Before proceeding with tonight’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon induction ceremony, we’d like to express special gratitude to those legendary music folk who come forward to perform the inductions.
This is no easy endeavor, especially in regard to tonight’s inductee, those paragons of baroque pop, the Left Banke. Indeed, we had originally asked the legendary acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, who has spoken of his vain attempt to replicate the Lefties’ classic debut hit from 1966, “Walk Away Renée.”
“I just can’t do it!” he said, respectfully turning down a great honor that he felt unworthy of. “The voting process is too complicated for me!”
He’s not without some point, here, perhaps, except that the voting process for induction into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon (not to be confused with The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) is really known only to the voter(s). But we were lucky to come up with a more than suitable replacement for Leo in another great artist, who is not only an old hand at honoring others, but is himself a rightly honored inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (not to be confused with The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon).
Please, let’s give a warm Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon welcome to none other than the one and only John Mellencamp! John, this truly is a special honor for the Pantheon!
“When they asked me if I would be willing to induct the Left Banke into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon I was stunned.”
Why, John? You’re certainly worthy…
“It was shocking to learn that the guys who created ‘Walk Away Renée’ and ‘Pretty Ballerina’ and so many other great but lesser known songs had been previously ignored by this august institution!”
Oh! But they weren’t being ignored!
“Of course, once I was asked, I stepped forward to do the honors!”
“I mean, here was a group unlike any other that came before--or since. Their music was poignant and atmospheric and innovative but they knew how to rock. The Left Banke was a band that could make you cry and boogie, in a baroque way, at the same time. That's rock 'n' roll mastery at the highest level. It's not an easy task, I know--because I actually recorded a version of ‘Pretty Ballerina’ that we put on the B-side of ‘Rain On The Scarecrow’ way back when. That song, and just about all of the material the Left Banke recorded, has all kinds of tricky changes and transitions and it's damn hard to sing! I'm in awe of what they were able to accomplish, essentially, over the course of just two main albums released over two years. They had something mysterious going with harpsichords and oboes and violas, but they certainly rocked out, too.”
John, this is so true.
“It's not easy to do something completely original in rock 'n' roll but they did it and it's something that stays with you. It's great when rock 'n' roll has an air of mystery. These days we know too much about just about every band that releases an album or a track--and the Left Banke had that mystery. Who was this Michael Brown guy who wrote those brilliant hit songs? We knew that the singer's name was Steve Martin--yeah, not that Steve Martin--and he could hit some very high notes, but not in a Frankie Valli or Lou Christie way or even in a Beach Boys way. His vocals were ethereal but biting.”
And what about Tom Finn?
“I met Tom Finn, the band's pulsating bassist, a few years back at a party that followed a fundraiser we played for John Kerry when he ran against Bush. He was the DJ at the after-party, and I almost lost it when he was introduced to me. The Left Banke was real but they had always seemed like some kind of spirit force that couldn't be embodied in flesh and blood. Tom was really nice that night and I introduced him to everyone there who I thought would care. He wasn't a ghost but the music he and that band created was certainly not of this earth--and I'm happy to induct the Left Banke into the Rock 'n' Roll Pantheon which, come to think of it, isn't of this earth either.”
No, the Panth, as it is often called, is not of this earth. In fact, John, it’s said to be located in Hell’s Kitchen! And we’re sure it was a coincidence that you used the word “ghost” in so aptly describing the music of the Left Banke, but we’d like to make note that your Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County, the play with music on which you collaborated with Stephen King that premiered last spring in Atlanta--and which we were lucky enough to see at a Broadway workshop--will be presented later this year in a unique all-star album featuring the likes of Elvis Costello, Rosanne Case and Kris Kirstofferson! And congratulations on winning the John Steinbeck Award last year, in recognition of your social activism! And thank you for not smoking!
But we see someone in the audience who has worked with you for many years as your press representative, and is also a huge fan of the Left Banke as well as a Friend of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon—Bob Merlis! Bob, you did such a great job for us in inducting the great Lesley Gore. Maybe you’d like to come up and say a few words about the Left Banke?
“Yes. Thank you. Like just about everybody else I knew at the time, I was transfixed by ‘Walk Away Renée’ and later, ‘Pretty Ballerina,’ when they first came out. But I wanted to go deeper since this was a group that, to my ears, sounded like no other. I fixated on ‘She May Call You Up Tonight,’ a song that is still in 'heavy rotation' on my playlist to this day -- it's really a great rock song with a message of hope and possibility that has always appealed to me and to just about everyone I've ever played it for over the past 45 or so years. I've also long been intrigued by ‘Barterers And Their Wives’ which seems like an indictment of bourgeois values or, perhaps, it's a commentary on the rise of mercantilism. Whatever the case, it's become another Left Banke standard on my personal eternal 'hit parade.'"
That’s great, Bob!
“Then just under 10 years ago I got to meet Tom Finn at that fundraiser at Radio City that John played. After the show I made my way uptown to pay my respects to Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson at their wonderful restaurant/club The Sugar Bar at 72nd Street and West End Avenue. My phone rang shortly after my arrival. It was John! ‘Where are you?’ he asked from the after-party at the Rainbow Room. I told him. ‘Get back down here! You have to meet this guy. Hurry!’ I ran out of the club and took the first cab I could hail down to Rockefeller Center, and upon exiting the elevator on the 65th floor of the RCA Building, I was greeted by a clearly excited John Mellencamp. ‘The DJ here is Tom Finn, the bass player from the Left Banke!’ he exclaimed. ‘I've got to introduce you!’ He was clearly aware from some previous conversations that I was a dyed-in-the-wool fan, and so he did and it made me think how the impact of that great band continues to reverberate and that I’m glad that John called me up that night.”
And we’re glad we called you up tonight, Bob! And speaking about “Walk Away Renée,” we’re sure you know that besides the Four Tops’ 1967 hit cover of it—not to mention other great versions by the likes of The Cowsills and Southside Johnny--the wonderful Cajun songstress Ann Savoy did a beautiful version of it with her friend Linda Ronstadt on their Grammy-nominated 2006 album Adieu False Heart. After all, you yourself have released two acclaimed Ann Savoy albums on your label Memphis International Records!
And now, without further ado…. But wait! Someone’s approaching the lectern! Could it be? It is! It’s Jim Bessman! From examiner.com! Formerly with Billboard!
Come on people. Jim Bessman! Let's hear it!
But Jim, we’re running a little late tonight. Please be brief…
“First of all, I just wanted to say that the Left Banke recently reunited, with original members Tom Finn—who now plays acoustic guitar and sings, and singer/drummer George Cameron. They got lead singer and occasional guitarist Mike Fornatale, who was note-perfect on Steve Martin’s vocal parts at the shows I saw, also bassist Charly Cazalet, guitarist Paul Alves, keyboardist Mickey Finn--no relation to Tom Finn--drummer/vocalist Rick Reil and a cellist and a violinist. They were just great at the shows I saw!”
Thank you, Jim…
“But I’m not finished! I really wish Leo would do “Walk Away Renée." I mean, Richard Thompson does such a great job of ‘Pretty Ballerina’ at his ‘all request’ shows…”
Again, thank you, Jim…
“…and I was at Radio City when John Mellencamp did his first headlining show there! He and his band came out in tuxes and did a breathless opening half-hour of covers including ‘Pretty Ballerina.’ John! I wish you’d include that next time you do one of those box sets…”
Jim! Most of us have to work tomorrow!
“But let me just say this about John Mellencamp! He used to do songs like ‘Pretty Ballerina,’ then go out of his way to cover and credit great songwriters like Richard Thompson and Steve Earle in his sets, that no one knew who they were then! It’s a travesty he’s not in The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon!”
You, of all people, Jim, should know that inductees into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are ineligible for The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon! That’s why we have The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon—for those whom The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have overlooked!
Previously inducted into The Rock 'n' Roll Pantheon:
(The Examiner is the author of John Mellencamp--The Concert At Walter Reed.)