Writer's Block: It's Only Rock And Roll

The recent holiday found us in northern Ohio visiting relatives. We took the opportunity to make the short trip into Cleveland and cross the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame off our list of interesting places we'd like to visit.

Opened in 1995 on the shore of Lake Erie, the museum presents a striking appearance. Designed by architect I.M. Pei, it rises pyramid-shaped from a courtyard featuring the words “Long Live Rock” in giant red letters. From above, the courtyard resembles a record on a turntable. Inside the lobby props from live shows by bands like U2, Pink Floyd and Phish hang impressively from the ceiling.

My expectations for the museum were, admittedly, pretty low. That was probably a good thing; leaving about three hours later I was duly impressed with the breadth and quality of the exhibits. Treated in a serious and scholarly manner, the history of rock music – at least the early years – was comprehensively covered, beginning with the deep roots of the genre: jazz, blues and country and western music. Pioneers are duly noted in each of these styles, and begin to blur with the inclusion of musicians and composers who absorbed from multiple influences and produced something completely new.

Fun fact: the museum ended up in Cleveland for a couple of reasons, including, reportedly, a massive effort to influence the location orchestrated by the city. Financial incentives helped entice the organizers, while the ostensible reason given by those conducting the campaign was the key role Cleveland DJ Alan Freed played by coining the term rock and roll, and the influence of radio station WMMS in breaking such influential rock acts as David Bowie.

An exhibit fleshes out the contribution Cleveland, and other Midwestern cities, played in the history of rock, as well as noting key bands and musicians who hail from the heartland.

Exhibits are divided into several sections. There's a stretch exploring other regional contributions, chiefly from major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Seattle (Boston was peculiarly absent). Each covered a wide range of genres and artists, ranging from the early days of rock to the recent past. Elvis has his own exhibit, as do the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. These included items of clothing (I never realized how small Mick Jagger is), artifacts such as rare records, posters and other items associated with the musicians, handwritten lyrics and collectibles. There's George Harrison's guitar, pages from a newspaper John Lennon created while in grade school, a birthday card Ringo sent to John, and many other items. Several were missing; Ringo, we were told, has recently reappropriated items that he loaned to the museum.

A “Legends of Rock” section contained costumes and other items from David Bowie, Michael Jackson, the Animals and other members of the Hall of Fame. Around one corner I stumbled upon a very neat coat owned by guitarist Nile Rodgers featuring DC Comics superheroes in the throes of a fight. There was Tom Petty's guitar and clothing once worn by Jimi Hendrix.

Upstairs were exhibits featuring a selection of the most important rock songs ever, chosen by the museum organizers, and under glass the chief instrument of rock and roll, guitars once played by the likes of John Lennon, Rick Danko and Jerry Garcia. Another exhibit traced recording and listening technology through the years, and another gave a nod to the importance video played in the rock of the late 20th century. A special exhibit traces the history of Rolling Stone magazine (whose founder, Jann Wenner, was one of the founders of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The Hall of Fame has taken some flack for inclusion of exhibits focusing on rap, as well as the relative lack of black artists both as inductees and exhibit subjects. I have to admit I was taken by surprise by exhibits that featured elaborate costumes from the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars, none of whom even come close to being worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. (That's a matter of opinion, of course; feel free to dispute it in a letter to the editor. None have yet reached the eligibility requirement of 25 years after the release of their first record, or ever recording anything good. [Ouch!])

My other quibble was the lack of acknowledgment of the influence of international artists and genres. Other than England, in the form of London and the Merseybeat sound, I recall no mention of cities other than those in the U.S. No mention of the influence of African musicians or styles, Latin or Eastern European or Asian music. Rock has certainly influenced music throughout the world, but it's also embraced other forms, instruments and beats. I think specifically of the Beatles' use of sitars, incorporation of African styles by Talking Heads and Paul Simon, and Latin and Cuban influences. (OK, they did mention Richie Valens, but only as an early progenitor whose “La Bamba” broadened his popularity.)

The choice of inductees in the Hall of Fame has also engendered controversy, with many artists one would think shoe-ins languishing with multiple nominations but not enough votes to win acceptance. Among the 2018 nominees, for instance, are the J. Geils Band, nominated five times (there's the Boston thing again); the Zombies (three-time nominees); and the Cars, also a three-time nominee (BOSTON!). First-time nominees include the Moody Blues (who should have been among the earliest nominees), Kate Bush and Dire Straits. Also nominated for some reason I can't quite fathom are Depeche Mode, Bon Jovi (for the second time) and Judas Priest.

And, looking at those already in the museum, is there really any reason for Heart, Madonna and the Beastie Boys to be there? And Neil Diamond? Shouldn't he be in the easy listening hall of fame?

It's all a source of endless debate, which is what something like this should engender. Along with the handwritten lyrics by Bruce Springsteen (a member) and Warren Zevon (not in the Hall of Fame yet, criminally) and Sid Vicious' (member as Sex Pistol's bassist) leather jacket, it helped make the visit much more satisfying and fun than anticipated.