Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 17, 2017

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Temple of Rock

Raise your lighter for Cleveland's anthem-loving, head-banging museum

In ancient Egypt, a pyramid was referred to as mer which, literally translated, means "place of ascendance." Little wonder then that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland resembles a super-sized glass pyramid: this structure pays homage to those modern-day musicians who have indeed reached the summit of popular music. And much like those triangular Egyptian tombs back in the days of the pharaohs, there is priceless treasure lurking beyond the walls of this shimmering structure set on the always-frigid shores of Lake Erie. It is self-billed as the “ultimate place to learn about rock and roll and how it continues to shape our lives” and it strives to live up to the hyperbole.

Where else can music fans check out paraphernalia as diverse as Janis Joplin’s 1965 Porsche 356c (complete with multi-hued psychedelic paint job) or Marky Ramone’s star-spangled boxer shorts (emblazoned with the band's trademark lyric, “Hey, ho, let’s go!”) or the broken bass guitar of the Clash’s Paul Simonon, the very same one he can be seen smashing on the iconic cover of London Calling?

To keep things fresh, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (tel: 216-781-7625; rockhall.com) is also home to an ever-changing line-up of temporary exhibits. During my visit, there was a comprehensive exhibit devoted to the making of the 1965 Beatles movie Help!, as well as a thorough montage on The Doors. This is all certain to bring back memories for many a baby boomer. And a good thing, too — as the saying goes, “If you can remember the ’60s, you probably weren’t there.”

As for Cleveland — long disparaged as the “Mistake by the lake” (although on the comeback trail these days) — the city may seem like an unlikely place for a hall of fame devoted to rock music. But it was Cleveland deejay Alan Freed who coined the term “rock and roll” as a substitute for black "race" music.

Touring the hall, it's fascinating to observe how some artists have stood the test of time, aging gracefully and remaining relevant through the decades. Madonna, a 2008 inductee, surely deserves a place in the hall simply for her uncanny ability to constantly reinvent herself.

When rockers regift

Throughout the hall there are mini-shrines showcasing the careers of various artists, typically jam-packed with fascinating artifacts and memorabilia. A glass-encased display lauding Bob Seger contains such items as the black cowboy boots Seger wore on the cover of his Greatest Hits album as well as his original handwritten lyrics for “Like a Rock” (scribbled in ink on yellow foolscap paper). Another Seger donation to the hall is his 1957 Gibson acoustic guitar. The instrument was given to him as a birthday present from Glenn Fry of the Eagles, proving that even rock stars aren’t above the practice of “re-gifting.”

As for the hundreds of unique knickknacks that fill the hall, the question arises: where does all this stuff come from? For the most part, says Todd Mesek, the hall’s VP of marketing and communications, fans can be thankful that many artists have pack-rat mothers. “Some of the artists’ moms just hang on to everything,” says Mesek. “They’re a great source when it comes to acquisitions.”

While the lion’s share of the hall’s collection is in the basement level — including a listening area that offers fans an opportunity to sample the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll — there are gems to be found on the upper levels, too.

For example, a display dedicated to Pink Floyd’s 1979 masterwork, The Wall, is captivating. White bricks the size of refrigerators support a 10-metre tall sinister professor as well as other disturbing-looking characters. Written on the bricks like so much graffiti is a short essay by Roger Waters regarding the epiphany he experienced in 1977 that lead to the creation of the album.

Don't call us

While much of the hall’s memorabilia is fascinating, some items make for profoundly odd choices. For example, a display of Jim Morrison paraphernalia features a reproduction of his 1944 baptism certificate. How such commonplace bureaucratic paperwork is remotely interesting to even hardcore Doors fans is a mystery. There’s also a drawing of a man rendered in purple, brown and black crayon, created by Morrison as a five-year-old. Let’s put it this way: it looks exactly what you’d expect a crayon drawing by a five-year-old to look like. What, pray tell, is the historical significance?

Far more interesting is some of the correspondence on display, such as a 1981 letter to Jann Werner, editor/publisher of Rolling Stone from Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. It reads: “Dear Jann: In return for my consent to allow you to register the name ‘Rolling Stone,’ what do you offer as far as cover stories, special small ad rates, and summer clothes coverage?”

The most gulp-inducing missive is surely the 1979 letter by Billy Lawrie, former director of artists and repertoire for Arista Records. Lawrie’s letter begins, “Dear Friends” and goes on to note, "although this [demo tape] doesn't meet our needs at present, we would like to thank you for thinking of us and encourage you to keep us posted on future endeavours." The recipient of Lawrie’s letter? An obscure band out of Dublin, Ireland called U2.

Into the vault

Interestingly, like most other museums the world over, the vast majority of the acquisitions are not on display. Many items are locked away in the hall’s vault, including Buddy Holly’s eyeglasses; a Bob Marley dreadlock; and Prince’s jacket from Purple Rain. Mesek says there’s simply not enough space in the hall to display everything at once, so many items are displayed on a rotational basis (if at all).

Looking ahead, “ch-ch-ch-changes” (as David Bowie might say) are on the way. The hall plans to unveil a 7000-square-metre library and archives in late 2010, set in Cuyahoga Community College's Center for Creative Arts.

If anything, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is proof that this genre continues to thrive and evolve despite considerable backlash it has received from “the establishment” over the decades.

Just consider the Don’t Knock the Rock exhibit. This multimedia display features TV clips from the ’50s and ’60s in which critics opine that rock music is responsible for a witch’s brew of societal ills, ranging from premarital sex to Satan worship. And so much for the US Constitution: in 1985, a San Antonio councilman opined that, “The First Amendment should not apply to rock and roll.”

Still, one can’t help but notice there’s a perverse undercurrent of irony inherent to the very idea of establishing a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in the first place. After all, rock music was once a piss ’n vinegar part of the counterculture movement. Today, the genre has its own multimillion dollar, self-congratulatory temple (including a gift shop where some souvenir T-shirts sells for as much as $50).

Surely, such a flagrant embrace of capitalism is about as “establishment” as you can get... and one can only ponder what the likes of Morrison, Hendrix and Vicious would have to say if they were still alive and rocking today.

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