen’s reputation as a band?  I suppose it’s because it’s Axl Rose we’re talking about.  And partially because it’s the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, too.  When you consider the Rolling Stones, Leadbelly, Phil Spector, and others, it appears the worse a scoundrel you are, the better they like you.  But even that doesn’t excuse or explain his actions.  Maybe he was trying to one-up the Sex Pistols by not only not showing up, but also asking to be omitted from induction.  But he failed for two reasons: one, other members showed up, whereas every Sex Pistol stayed away; two, in the case of the Sex Pistols, who at least had the veneer of being against anything even remotely resembling an establishment on principle, Guns N’ Roses never had that kind of image, at least not for very long.   Theirs was more of chaos than conscious rebellion.  Even in his letter, Axl says he doesn’t really get what the Hall is about.   And while this might be fitting for the case of not showing up, it’s still defeated by the fact that members did show up, as well as the statement that could be made with a bawdy display on stage, maybe through intoxication a la Neil Diamond.

Ultimately, it comes down to ego.  Axl didn’t want to be inducted unless it was done on his terms, with his current lineup included (I don’t think anyone is dumb enough to think they’d omit Slash), and only that lineup performing.  And again, while we can argue about which members belonged, we can all pretty much agree that ignoring his request to not be inducted was the right thing to do on the Foundation’s part, and that Axl’s letter only makes him look like a tantrum-throwing spoilsport, despite his follow-up letter that was a pseudo-apology and a quasi-clarification.

From these highly publicized antics, it’s easy to conclude the evils of ego.  And rightly so.  Left unchecked, it does an immense amount of harm.  But it should also be noted, having an ego is not an inherently bad thing.  Knowing one’s self-worth allows a performer to get optimally compensated according the economic principles of supply and demand, allows a performer to work with only the people and material they wish to, and allows them greater control over their career.  In fact, there’s supposedly a psychological condition called the “Elvis syndrome”, named after King of rock ‘n’ roll, which is the condition of not knowing how to handle fame.  Without ego, female performers like Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, and Aretha Franklin would have never been able to take a firm hold on their careers, or even their very performance styles.  Without ego, a moral code--that firm sense of right and wrong--would never manifest in the socially conscious songs of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and so many others.  While a lack of ego would probably have prevented the Beatles from breaking up, it was also a big part of what motivated Paul to write, which in turn occasionally lit a fire under John as well, resulting in some of their most revered works.

When I think of ego handled correctly, I think of another Hall Of Famer who also made headlines recently: Dick Clark.  The world’s oldest teenager departed from us this past month.  It’s sad to see such a huge piece of Americana leave us in person, but we are comforted to know that his obvious health struggles beleaguer him no more, and also by the fact that his legacy will never truly depart from us.  In rock ‘n’ roll, and in television, the man made an indelible mark on this country, and hopefully the world at large.  His sense of ego is part of what got the Doors to perform on American Bandstand when the group wasn’t thrilled about making any televised appearances (a favor owed to Clark by the Doors’ manager was the key factor, but to call in a favor to get something like that?  That’s pretty gutsy, you gotta admit).  It was that ego that helped him change the way that the concept of celebrity was viewed and shifted the whole representation business.  He was one of the first to really understand that celebrities themselves could be considered viable brand identities, and that led him to create himself as such a brand, one of the first to truly establish themselves that way. 

But he kept it in check in the right ways.  For instance, rather than using his majority shares to seat himself as his company’s president, he opted for someone else to do it, lest anyone ever think the company’s doings be a total manipulation on his part to suit himself and hurt others or the company at large in the long run… a lesson that was lost on some major companies within the past ten years.  And of course, he knew the responsibility of keeping his ego in check was critical to maintain his image, which was an intricate part of his brand, whether he was hosting a game show, a music program, or a New Year’s celebration in Times Square.  He’d seen scandal wreck the careers of celebrities who were supposed to be thriving on a clean-cut image, and worked to keep that from befalling him.

Was he a perfect man?  No.  I’m sure some of you are itching to expose the dirt in the comments section, and that’s fine.  No one’s infallible.  But by and large, Dick Clark knew his worth, but knew the limits of it, and if he wanted to break through those limits, he did it smartly, with common sense and good business sense.

On a personal note, Dick Clark is a professional role model for me.  As a teenager, I loved listening to his Rock, Roll, And Remember oldies program.  I think of his calm, easy, and immaculately executed delivery style; his ability to inject interesting trivia; his variety of songs that he played, and even his ability to joke casually but never crudely.  He was a major influence on my decision to get into the radio business.  Typing this, I also think of the credits, where he was never more than the host, despite having the clout and abilities to produce and direct the program.  An ego that’s there, but not overpowering.  When done right, it’s hard to know it’s there.  He was big, but not, for desperate want of a better phrase, too big for his britches.

So yeah, a main reason for writing this entry was to, in my own small way, say goodbye to a man I admired.  I also felt it incumbent upon me to have some take on Axl’s antics, and mainly to assure any and all readers that I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth.   But mainly, I wanted to say goodbye in my own way to a major role model for me.  While I’m not familiar with his personal life, I can still say pretty confidently we lost one of the good guys.  The man was rightly inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993, and remained grateful to his friend and fellow inductee Dion for inducting him.  Rest in peace Dick Clark.  You meant more than just a great way to spend New Year’s Eve to a lot of people, myself included. 

Just to close now with one of his famous quotes that also helps partly explain why we who are Rock Hall Monitors, music lovers, and even sometimes simply rabid fans care like we do.

“Music is the soundtrack of our lives.”