During a somewhat impromptu goodwill tour of the American east, J. and I stopped off to see my brother Mark, who’s currently doing Shakespeare in Cleveland (city of lights, city of magic). It was great to see my brother ply his craft, and Cleveland turned out to have an absolutely amazing free art museum [a broad range of work, and some really beautiful things you might not expect to find--Adriaan Coorts, a wonderful Lee Krassner, some marvellous Japanese screens].
But we were in Cleveland, so we just had to go to the Rock `n Roll Hall of Fame. I was a little doubtful about this for several reasons….
First, I didn’t really fancy emerging from the set of exhibitions feeling radiocarbon datable. Perhaps everyone else fears recognizing too much in such a place, so maybe it’s not just me. After all the idea of “fame” suggests both the passage of time (there’s the rub, as the Bard says) and a kind of shared concensus.
Second, I have to admit that, on some level, I’m either not a “Rock `n Roll” person now, or maybe I never was. Judging by the Humble Pie, Pretenders, Long John Baldry, and Depeche Mode on my vinyl shelf, I must have been. So I figured that this was a chance to see another bit of I.M. Pei architecture up close (besides that cool Louvre pyramid)–it doesn’t seem like a Rock and Roll kind of building, by the way… more something out of “Logan’s Run.”
I figured that this would be a great chance to explain all kinds of cultural detritus to J., who didn’t have the benefit of a midwest upbringing, kind of missed seeing Punk upend everything, and so on. So the three of us joined the happy throngs streaming into the building, buying tickets with the art-Trabis from the U2 ZOO TV tour suspended overhead. The first non-surprise: Admission tickets remind me suspiciously of Ticketron prices.
I had a great time, although maybe not for the reasons I expected.
I’m not sure that the museum’s contents helped me to somehow mediate my own rock and roll experiences to J.–for example, it is still not clear to her that Roger Daltrey’s fringed vest from the Who’s Next tour is intended to do anything OTHER than to cripple a spectator with helpless laughter. Come to think of it, I don’t really think of the various strains of rock being about costume; the Hall of Fame rather powerfully suggests otherwise by having nearly as many mannequins on some floors as visitors. Oh sure–there are headphone stations and music blaring, but the visual material is, in large measure, about objects.
While I’m sure it varies from day to day, it was hard not to be in the crowd of couples, families, and kids and not be in a sort of oddly celebratory mood. It’s enough sensory overload for even the most discriminating child or addict of the immersive environment, and full of opportunities for people to try to explain themselves to others by means of objects or experiences. Which makes it even more noisy and festive. Think of it as a sacred site where children learn the secrets of their elders….
As a riotous monument to material culture, I’m hard pressed to think of anything quite so densely packed anywhere else. In some ways, it reminded me the most of those religious or historical sites where one could view various relics of the saints (secular or otherwise), and where the faithful come to see the pile of crutches or St. Anonymia’s femur or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portable bar and reflect. The museum’s layout even reminds you of a pilgrimage, although one is less likely to be following the life of Mother Theresa and to be distracted by a collection of grunge LP covers or giant looming balloon ghouls from a Pink Floyd stadium gig. You’re also not allowed to photograph the relics, either.
So this means I’m stuck telling you about some of my favorite things:
- A set of kid’s drawings done by a very young Jimi Hendrix that includes a picture of a car-train pileup bearing the caption “OBEY RAILROAD SIGNALS” (J. was very partial to a drawing of Jimi’s dog sleeping on his bed). Of course, they also had film (“Yes, honey – that’s grammy when she was a girl standing at the edge of the stage watching Jimi play the guitar with his teeth. She snuck out of the house to go….”)
- A lovely diorama-like display of old Bakelite case AM radios that are maybe supposed to get you thinking about great Djs, but instead remind you of the last great age of industrial design by persons who still believed that the world was getting better.
- John Cippolina’s multi-amp setup from the salad days of Quicksilver Messenger service, (high-frequency) horns and all. Actually, it’s an agglomeration of heads and bottoms and echoplexii and tweeters that looks like something you expect to see sprout wheels and roar off on old Transformers reruns (got the job done, though. Who do you love?) It’s a hilarious and touching example of why we all love software emulations of things like amps and stompboxes.
- An old kinescope of the Les Paul and Mary Ford television program complete with the fake “home” TV set, howlingly quaint scripts which created opportunities for Les and Mary to play and sing (this is the famous multitracked Les Paul Sound apparently done in um… real time for the TV audience).
- The happy discovery that their wall of photos of the “sources” of Rock `n Roll included a lovely recording of Professor Longhair. Hope floats.
- Definitely some major death stuff: stuff from lots of dead rock stars (Lynyrd Skynrd tour costumes, anyone? A torched Keith Moon drumkit? A copy of Otis Redding’s death certificate?).
- Enough old vinyl sleeves that I’ll bet every second adult who goes heads home, rummages in the garage, and checks eBay.
They also are beset with the perennial problems faced by any museologist–how to find space for new or travelling stuff. During our visit, the U2 memorabilia was displaced so that we could view Mary Wilson’s collection of stage apparel (she was the third Supreme. 20 points if you can name the second one).
And I don’t suppose that I should avoid mentioning that one of the major differences between this and a one-stop Reliquaries of the Saints euroattraction is the Income Tax writeoff angle, which must assume mind-boggling proportions. But look on the bright side–Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators (His famous jacket) and Keith Emerson (the actual dagger he plunged into his Hammond during ELP and Nice tours) get their write-offs next to John Bon Jovi and the Hendrix estate.
One of my personal rating systems for museums has to do with postcards–specifically, the extent to which the riches inside are available for posting to friends abroad. The Cleveland art museum was sort of a disappointment in that regard, but the Rock and Roll Hall of fame was pitiful – I wound up having to choose between a photo of Keith Moon’s shoes or Pei’s building. So it was Moon boots for the metros, Logan’s Run pix for the retros.