Friday, September 5, 2008

Why I Will Never Be Invited Back to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Images from the Internet

During the summer of the modern fin de sicle, I took a road trip to take pictures of old barns, and to seek out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

It was a beautiful day as I parked in the garage for the adjoining museum. After walking through a series of corridors, I arrived in the immense, black glass and steel building designed by Pei, similar in tone and space to the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. I checked out the entrance fees, raised an eyebrow at the cost, and then proceeded downstairs to the administrative offices.

Placing my camera bag on one of the plush office couches in the waiting area, I approached one of the two receptionists. “Good morning! How can I help you?” she said with a big, open smile. I explained that I used to publish a fanzine out of New York called FFanzeen, and I was writing a book about rock’n’roll, specifically the late ‘70s-early ‘80s “Punk and New Wave” period. Further, I said I would love to speak to someone about what I could and should be looking for within the glass walls of the museum and, specifically, where. “Oh,” she thought out loud, “That sounds like Howie’s area. Hold on.” She then called this Howie person on the interoffice phone. As she hung up, she said that Howie was really busy at the moment, but he would send someone out to talk to me, and would I like to have a seat on one of said plush couches. Then she very graciously offered me some beverage. So far, so good.

I sat down next to my bag, and had a coffee.

A short time later, a woman in a tailored business suit (that seemed pretty formal for a rock’n’roll museum I thought at the time) came out of the back office area, and introduced herself. To be honest, I can’t remember her name, but I do have her business card somewhere. She was perky and very corporate-like. And, she had no idea what I was talking about. I stated the mission of my visit, and she explained how that was Howie’s area, but he was out of the office for the day. Okay, thinks I, she’s spinning, and I’m going to need a shovel to dig through the pile. While being sweet and cheerful (her job), and seemingly with no knowledge of the museum’s contents (excused through the comment of how the museum rotates its exhibits, with it hard to keep up with what was current), it became apparent to me that she was more knowing of the general form and function of the place. In other words, most likely she was a Public Relations major in college, and got the job primarily on that, rather than a passion (or even necessarily an enjoyment) of what the museum supposedly represents.

With a well-rehearsed and generalized speech about the museum, she said I should let her know if there was anything else with which she could help. She was being very nice and business-like, and I had nothing against her as a person, but I wondered what the hell she was doing in this museum; it is sort of like a car salesperson that doesn’t really know about cars. She then started to walk away.

“’Scuse me,” I piped, “Is there any chance of getting a pass to the museum? I came all the way from New York, after all…” With an “Oh, sure,” she said someone would come by and give me a pass. With that, she disappeared back to the offices. Very shortly, the receptionist gave me a black wristband. I was soon to find out that this color band gave me free access to all public areas. Cool.

One thing the magic black wristband could not permit was for me to bring my camera bag and its obvious contents into the museum proper, as photography was verboten. Signs stated that some artists have donated their memorabilia, and did not want it photographed. Whatever, I respectfully checked the bag.

The displays in the museum are well sectioned and meted into areas using both temporal and spaceial subdivisions. It starts, of course, in the pre-rock and roll era, through the beginning (mid-1950s), and then as the sound spread, breaking down further into different areas of the country. There is a replication of the Sun studios down in Memphis (where the museum really should have been located; it’s present locale has to do with Alan Freed, a Cleveland DJ who is given credit for coining the phrase rock and roll), which is excellent, and other memorabilia was fascinating. Most areas were sectioned into “windows” that are about five feet wide and more than 6 feet high, with a depth around one to two feet, depending on the content.

The first item I saw that I actually own, was the sheet music for Carl Perkin’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” That sort of cheered me up enormously. There were many pieces from the 1950s, of course the focus being Elvis memorabilia. There was Chuck B., Little R., and Buddy H. It went through the early sixties, through the surf, girl-group, and Motown periods. I have to confess that so far I was having lots of fun.

The Beatles, naturally, dominated the Mersey Beat area, with the Stones and Who falling right behind. The American scene of the period, like the incredible Isley Brothers and Count Five were but shadowly represented. The next big American scene showcased was from California, like the Grateful Dead (lots on the Dead), Lovin’ Spoonful, Janis J., Jimi H., Jefferson Airplane, and the whole Fillmore clique.

But something was bothering me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I realized what it was: this was all mainstream rock and roll. Where was the representation of the independent scenes? Like with the Grammys, if it didn’t make money, odds are a corporate sponsorship was not going to be paying to support it, especially if there were no future corporate CD sales involved.

I went through the Glam area – Bowie, T. Rex, and Gary Glitter being the biggest, with little recognition to the likes of Slade or Steve Harley.

Finally, I came up to what they consider the Punk and New Wave windows. Both of them. First thing that caught my eye was the outfit Handsome Dick Manitoba wore on the cover of the Dictators’ first album, “Go Girl Crazy.” I was duly impressed with that, since the ‘Tators were one of my faves (DFFD). After that, it was mainly top-10 stuff, like the Ramones, Blondie, Television, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and a nice nod to the Heartbreakers (specifically, Johnny Thunders). That is my pet peeve about looking back on that era, anyway: as great as they were, the scene was so much more than just those bands. But I digress.

Again, it was nice to see items I actually own, like an Easter Festival photo collage poster (taken by ex-MainMain publicist Leee Black Childers), a menu from Max’s Kansas City, and flyers from CBGBs. All in all, it was pretty scant, though, considering how influential the New York scene was on the history of rock’n’roll. From there, it was straight to the British punk movement, leaning heavily on the Pistols and the Clash. Again, “top-10” – you know, moneymakers. There was also a focus on the LA hardcore scene. There was little to nothing from the incredible scenes in Boston (Willie Alexander, DMZ), Phoenix (Jody Foster’s Army), Athens, Georgia (Pylon, Love Tractor – though both REM and the B-52s were represented somewhere else), or Indiana (The Gizmos, The Dancing Cigarettes, Dow Jones and the Industrials – except John “Cougar” Mellencamp, again, somewhere else), to name just a few locales. Why? I’m guessing, to beat a dead horse, because they were not signed to the larger labels, major backers of the whole museum complex.

From there it went downhill, with special sections on the likes of Billy Joel (questionable) to the later Bee Gees (undeserving; early BG period is another story). There was also a special exhibit on the costumes of rock’n’roll performers. It was cool seeing the Sgt. Pepper’s uniforms and clothes worn by Janis and Jimi, and even David Byrnes’ big suit. But then again, there was lots of Elton John clothing and Madonna’s bullet bra outfit (along with others by her). This seems to be stepping away from the topic.

But the mood killer, for me, was the Extra Special exhibit on the top floors (yes, plural), on Rap and Hip-hop. Excuse me, but isn’t this the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum? Just what does Rap and Hip-hop have to do with rock and roll? Sure, some misguided and under-talented bands like Limp Bizket try to rip off the culture, as the white reggaers did in the 1970s (e.g., The Police). And while Rap and Hip-hop are legitimate in their own right, they are NOT rock and roll. Period. The kicker was at the end, which was a plaque announcing that AT&T sponsored this exhibit. Duh; shoulda known. To quote (the original movie) “The Producers,” “Money is honey, Bloom, money is honey”).

Last I saw was a film on the previous choices for membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. There were some questionable choices over the years, but there remained some integrity in who was voted in. This was just before Michael Jackson (as a solo “artist”) was chosen, surely a nail in the coffin for the authenticity and respect of the museum.

Naturally, I headed back to the administrative office in the basement, to say my thank you to the publicity person, for I would have gone into the museum whether she had given me a pass or not. She was unavailable, so I wrote her a note. And I got carried away. This is not quoted verbatim, but as close as I can remember:

“Thank you for letting me in to see the museum, that was very generous of you. I enjoyed the exhibits even more than I thought I would. But I have a couple of questions: Where was the garage music scene of the 1960s (especially the Pacific Northwest and Texas)? And the garage revival of the early 1980s? Where are the independent bands of the 1960s-‘90s? Where was anything international other than England - such as Czechoslovakia (The Plastic People) or Canada (Teenage Head)? Where was the Tex-Mex (? and the Mysterians, Sam the Sam and the Pharaohs, Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns)? Why is there so much Madonna-related material here? And sorry, but Rap and Hip-hop is not rock and roll. When will you be opening the Brittany Spears and Backstreet Boys wing? Shouldn’t it be called the Pop Music Hall of Fame and Museum, to be more accurate? Once again, thank you for your time.”

Of course, after handing over the note, I headed straight for the gift shop and laid down a bit of change for a bunch of postcards and a couple of pricey tee-shirts (one for me, one for good friend Bernie Kugel, lead singer of the Mystic Eyes, as a get-well present; my next stop was his house near Buffalo, NY).

After reclaiming my camera bag and snapping a couple of pictures of the outside of the museum, I got my car and was on my way to photograph more barns, and to future stops with Bernie and Greg Prevost (Chesterfield Kings) at the House of Guitars in Rochester, both of whom are excellent musicians and songwriters (and respected rock and roll historians), and will probably never be represented at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

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