I think it was Dave Barry who, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was still on the drawing board, suggested its singular feature should be volume. People should always be calling the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, telling it to turn itself down, he wrote, in an observation that goes to the heart of what was always my problem with it. Lots of other people have it, too, i.e., how does a cultural movement which still has youthful disaffection and rebellion at its creative heart warrant a hall of fame?
Pretty simple, that one, and you can tick them off if you like. It’s an artistic movement of decades’ standing, incorporating uniquely American strands woven into an original, and new form. It’s a cultural force to this day, and if you don’t believe me, ask Lady Gaga. And from a purely commercial perspective, like a Kiss concert, it’s going to sell a lot of tickets. Sometimes I think the defining emotion of my generation — not the first to rock ‘n’ roll, it goes without saying — is nostalgia, but that’s what happens when your adolescence gives critical mass to a unique cultural force. What do you do in your 20s? (Go punk.) In your 30s? (Start disapproving of hip-hop, which isn’t even music, with all that scratching and sampling, and you call that singing? You might give a nod to the Seattle sound, but honestly, that’s when you stopped keeping up, right?)
What do professional nostalgists love most? A hall of fame. A museum. Put them both in an avant-garde building by I.M. Pei on the shores of a Great Lake, and it’s no surprise that as a business proposition, the Rock Hall, as it’s known on second reference here, is such a draw.
But that’s being unfair, a little, because it’s not just nostalgia being sold here. My advisor for this trip, Michael Heaton of the Plain Dealer, told me not to miss the introductory film that starts the tour, “Mystery Train,” a 12-minute triptych film montage that shows the roots of rock in bluegrass, Texas swing, country, blues, and (my favorite) the field hollers of Southern stoop laborers. Sam Phillips is famous for what he said about finding a white man who sounded like a black man, but the quote of his that always stuck with me was about the time he stopped for a Co’Cola at some backroad southern watering hole, and saw a woman hanging laundry across the road. She was black, and sang as she worked, and Phillips reflected that these folks were the most naturally creative people in the world. Which is two-thirds paternalistic romanticism and one-third true, and when you see the brief shot of black railroad workers knocking rails into place, making the clack of their tools part of the rhythm of the song they’re singing, you can see it plainly. But the film is only 12 minutes, and pretty conceptual. I got it, but I was traveling with two 14-year-old girls who could have used a little more David McCullough-style narration. On to the permanent collection.
I’m not much of a relic person. One Fender Telecaster looks pretty much like every other one, and with the exception of the exceptions — Bo Diddley’s cigar boxes, most notably — the instruments quickly blurred together. It’s the technique, not the tool. But the rest of it charmed me. The clothes and costumes, the programs and posters, the set lists, the scribbled early drafts of classics — it draws you in, and it helps when it’s intelligently arranged and annotated. Video loops at significant stops along the path detail mini-movements like Motown, psychedelia, grunge, rockabilly. Kate liked Sly Stone’s fringed jacket and Jimi Hendrix’ shirts; I liked the spiral-notebook page with the first draft of “Rainy Day, Dream Away.” By the time we arrived at the best of the stage outfits, with David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust wardrobe, Bootsy Collins’ glasses and, yes, Michael Jackson’s glove, more than two hours had passed. And we’d only seen one floor.
Time was running short, so I made the executive decision to head up to the top floor and check out Women Who Rock, a temporary exhibit about guess-what. It was crowded, and I can’t believe we never saw Lady Gaga’s meat dress, now jerky-fied and preserved for the ages, but we got a taste of everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin to Joan Jett to Debbie Harry to Madonna, and that was enough to fill out the afternoon and bring us almost to closing time.
Next time: Allow more time.
Worth a visit? Absolutely. Worth several. I’d feared the Rock Hall would show the music I love preserved in amber, instead of a living, breathing art form that continues to evolve (although, admittedly, not as quickly or as creatively as it once did). The professional nostalgist would find plenty to wallow in, but nearly as much that says move along now, there’s still more to see.
Oh, and Dave Barry got at least part of his wish: There are outdoor speakers, but they don’t really boom. The only neighbor who would ask it to turn itself down would be the football stadium next door, and you know how those guys like to party.
No bloggage today; I’m hoarding links for tomorrow. It’s Monday and, as usual, I have to run. Some thoughts on Oslo, maybe, and a few more things worth reading for a week that promises to be nearly as miserable as the last. Until then, stay cool.