Interview: Joel Peresman, CEO/President of the Rock Hall On 2014 Induction Ceremony
By Brian Ives
On one hand, it must be the coolest job in the world. On the other, you can never satisfy everyone. That’s the rub for Joel Peresman, the CEO and President of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. Over the years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony has been criticized for, among other things, not being accessible to the public, seeming a bit old (artists need to have been active at least 25 years prior to be eligible) and for ignoring some legends of hard rock (famously, KISS).
This year’s induction ceremony was, for the third time ever, open to the public. It went down at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and featured Carrie Underwood, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Questlove of the Roots, St. Vincent and pop superstar Lorde. Oh, and this year finally saw KISS being inducted, following the recent nods to hard rocks forebears such as Black Sabbath, Rush, Metallica and AC/DC.
So, this year’s ceremony was criticized from different corners for being too long (the E Street Band segment lasted nearly an hour), for becoming too much of an arena rock event (by inductee and former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who declined to attend) and even by the members of KISS. To boot, founding members and bosses Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were upset that only the original lineup — which also included Peter Criss and Ace Frehley — were being inducted, and not any of their subsequent replacements; they ultimately decided to attend the ceremony but not perform. Similarly, there was a bit of confusion over whether or not former Nirvana drummer Chad Channing would be inducted. Ultimately, he was not.
All of that aside, for those who attended the ceremony, it was a great night. The tribute to Linda Ronstadt (who was unable to attend for health reasons), featured Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks and served as a reminder that her influence still extends from the top of the pop charts to the hippest coffeehouse. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed with former keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez for the first time in ages. And Nirvana’s performance — featuring guest vocals by Joan Jett, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, St. Vincent and Lorde — blew minds.
A few weeks later, Radio.com spoke with Peresman about the epic night.
How do you feel about this year’s induction ceremony in retrospect?
Peresman: It worked out really well. We had a great lineup of talent. It was nice to have a lot of the inductees perform. In the cases where people couldn’t perform, like Linda Ronstadt, to be able to put together an incredible slate of women to come salute her music. It’s something we’ve done over the years, having interesting musical collaborations. But that it came through with contemporary artists like Carrie Underwood, and have them with Linda’s contemporaries like Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Nicks. Stevie mentioned how much Linda influenced her and that her influence pushed her to become a singer. Those kinds of moments are what the Hall of Fame’s show is all about.
The performances are a lot more polished and rehearsed than the ones in the early induction ceremonies, when you’d have 50 people on stage.
We issued a lot of those early performances, and they’re out there. Were they a little sloppy? Sure. But when you have a performance of Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and Bob Dylan on stage [together], you have these things that don’t normally happen.
Those old performances are fun to watch, but this year’s performances, for instance, are a lot tighter and will probably hold up better as live recordings.
It really just came together perfectly. But when you’re dealing with professionals, especially the women who played with Dave and Krist for the Nirvana tribute or the Linda Ronstadt tribute, you’re dealing with real pros. And not only real pros, but people who had a real affinity for the subject matter.
Linda Ronstadt isn’t as present in pop culture as some of the other artists; I think the HBO broadcast could potentially turn younger fans on to her.
Well, you hope so! That’s kind of the goal. That’s one of the reasons for bringing someone like a Carrie Underwood in.
How early did you find out that Nirvana wanted to perform with different women filling in for Kurt Cobain?
That came down relatively late. I think their camp really had the idea. I think that when they first thought of Kim Gordon, who was a friend of Kurt, and someone who they really had a lot of respect for, that kind of took them down that path, where they said, “Instead of trying to get some guys to replicate what Kurt did, let’s stay on this path, we can get some women who are phenomenal performers and phenomenal rock singers,” and they really delivered.
Did you get to go to their show at [Brooklyn bar] Saint Vitus later that night [where they performed with Jett, Gordon and St. Vincent, along with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and John McCauley of Deer Tick]?
No! By the time the show was over, we got together with some of the HBO people and some of the other acts for about an hour, at that point, I was ready to go home and go to sleep.
A lot of award shows throw around the term “one-time only” in regards to performances, but it felt like you had some performances that we won’t see again.
Yeah, that was definitely a one-time-only performance, besides the Saint Vitus gig. I think we had a couple of performances that you’re not going to see again. Plus also, seeing Chris Martin performing with Peter Gabriel, how cool was that?
Seeing Peter Gabriel and Chris Martin singing “Washing of the Water” was indeed cool, it was an interesting choice, and it didn’t get too much attention in the press, probably due to Nirvana and KISS getting the headlines. But clearly, Chris Martin is a big Peter Gabriel fan, and that came out in his speech.
That’s the thing that’s really interesting, when we look for people to do the presentation speeches… sometimes it’s a contemporary like Art Garfunkel. who did the speech for Cat Stevens, or you find those people who were influenced by the artist, like Chris Martin with Peter Gabriel. Or, the Tom Morello speech for KISS was just spectacular! That’s what you want to get. You don’t want to just have a bunch of old guys inducting other people. You also want to have artists who were influenced by the inductees to explain why they’re important to them.
Let me ask about the Chad Channing/Nirvana controversy. He played on the band’s debut album, Bleach. Many fans see that album as a classic on par with Nevermind or In Utero. Why wasn’t he inducted with the rest of the group?
Whether it’s KISS or whether it’s Nirvana, or any other act, there’s people on the nominating committee who nominate the act, and there’s also people that we go to who are scholars and who know that genre of music. And when you go to them and you say why is this band being inducted and who should be inducted [from the band’s lineups] and who are the artists who made this band what it was, it was really just the three guys who were inducted for Nirvana. And the same thing with KISS. It was the original four. Granted, they had other people play with their band, they’ve had big success with tours, but there’s a reason they got inducted and the reason is, those four guys.
In a different year when you didn’t have Gene and Paul complaining so loudly about which members are inducted, do you think Chad Channing would have gotten in?
No, I don’t think so. This isn’t an exact science. But you really have to go to the people you trust who have strong opinions, and are very deep and knowledgable on certain genres of music, whether it’s Nirvana or KISS or the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. You have to go with people who know the subject matter and you get those opinions and you make those decisions. It’s not going to always please everybody all the time, but it’s as “right” as we can be.
I get into debates with people about this kind of thing all the time.
I get into debates about this all the time! I tell people what I do [for a living], and then they say, “Well, how come this one isn’t inducted?” The thing is, nobody’s wrong. There’s no wrong opinion. Like, “Why isn’t Chicago inducted?” Or “Why isn’t the Moody Blues inducted?” Or “Why hasn’t Jane’s Addiction been inducted?” People aren’t wrong. I don’t really have a good answer for them.
One nice surprise was Gene Simmons’ speech; it was surprisingly gracious.
It was a lovely speech, it was actually kind of classy, as opposed to Paul [Stanley]’s. That speech was the best advertisement for [pointing out that] what we did was right. He’s been almost borderline racist, not in that speech, but in other interviews talking about how hip-hop artists shouldn’t be inducted because they don’t play instruments. It’s like, “What are you, kidding?” And he talks about the nominating committee, and how those guys don’t buy records. Those guys buy records! They’re f—ing fans! Those guys are writers and critics and musicians. Those are the people who buy records and got into the business because they love music.
These type of arguments keep people interested.
If anything, it keeps the passion going. People get so pissed off when someone doesn’t get inducted but it’s never a closed door. We never say you’ll never be inducted.
When KISS said they wouldn’t perform, was there any thought of doing a KISS tribute with other artists?
There were some complaints this year — at least in the press room — about the length of the ceremony, and particularly the E Street Band segment.
Well, we try to keep it down. We went to all the artists before, and said that, “We have a long night, we want to keep it tight, you’ve really got to keep it tight.” And everybody agreed and said they were going to keep it short. Even though we told them [via the teleprompter] to please wrap it up, we just don’t start playing music and play people off. It’s not like they’ll ever get another chance to do this, this is their one chance.
This was a big audience; during this year’s show, did you think that maybe this shouldn’t be an arena event?
What other award shows do the public get to go to? Very little of the public get to go to the GRAMMYS. At the People’s Choice Awards, how many “people” are really there? How many fans? Probably not many. We have the opportunity to have people come [to our show], and it’s really interesting. A lot of friends of mine bought tickets and came to the show, and they loved the speeches. They never saw it before – they’d never been to an award show. So, was the E Street Band segment a bit long? Sure. But that’s something that the fans would never get to see.
[Former Rolling Stones manager] Andrew Loog Oldham was inducted this year, but declined to attend; he insinuated the ceremony has become too much of an arena spectacle. Were you in touch with him?
Yeah, we emailed back and forth. It’s meant to be a celebration of the inductees, which is what it’s [always] been. But it’s not in a hotel ballroom [anymore]. But it’s his loss.
What if you had a year where none of the inductees were arena headliners?
I don’t know. You kind of have to go under the assumption that people are going to come to the event. There’s nothing we can do about that, you have to book places like that a year in advance.
So, you’re bringing it back to Cleveland next year?
Yes, it will be at the Public Hall in Cleveland [where the induction ceremony took place in 2012]. That was the original rock and roll room in town before they started building hockey arenas.
One genre that seems to be overlooked is the post-punk era: British bands like the Cure, the Smiths and Joy Division and American groups like the Replacements and Sonic Youth. Do you see them getting in soon?
Some of the acts have been nominated. The Cure has been nominated, the Replacements were nominated this year. Unquestionably, some of these acts are going to get in.
I read that Questlove and Tom Morello are now both on the nominating committee. Is that a new development?
Correct, as of last year.
Are they charged with advocating for artists of their generation?
Not necessarily: Tom Morello was a big advocate of KISS. That wasn’t his generation, it was something that influenced him. That’s what you look for on the committee, you look for people that are open-minded, and who have a love a certain genre, but who are open to all kinds of ideas.
Why do you think that no p0st-punk acts have been inducted yet?
They haven’t gotten enough votes, is the simple answer. I don’t have a quantification why they haven’t gotten enough votes.
You sit on the nominating committee, but you’re not a voter. Are there artists who you want to see get in?
There’s so many bands that I like that aren’t in yet, I’ll stay neutral there. But people ask me all the time, if a certain artist is going to get in. I don’t know! There’s not necessarily a rhyme or reason why a certain artist gets traction with the nominating committee one year, and not another year.
What was your first nominating committee meeting like?
It was interesting! People may bring up certain acts and you roll your eyes and say, “What are you, kidding?” But then they back it up, and explain why that act should be inducted. “This is their influence, this artist covered their songs,” I find it very educational, frankly.
An edited version of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony airs on HBO this Saturday night, May 30, at 8 pm ET.