Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

What do you do when you're trapped in Cleveland for 3 weeks, it's -25 degrees, the Browns have been screwed out of their rightful spot in the playoffs, the Indians front office is in the midst of making a travesty of their once glorious home, and the Lebron and the Cavs are out of town for an extended period in order to accommodate "Disney's High School Musical on Ice"? Well, you can always sit in the fifth row and witness the biggest upset in the history of Cleveland State basketball... And you can hit up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

My dad has been telling me for years that I have to get to the Rock and Roll HOF. He and my mom hit it up on their way home from Tennessee a few years back, and actually bumped into Peter Frampton inside. Now, my dad is an absolute music junkie. Ask him about the most obscure musical trivia dealing with anything between Feb. 7, 1964 and the release of Springsteen's Nebraska, and chances are he'll not only give you the answer, but he'll provide an interesting little anecdote explaining exactly why that obscure fact might be relevant. It's uncanny. And despite the fact that this propensity for summoning seemingly insignificant minutiae was an endless source of fascination and education for me, I wasn't quite sold on the idea of an entire museum dedicated to twangy trinkets and beat up guitars.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

A co-worker of mine doubles in another life as a tour guide at the Rock, in much the same way that yours truly doubles as a multinational blogging magnate (insert laugh track here), and BS was kind enough to take me and two buddies for a three hour tour Wednesday night... And to say that I was blown away would be like saying that Jim Morrison enjoyed the occasional cold one to take the edge off. As soon as we walked in, we were hit smack dab with the Beach Boys exhibit. Brian Wilson's hand-written lyrics to God Only Knows were worth the price of admission alone. Love the fact that they used to be called The Pendletones.

There was some totally amazing Beatles stuff, including some of John Lennon's report cards. To say that he was an underachiever in school would be to put it kindly (I think he received 3% in math... I didn't even think that was possible). We saw Johnny Cash's guitar and Ray Manzarek's organ. We saw some of the threads worn by The Who (they were smaller guys than you might think), and the piano that Ian Hunter wrote Cleveland Rocks on. One of the coolest things, I thought, was the display of artwork that Jimi Hendrix had compiled in his youth. Paintings, sketches, a touching birthday card to his dad... it was all brilliant stuff. As BS pointed out: "some guys are just blessed with way too much talent".

I loved the section dedicated to the music coming out of various cities. Memphis was a veritable sweatshop of musical genius, with Sam Phillips and his Sun Records studios producing the likes of Elvis, Johnny, Roy, and Jerry Lee. Factor in the Bluesmen that came from that region (Muddy, B.B., Memphis Minnie), and you could literally dedicate an entire HOF to The River City. A couple of my favourite articles were the hat that Robert Johnson is wearing in that famous picture of his, and the briefcase Howlin' Wolf used to carry around with him. Legend has it that he was of that same ilk as Chuck Berry, in that he wouldn't get on stage until the money was in his briefcase.

The Rolling Stones bar tab was something to marvel at, and the old concert posters give you some indication into how ticketmaster has essentially ruined the concert going experience by jacking the prices to the point where you can't realistically afford to go see the big time shows anymore, let alone The Rock and Roll Revival type extravaganzas (a lineup in 1969 that included John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, The Doors, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alice Cooper, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Junior Walker and The All Stars, Chicago Transit Authority... FOR $6!!!).

The hall of fame isn't without its fair share of tragedy. It's amazing when you think about how many great artists were taken before their time. Buddy Holly (I will never get over the fact that he produced the body of work he did before the age of 23), Otis Redding (they actually have pieces of the plane on display - a little too morbid for my liking), Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, Kurt Cobain... Again, there could be an entire museum dedicated to the genius we were robbed of.

But perhaps what I like best about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the way in which each member is enshrined: not with a plaque or a photo, but with their autographs on this funky flourescent wall. It was amazing to see all of those signatures in one place, and as you're going over them in this dark, seemingly subterranean hallway, you can hear their music playing in the theatre surrounding the signatures... It really is quite something.

Obviously, the video footage is out of this world, and to be honest, we didn't even begin to scratch the surface of what's inside that shrine. If I lived in Cleveland, there's little doubt in my mind that I would be volunteering in that place, doing everything I could to learn as much as I could from the unfathomable wealth of information. I remember my dad telling me that I would need an entire day to look around there, and I didn't believe him. Having been there for just a little over three hours, I can honestly say that I'd need a solid week to see everything I wanted to see. There's just that much good stuff.

I'll leave you with one more anecdote. We were walking through one of the exhibits, and BS, our insanely knowledgeable guide, pulled me aside and implored me to look at this scrap of paper. It was the handwritten lyrics to Save The Last Dance, a song written by the briliantly gifted Doc Pomus (Teenager in Love, Little Sister, Surrender, Viva Las Vegas...) and perfected by The Drifters. BS pointed out to that, if you looked closely, the lyrics were written on the back of a wedding invitation; and that if you were to look even closer, you'd realize that the invitation was to Doc's own wedding.

BS then pointed to a photograph next to the lyrics. The shot was of a man on crutches, clearly unable to get around without assistance. It turns out that Doc had polio, and was basicly unable to walk. He wrote that song while sitting there watching his bride dance with other men all night, hoping that she'd save the last dance for him.

I had goosebumps the size of the lump in my throat.


Anonymous said...

A couple of things I forgot to mention about the Rock Hall. Firstly, you aren't allowed to take any pictures inside. Apparently there are plenty of copyrighted things in there, and they just can't be bothered with the hassle of telling people what they can and can't photograph... Which is really just as well, because I would have used an entire memory card's worth on the first floor alone.

Secondly, there has been more than just a little grumbling about the induction process. Much like the Motion Pictures Association of America's Ratings Board, the R&R HOF's induction committee is an anonymous collection of critics, historians, and industry types who, because of their anonymity, essentially do not have to worry about being held accountable for their nominations and inductions. As a result, I have no one to take issue with the fact that, not only is Tom Waits not a member of the Rock Hall, but he has never even been nominated. In my mind, this is an indefensible oversight.

To learn more about the Hall's induction shortcomings, check out this great article from The Cleveland Scene:

But even with these unresolved issues, the Rock Hall is still one of the most interesting and educational places I've been in a long time, rivalling even The National Baseball HOF in Cooperstown, NY, and The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA.


M@ said...

I spent a day there a few years back and had a barely controllable urge to steal things every couple of minutes. If I could have walked out of there with the hat that Tom Petty wore in the Don't Come Around Here No More video my life would have been complete.

I also got a kick out of how George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic's autographs take up a section of wall roughly the size of my old apartment.