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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Impressions of the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame



For my 38th birthday on Monday the family and I ventured up to Cleveland and the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. After sloshing through a few torrents along the way, we first took a detour on the outskirts of Cleveland to find the house where the exteriors and some of the interior shots for A Christmas Story was filmed. Undoubtedly the renovations to the house and the neighborhood which had obviously been scarred by drugs and crime has brought back much of the feel of that throwback thirties essence you sift from the film and assuredly there was a nostalgic you-are-there essence, which you can probably derive yourself from this picture:



A lot of us hipper-than-thou rock snobs have turned our conceited noses over the years at The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, and the heftiest portion of our contention derives from the fact that it's irresponsible to quantify music and musicians on the same merit system that sports icons achieve their status and immortalization in records annals and halls of fame. For all of the good music and performers showcased in The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, assuredly there are 10-20 equal or better performers at the minimum who would likewise deserve mention and credit.

Is that what rock 'n roll is all about, though? As Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen point out in one of the documentary films inside The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, the genre in its purest form has no rules. Why then, all the pomp and circumstance each year when The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame does its annual induction ceremony, particularly in light of the fact that it's a peacock affair in which attendees dress formally? Is that not a bastardization of rock 'n roll at its core? Sure, The Beatles and those who made up the fifties rock 'n roll and subsequent British invasion scenes were all clad in double-breasted suits and ties, but by the time the turbulent sixties declared an end to the squeaky clean charade, the gestation effect upon rock 'n roll had finally nurtured it into the state of rebellion that was promised earlier from the coiffed, pressed and pompadoured rockers who ushered the sound out of the Mississippi deltas and the midwestern dustbowls. All en route to a genre that has now been glorified in a post modern construct that some may argue has put a price tag on something that needs no quantification.

After a long aversion to The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, I decided that it was important to me as a lifelong music fan to confront my occasionally elitist being and seek out the artifacts and treasures that are gathered inside the hall. Obviously there's a sense of surrealism that rock 'n roll has been going on for 50 years plus, much less the fact that a building exists as a tribute to it. To think of guitars, drums, stage costumes, archive photos, high school diplomas, vehicles, 45 records, jackets and various paraphenlia hiding behind glass as time capsules is slightly mind-blowing. As music is inherently an audile experience that is given visualization depending on the outgoing nature of the performer, it's a Catch-22 to fathom an experience based upon a hearing medium that is in this instance, largely visual.

Within 20 minutes of crossing the threshhold of the bottom level (and main artifact wing) in The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, I was immediately transfixed and for the most part relieved that the museum has its heart in the right place. With a salute to the thirties and forties blues, country and folk performers such as Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Bill Munroe, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie respectively, as well as gospel and jazz performers such as Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holliday, I began to appreciate the tributary nature that The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame exhibited. Sweeping straight into a pair of 15 minute films that are featured in adjacent rooms, The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame manages the impossible, which is to tell the story of rock 'n roll in a compact form to be utilized as a primer to all that is housed within. Establishing the state of starchiness that existed in early fifties pop culture, I drifted back to fun lectures from my parents who used to give me the history of fifties rock 'n roll every Friday night in my youth, and echoes of "All we had was Perry Como and 'How Much is That Doggie in the Window' before rock 'n roll came around..."

Sure enough, the mini film plays the haunting echoes of "Doggie" to reinforce the stories I was given by my folks, but more importantly, the first film especially utilizes a train as its central muse to bring out static-laced recordings of sliding blues riffs, melancholic piano twinkling and Texarkana twang before the abrupt social change came about through Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. As the film shows the economic depression of downtrodden blacks versus the a-okay life is peachy white boy culture, I really admired the chutzpah in presenting the conflicting misnomer that The Fabulous Fifties were fabulous only for a select demographic.



By the time the two films were finished, I was eager to dive into the artifacts and exhibits in the hall, feeling better that this place was actually existing in a historical context. After all, The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame is actually a tribute to Alan Freed, the radical disc jockey who daringly played black honky tonk and ultimately coined the term "rock 'n roll," then was ridden out of town by social bigots on trumped-up payola charges. It is in this respect where I maintain that the hall should be called more appropriately The Rock 'n Roll Museum instead of a delineating Hall of Fame.

After a long pitstop in the listening booths where you can cue up 500 Songs That Shaped Rock 'n Roll from the forties to the nineties, I'd have to say that The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame was massive sensory overload from all the items that have been donated by the artists or those representing their estates. To see high school diplomas of Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers to one of Bo Diddley's trademark squared-box guitars to the actual suits used by The Temptations and The Shirelles, along with actual cars driven by Elvis, Janis Joplin and Roy Orbison (who sadly died months after purchasing the cherry red beauty shown below), not to mention a slew of Jimi Hendrix's most famous wardrobe pieces as well as his childhood drawings that marked a prodigy in the making... Wow, I can't use enough superlatives to describe it all.



Of course, for me, one of the highlights was the punk exhibit and Joey Ramone's leather jacket, as well as Handsome Dick Manitoba's gear. I was likewise transfixed by Joe Strummer's banged and spray-painted six string as well as Paul Simonon's splintered bass, which put me right in the moment of The Clash onstage and how much chaos and energy went into their performances. I was also pleased to find another showcase on a different floor dedicated strictly to The Ramones, where Marky signed his torn jeans, beat-up high tops and drum head, and there were original lyric sheets for "Beat On the Brat" and other songs.

Other highlights for me in The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame was seeing John Lennon's original lyric sheets for "Beautiful Boy" and "Just Like Starting Over" as well as his 1964 12-string, not to mention some of his wardrobe and those of the other Beatles, such as Ringo's grey suit. There was naturally a small floor dedicated to Help! and behind-the-scenes pictures and artifacts, and for true posterity, a screening of the movie in its entirety. One level up is a psychedlic penthouse wing for The Doors, in which all four members are draped from the ceiling on each wall while live footage pumps loudly. At one point, I was creeped out with the feeling that someone was approaching me out of my periphery but it was Jim Morrison, appropriately larger-than-life and catching in his regal Lizard King clutches. Whew. Even more poignant was seeing actual letters to Morrison's father announcing Jim's death, along with a letter to the military asking Morrison's dad what he intended to do about his rambunctious son following the infamous penis waggling incident onstage. Then there's a letter from Jim himself to his business manager indicating he and Pamela wanted to stay in Paris but they would need credit cards to live on. All of it putting a human touch on a superhuman figurehead.

Of course, overtop the atrium in The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame are giant replicas of scenes from Pink Floyd's The Wall as well as a titanic steel rendition of the halved faces from The Division Bell.



If there's any gripe about The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, it's their anti-photography policy. The stance from the hall is that the artists and their families donated the items to the museum and therefore it is their wish that the items not be photographed. My mother made an excellent point that Janis Joplin would be utterly offended by the fact that visitors can't take pictures of her psychedelic Porsche (which is an amazing work of art) without express permission from her estate, which is managed by her siblings and thankfully not her parents. Still, you have to question whether or not this policy is from the musicians' standpoint or the hall's, which of course wants to sell continuous tickets to subsist on.

I was also disappointed there wasn't a lot to do with heavy metal, though it was pointed out that most of the heavy metal run hasn't yet reached the inductee inclusion period. Why then, an exhibit case for grunge? Neat to see Mudhoney, The Melvins and Sonic Youth get some mention along with Nirvana and Soundgarden, but um, hey, did someone fall asleep at the wheel? Yeah, it was cool to see some of Joe Perry and Steven Tyler's gear, and the ZZ Top display was utterly amazing, including the Terminator-like guitar and bass used in the "Rough Boy" video, as well as their hallmark Eliminator Ford coupe, and likewise it was great to see a hefty portion of Queen memorabilia. You can even find, of all things, a couple of stage props donated by Mushroomhead and one of Marilyn Manson's capes. You can even find a busted out Cramps drum head as well, which I believe these are all planted in various spots to try and give the hall a bit more street cred. It's fun, but not necessary. I will admit to finding the Madonna costumes utterly fascinating as well as the Michael Jackson, David Bowie and U2 costumes. They even have one of Flavor Flav's stopwatches, Queen Latifah's garb and even Outkast, for you hip hop heads. Talk about trying to be more street.

Maybe it's appropriate that a skate park lurks behind the hall, though no kids were using it when I tramped through and took pictures of graffiti and slopes of the ramps. A pair of cops on unicycles scooted by and were apparently going to chase me out until they saw I was taking photos, but if there's one statement I really dug about the skate park, it's the fact that it is almost like the butt ugly eyesore behind the glossy hall, kind of like CBGB's in relation to Madison Square Garden, and likewise, the skate park encased the attitude of the streets (which were remarkably bare in Cleveland's otherwise clean-cut harbor), as implied by this photo:



Asshole or not, I can honestly say The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame was a genuine pleasure that marks the birthplace of Alan Freed and hypothetically the birth of rock 'n roll. The depressing afterthought to me has to be the fact that Freed--who has his own exhibit next to an amazing corridor dedicated to Les Paul including the genesis of his guitars and some old fifties' television shows in which he pulls out some amazing licks--may have been given credit for bridging cultural gaps between blacks and whites in the fifties and for coming up with the term "rock 'n roll," but he died penniless and utterly destroyed by a society that was so jaded the swirling tides of change that they inadvertently killed him in the name of the status quo. Amazing how some things never change, but at least rock 'n roll perseveres. Here's to ya, Freed...

13 comments:

David Amulet said...

A great review of the Hall, which I also have avoided like the plague. It's sad that grunge got more attention than metal ...

Was it crowded? What were the other guests like?

dschalek said...

Happy birthday!

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Dave, thanks, mang!

David, thanks for the words. It was fairly packed. There were groups of high school kids (many staying in the same hotel as us, joy oh joy), and once they breezed through as one would expect them to, the real music fans were sometimes silent and reverential and others quite talkative, depending on the subject and/or musician. I know a boomer came up and sang along to Country Joe with my mom. For the most part, there was a decent sized crowd that was thankfully uncramped

Kayla said...

Found you via Amulet's blog and thought I'd say hello.
Cool review. Now I have a little insight into what it's really like.
The yearly induction parties do seem like a bastardization of the essence of rock and roll.
I can appreciate the sensory overload after visiting the Hall.
And Happy Birthday!

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Hi, Kayla, and welcome! Glad to have your input. It's definitely heavy stimulus overload, but once you hit a certain spot where it all seems like so much to intake, that becomes the joy and the suspicion of what else might lie about. Though I still have certain ideological quirks about the Hall, there's no denying it's a terrific museum and well conceived.

TarBabyJim said...

Nice blog. Don't feel bad metalheads, your artists aren't the only worthy ones left out. I have a fan site trying to help get a great singer-songwriter in. Any of you ever hear of Melanie? http:/LetHerIn.org
Jim
Spokane WA

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Hi, Jim, welcome. Is Melanie a folk rock singer from 70s?

pcsolotto said...

Thanks to the owner of this blog. Ive enjoyed reading this topic.

TarBabyJim said...

Hi Ray, Thanks for the welcome. Yeah, you could say she was folk-rock but she started out singing "beatnick" music.

DPTH International said...

Great commentary on the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame! I'd like to get there someday, but I think I'd be let down some for similar reasons that you've avoided going there for so long.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Thanks, dpth, I think I decided to just let it all go and dive into what the museum does provide, and I guarantee you can't finish it all in one day if you're a deep music nut; most of the other casual fans or the field trippers were moving along half-interestedly so naturally they get done in record time, lol...

online pharmacy said...

They only put North American and British artists in this place, come I know better musicians all around the world!

Roberts said...

Hi, Jim, welcome. Is Melanie a folk rock singer from 70s?