Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Long, Long Halls of Pretty-Good-Ness

This is my Finnegan’s Wake. Like James Joyce’s impenetrable opus, this represents a whole lot of work to prove a very simple point – namely, that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

Let me back up. I was scheming, Pinky and the Brain-fashion, how to prove two favorite points: That George Blanda was the most unworthy Hall of Famer ever and the Eagles were the most overrated band of all time.

These are not bad points. Blanda had staying power and a great knack for the dramatic, but he threw the ball to players without consideration for the color of their jerseys. As a producer of net yards and net points for his team he was no more effective than Billy Kilmer or Jack Kemp and far less efficient than long-lived system types like Ken Anderson and Jim Hart.[1]

Speaking of long-lived system types, the Eagles didn’t invent the California sound or even perfect it (listen to “Already Gone” if you want to hear a great song ground to a halt by a complete lack of comprehension of the beat); they simply rode it to reasonable fame and substantial fortune, leaving no clues behind. It's spooky; you go into their back catalog trying to figure out what made them great, and it's like someone stole the good stuff and left behind "Visions" and "Good Day In Hell."

So in considering these favorite targets, I considered their respective halls of fame. The Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame have roughly the same number of members – amazing, when you consider that rock ‘n’ roll is half as old as long as pro football, yet it's had a hall of fame since 1986. It's less preposterous than an Angry Birds Hall of Fame, but not by much.

This has led the RNRHOF down all sorts of interesting paths. Instead of waiting around 20 years for Chris Brown to become eligible, it threw in Charles Brown. Instead of waiting for Rhianna or Adele, it opted to fill the joint with Jesse Stone, the Dells, Darlene Love, Mo Ostin, the Flamingoes, and Gene Pitney, performers whose pro-football counterparts would be Gil Brandt, Buckets Goldenberg, Gob Buckeye, Ron Wolf, John Brockington, and Norm Snead. That’s not to say these people weren’t instrumental to the growth and development of their vocations, or that they didn’t have their moments. They did – but that’s not the point.

(This is one reason why I hate the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, though it’s far from the most important one.)

Since the numbers roughly align, you can put the pro-football hall of famers in one column and the rock-‘n’-roll hall of famers in another column and try to match them up. That’s the Sisyphean project I’ve been tackling for the last six months.

Certain things are obvious. James Brown = Jim Brown. Same name, same impact, similar attitude. Dinah Washington = Night Train Lane. Night Train got his nickname by listening to Dinah. Dion = Gino Marchetti. Italian stallions, kings of the streets, looked good in leather jackets, successful, influential, completed each other perfectly. You can see Marchetti running down quarterbacks to the strains of “Runaround Sue.”

It starts to bog down when you have to find a rock-‘n’-roller for Mike Michalske or a football player for Doc Pomus [2]. And the top-heavy nature of rock ‘n’ roll causes some big problems. If Jim Brown = James Brown, who equals Bob Dylan? Who was white and semi-poetic and prolific and incredibly influential? Johnny Unitas? Okay, if Unitas was Dylan, then who’s the Beatles? Bart Starr? It has internal logic, but it’s ridiculous on its face.

The challenges only get worse. If Unitas and Starr are the Beatles and Dylan, who’s the Rolling Stones? The Beach Boys? Muddy Waters? Stevie Wonder? Elvis? [3]

You can argue that I'm comparing two things that shouldn't be compared, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree. Rock 'n' roll is danceable anarchy with sharply defined transition points: Little Richard. Its progress depends on volcanic performers forcibly redirecting the soundtrack of adolescence and dragging society along by the hair. Popular music is also art, and art requires periodic cataclysmic explosions (cf., The Shock of the New).

Pro football, on the other hand, is about incremental change in the service of continuity: Joe Montana to Steve Young. Once you get past Brown and Unitas and Don Hutson and Sammy Baugh, and maybe Dick Butkus, what players broke the mold and changed the game for everyone who came after? The majority of football hall-of-famers achieved success within a system that had already been defined. In that respect, they were a whole lot more like the Eagles than they were like Chuck Berry or Little Richard.[4]

Rock ‘n’ roll is also more inclined to celebrate the moment. Someone could get into the RNRHOF on the strength of the greatest single or album ever. Thirty minutes of brilliance over a 40-minute album is enough: Patti Smith's Horses. But neither Dwight Clark nor David Tyree are getting anywhere near Canton with their versions of “The Catch.”

But to get back to the Eagles – the music Eagles. They’ve been together on and off for 40 years and produced nine Top 20 singles. Bachman-Turner Overdrive did about as well in a decade, and generated a couple of laughs along the way.[5] Looking at the best Eagles songs that do not involve Jackson Browne, only “Hotel California” stands out, and then only as a skillful summary of clich├ęs that permeates the group’s work from “Witchy Woman” on. Take a pinch of “Desperado,” the rhythms of “Tequila Sunrise,” the melancholy of “My Man,” and the guitar sound from “One of These Nights,” and you’re there. [6] 

It's not unfair to say the Eagles were a long-lived and commercially successful band, a popular album band and a middling singles band with negligible influence on popular music or culture.

That doesn't sound overwhelmingly hall-of-fame-ish. It sounds like the pop-music equivalent of an insurance salesman – yet the Eagles were a slam-dunk choice for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Saying the Eagles are overrated doesn’t get you anywhere. Suppose they are overrated; does that instantly instill dissatisfaction in the 16 million people who bought Hotel California? Even if 10 million of them scream at Glenn Frey halfway through “Life In the Fast Lane,” as I do, “Play the damn lick already!”, the fact is they listened to the song enough to get hugely annoyed by it.

Similarly, saying George Blanda is overrated doesn’t change a thing. His bust isn’t leaving Canton. The sight of his shaggy, sideburned visage plugged with George Washington dentures and heaving steam like a Clydesdale under a stadium cape is an image for the ages. NFL Films isn’t suddenly going to say, “Oh, he’s overrated,” and replace that image with one of Ken Anderson throwing a seven-yard out to Isaac Curtis.

One of the problems with all halls of fame is that they’re levelers. In looking at the two enshrinee lists and matching Traffic with Joe Namath (the low spark of high-heeled boys), or John Mellencamp with Mel Hein (ex-Cougars), the overwhelming impression is that true greatness has been discounted and near-greatness is elevated.

Don’t get me wrong; near-greatness is pretty great. But when the creator of “Pretty Maids All In A Row” is allowed to sit as an equal with the creator of “A Day In The Life,” or when Dick Stanfel, who had a five-year career as an excellent blocker on some so-so teams, is placed on a literal pedestal alongside Jim Brown, it usurps one of the basic premises of life: greatness is a pyramid, and it doesn’t get wider at the top.

[1] The name “Tim Couch” comes up several times in Blanda's career-comps section on Pro Football Reference, as does the name “John Friesz.” And “Bubby Brister.”
[2] It’s hard enough finding contemporary comps within their field for guys like Michalske and Pomus. How many great fullback-guards are kicking around the NFL? And I will never equate Doc Pomus with Swizz Beatz, even if it is logical.
[3] I’ve tried. I have the Beach Boys with Lance Alworth and Red Grange with Elvis. I have Sammy Baugh with Buddy Holly and Dick Butkus with Little Richard. The rest throw me.
[4] You can argue that both systems have already been defined, that pro football is using the same formations it used in 1953 and rock ‘n’ roll is using the same three chords it used in 1954, but that doesn’t mean anything. Nothing has happened in football over the last half-century to compare to what Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles did to popular music. No one stopped speaking to their children because Frankie Albert started throwing the ball out of the shotgun. The streets never filled with disaffected young people running the power-I. Saying the basic chord structures haven’t changed is like saying football players still wear shoes.
[5] The Eagles, meanwhile, accomplished the near-impossible: They turned Joe Walsh into a curmudgeon.
It’s also instructive that the Eagles songs with the greatest staying power come from the solo albums of their members – Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” and Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” Group efforts tend towards singalongs like “Heartache Tonight” and overblown weepers like “The Last Resort.”

Okay, I read this and realized that I was too much like Joyce for my own good. I was bloviating and declaiming and never getting around to the point. Here's the point: George Blanda was a less successful passer than Dave Krieg and a worse kicker than Nick Mike-Mayer. If you prefer your mediocre talents in a package, Blanda was less productive at what he did combined than Jerry Kramer for certain, and arguably Pat Summerall or Lou Michaels. Of the bunch, Kramer is the most appropriate HOFer based on his accomplishments as a guard, followed by Summerall, for his general contributions to football, then Blanda, and finally Michaels. 

The Eagles were less inventive than Poco, less heartfelt than Dan Fogelberg, less poppy than America, less comfortable with a hook than Andrew Gold, less skilled at choosing (and performing) covers than Linda Ronstadt, less rocking (and adept at rocking) than the Outlaws, less talented than Pure Prairie League, less trippy than Moby Grape or the New Riders of the Purple Sage, less socially conscious than Jackson Browne, less cynical than Warren Zevon, less polished than American Flyer, less devil-may-care than the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, less diverse than the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, less country than Commander Cody, less bluesy than the Sir Douglas Quintet, and less swingy than Asleep At The Wheel -- and nowhere near as influential as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills & Nash. However, outside of the last three, only Jackson Browne and the Eagles are RNRHOFers, and none of the others are close to being locks. 

And I consider myself an Eagles fan.