Pittsburgh native, president of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, talks about the new class
December 20, 2016 7:58 AM
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You know all those arguments about who should and shouldn’t be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Joel Peresman hears them just about every day.
The 59-year-old Mt. Lebanon native started his career doing security for DiCesare-Engler Productions in 1975 and — after stops working in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, as a booking agent for the International Talent Group and an executive at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall — he became the president of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in 2008.
He’s about to usher in a class of 2017 inductees consisting of Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes, which he says exhibits “what the breadth of what rock ‘n’ roll is.” In addition, Nile Rodgers, guitarist, producer and founder of the disco-funk band Chic, will be honored with the Award for Musical Excellence.
On Monday, we talked to Peresman by phone from New York about this year’s class.
What is your overall impression of the inductees?
We’re really happy with the way it came out because it’s a real cross-section of what we consider the definition of rock ’n’ roll to be. You have artists like Joan Baez and Tupac Shakur on the same ballot and being inducted at the same time, it really shows what the breadth of what rock ’n’ roll is. To have artists that are first time on the ballot get in was nice to see: artists that were first-time eligible like Pearl Jam and Tupac, but also artists that have been eligible for a while, like Journey, like Joan Baez, like ELO, this is their first time on the ballot and they got in. And then also to see Yes get in. They’ve been on the ballot three times. It’s a real acknowledgement of how important the progressive-rock scene was and how important Yes was in it.
There will be a lot of detractors who feel that Joan Baez and Tupac don’t fit the definition of rock ‘n’ roll. How would you say they fit the definition?
It’s an incredibly personal thing of what your concept of what rock ’n’ roll is. But if you really look at where it all came from, if you trace back the roots of rock ’n’ roll to early African-American culture in this country, it was slaves singing spirituals in the fields that local blues guys picked up and developed into blues that was adopted by black and white artists. Initially, it was primarily black artists that whites picked up and kind of melded with bluegrass or the types of music that were prevalent in the last century. Whether it was Chuck Berry or Bill Haley or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, people took that style of music and made it their own, and it exploded into all different kinds of rock ’n’ roll. If you look at Joan Baez, she was at the nexus of that whole folk movement [that gave us] early acts like the Jerry Garcias and Roger McGuinns and Bob Dylan, naturally. It’s broad. People look at us like, “Why Donna Summer or N.W.A. or Public Enemy? These guys don’t play instruments, per se.” People can have their own definition. We look at it as a very broad brush that encompasses a lot of styles, and this class covers a lot of ground.
In terms of Yes. One of the questions I get is: Why has the Rock Hall been so slow to induct the progressive rock bands?
I don’t disagree. I wish there was a quantifiable reason of why it took so long for certain acts to get in. A lot of these acts, when they were nominated, people called me and said, “I thought they were already in.” When I’m introduced to people and tell them what I do, the very first question I get is “How come?” “How come this one isn’t in, how come that one isn’t in?” I almost want to tell people something different from what I do sometimes. I mean, it’s nice to see it. Genesis got in a few years ago. Yes was one of those early early bands that was doing it, and their musical style even extended to their artwork -- colleges all over the country were putting up their album covers and posters. They always got the recognition of people buying their records and going to their shows. It’s nice for us to see the recognition of them being inducted.
I get “How come?” and I also get “Who cares?”
[laughs] If people are talking about it, then they care. Even if they say “who cares,” it keeps the energy going and keeps the emotion going, and that’s good for the business.
It comes a lot from people on the punk side.
Yeah, and they’re wondering when you’re going to induct Black Flag.
Bad Brains was on the ballot this year for the first time and I thought that was interesting.
What is keeping a hardcore band from being inducted? There has yet to be a hardcore band.
I don’t know. Honestly. I think eventually some of them will. I think in the overall voting group, people work through the natural bigger names before they drill down a little bit and pay attention to the other ones who are deserving and will get there at some point.
Does Journey’s induction open the door for Boston, Kansas, Styx, Foreigner, etc.?
Yeah, you would hope that people would be open to that. Again, these were important, big rock ’n’ roll groups, especially growing up in Pittsburgh and seeing Kansas and Styx were massive groups when I was in college and high school. You can see in the heartland of America how big they are. Maybe in the past people shied away from nominating and voting for the more populist groups, for lack of a better term, but with Journey getting in...Look, Journey wrote great songs and, ultimately, it came down to terrific songs. Like we say, it’s not how many records or tickets you sell, it’s the quality of the music and the influence, and I think there are bands like Styx and Kansas and REO Speedwagon that were great bands that are deserving of attention.
We see new, first-time ballot bands like Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers and Green Day going in right away while others like Deep Purple and Yes and Cheap Trick are having to wait. Why does that happen?
I think maybe it’s because they’re more top of mind to voters. There’s more current airplay, there’s more current video. They’re more visible to the bigger voting group than the other bands are.
Does the voting group skew younger?
No, not necessarily. The 900 or so voters are made up of all past inductees, people who are presenters and other musicians, writers, critics, record people. It’s a wide variety of people on that list. The acts that are getting in that you mentioned are big bands and I don’t necessarily think people look at this process as being chronological, that Deep Purple should get in just because they were before. A name like Green Day comes up or N.W.A. and people feel they’re a big band, an important band, they should get in.
Nile Rodgers gets in on Musical Excellence. Does that settle the Chic issue, the 11 times nominated?
We didn’t care that it settled the Chic issue because Chic was just one of his projects. We just kind of looked at it. Nile has been in the thought process for a while about being the right person for this Musical Excellence award, but never went that heavy down that path because we figured Chic would probably get in and that would give Nile his recognition. When it didn't happen this year, the committee that gets together said if the voters aren’t going to see this, we as an institution feel that he’s important. The body of his work, whether it was Chic or working with David Bowie right up to Daft Punk, is so deep and wide-ranging, he’s the perfect type of artist to look at for the Musical Excellence award. Will Chic come up in the future? I don't know. We’ll see how that goes, but I would think the people who were voting for Chic were really voting for Nile. Hopefully, this gives him the recognition he deserves for work over 40 years.
Two of the bands here might come with some drama.
Yes and Journey? I hope not. Everything we’ve heard is that there’s no horrible lawsuits, that everyone seems to get along and that people can work out whatever it is and on the night of the induction all be able to play together. I haven't heard of any stake in the ground like “I’m not coming if these people are coming.” I haven’t heard any of that.
Is that something you personally have to deal with in the months before the induction?
Yeah, you get into that, trying to work though the egos of “Why did this one get inducted and not that one?” and “I’m not going to sit with this one.” You deal with that and it’s kind of sad to see, but a lot of these bands have been together over 40 years, and they’re like married couples, and people get divorces and have separations, and it’s really no different in the band world. Sometimes people get along beautifully for 40 years, and sometimes they don’t.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg
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