Friday, March 18, 2011

Yo! MTV Saps!

There are far fewer parallels between sports and popular music than people, particularly athletes, would have you believe.

Let’s start with the obvious. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever screamed, “Sex and drugs and harness racing!” No rock ‘n’ roller has ever been traded to another band for a bag of drumsticks, or Joe Foy. (Though the way I heard the lyrics to Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way From Memphis” for many years, I thought Mott’s guitar was griping because he had been traded to REO Speedwagon – a far better story than the actual lyrics, which are a bit of a muddle.) Stevie Ray Vaughan was no one’s first-round draft choice, Echo and the Bunnymen do not play in the English Premier League, and there are few rockers beyond Jason Becker who’ve suffered a career-ending injury not known as death. Hell, the drummer for Def Leppard lost an arm and kept playing. Let’s see Chase Utley try that.

The parallels tend to be superficial. Athletes and rockers have entourages, indulge in excesses, enjoy strip clubs, and don’t know when to quit. Memory loss also figures in there, but I’ve forgotten exactly where.

The major difference between professional sports and rock ‘n’ roll is attitude. Rockers by definition are anti-establishment while athletes are non-establishment. Rockers attack the bourgeoisie running dogs; athletes run like dogs, and like it. Rockers flip off their fans as a sign of endearment; athletes can’t even thumb their nose at a heckler who suggests that the athlete’s wife is sleeping with a rock star. The most beloved athlete hit home runs for orphans; the most beloved rock star had fathers worldwide locking up their daughters. There’s an edge, a threat, an unsettling element to rock ‘n’ roll that sports has never had. It’s pegged pants, torn T-shirts, biker boots, afros, piercings, and tattoos. The best sports can offer in response is Brandy Chastain stripping down to a sports bra after winning a world championship for her country. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl? Pure rock ‘n’ roll. Which is why rock and sports cannot and should not coexist.

This message has a particular amount of wham right now because the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductions were last week. Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, and Tom Waits were inducted – three of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll creeps enshrined in one fell swoop. The only way the night could have been better would have been if Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had risen from his now-real coffin and sung “I Put A Spell On You” to the tuxedoed multitude.

I am no fan of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I find it as ludicrous as Jane Eyre in 3-D. (Not yet, but soon.) It began as a big-moneyed institutionalization of anarchy and has rapidly reached the point where it is scraping the underside of the barrel for inductees – hence the enshrinement of the creative force behind “Longfellow Serenade.”

Put in perspective, the baseball equivalent to this year’s rock hall-of-famers would be a Cooperstown class consisting of Ralph Garr (multiple lightweight No.1s), Frenchy Bordagaray (short weird guy), and George Brunet (pet snakes).

All of which is a roundabout introduction to one of the worst ideas ever to skulk into the trading-card business: rock-‘n’-roll trading cards.

Let’s be clear on the definitions. By rock-‘n’-roll cards I do not mean the Fleer Beatles sets of the early ‘60s. Those cards were celebrating a cultural phenomenon and indulging in the other National Pastime: separating 10-year-old girls from their money.

The rock-‘n’- roll cards I’m talking about were the Handful O’Landfill-era attempts to treat rock like sports and musicians like athletes, right down to rookie cards, stats, foil, and chase.

There were three major attempts to make rock-‘n’-roll the new hockey. Two, in what should come as a shock to absolutely no one, emanated from Pro Set, the Chinese Democracy of trading-card makers. The third was from a company called Brockum, which was far more sincere but no less misguided.

Brockum's RockCards are the better jumping-off point because they are as bone-simple and straightforward – and derivative – as a CCR riff. They're 4/4 time for sure. None of this Led Zappa stuff.

There's a refreshing naiveté to RockCards, from the five-minute front design to the Uncle-Harry-up-against-the-wall photos to the backs, which read the way '52 Topps cards would have read if they were written by Nikki Sixx.

"Jerry Dixon admits that he loves every aspect of his life on the road with Warrant," reads the back of the aforementioned Mr. Dixon's card – "the women, the free booze backstage, the women, the bus trips and the women. But the talented bass beater has other loves too – including his tattoo collection which he'll gladly show to anyone who asks."

As you may have inferred, RockCards walk with pointy-toed boots on the metal side of the road. Bon Jovi is as soft as these cards get. There are individual cards of people like Brad Whitford, who is known to guitar geeks and unconcussed headbangers as a major contributor to the Aerosmith sound, but is just another over-age, Aqua-Netted reprobate to the rest of the world. Brockum included a few foil cards and autographs for the occasional collector who happened by, but they did it with the same sort of enthusiasm displayed by Peter Frampton in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

RockCards, then, were a hardcore trading card for hardcore hard-rock fans, which was as misguided a notion as giving Steve Jobs an IBM Selectric for his birthday. Their demise was as swift as it was expected.

Pro Set took a different tack for its 1991 run at music-card global domination – but this was SOP for the Lud Denny Band, whose path to the market often ran through Kyrgyzstan.

Its massive (350-plus-card) Super Star MusicCards set included hard rockers (Zakk Wylde), one-hit wonders (Alannah Myles), no-hit blunders (The Party), classics (The Doors, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix) and legit legends (Madonna, Janet Jackson) – their promo photos, anyway – wedged between fuchsia trapezoids and backed with the usual blather, all laid out on a leopard-skin background.

Paula Abdul and fuchsia trapezoids and leopard-skin card backs? Rrrrrowwwwrrrrrr.

For extra texture each pack included a scratch-and-win card (top prize: a trip to swingin’ London) and a handful of Pro Set Points, which could be collected and collected and collected to no apparent effect. You couldn’t even get a Puck bar in the deal.

Unbowed by the lukewarm reception to MusicCards, Pro Set attacked the market the next year with a smaller (150-card) set of Yo! MTV Raps cards.

As part of Pro Set’s attempt to make MusicCards the Standard Rock-‘n’-Roll Trading Card of the World (in the same way that its Flopps cards were the Standard Witless Baseball Parody Trading Card of the World), Yo! MTV Raps are a chip off the Super Stars block o’ rock. The design’s practically the same – maybe a little more gigantic-clock-around-the-neck, but hardly enough to notice – and the backs display the same attention to the press kit … I mean, the same attention to detail. Muckraking, they’re not.

Call me an old softie, but I’m not as repulsed by Yo! MTV Raps cards because they actually document a fascinating period in music history – and by that, I’m not referring to the period when people thought Vanilla Ice had talent. I’m talking about the time when rap went mainstream, powered by Mr. Ice and Mr. Hammer, and the genre was also at a creative peak, thanks to less acclaimed groups like Bell Biv Devoe and the Digital Underground in addition to the critical powerhouses Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys.

Are trading cards the ultimate means of documenting this period? I prefer It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back myself. But at the going rate for Yo! MTV Raps cards (approximately a nickel a gross) it’s tough to say no to the cardboard.

Teenybopper-pop-hero cards will always have a place in the lexicon. Drop by Target and check out the Panini Justin Bieber set for proof. But please, Mr. Panini: Leave rock ‘n’ roll to the sweaty bars and soundstages. You’ll both be better for it.

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