A Postcard from Cleveland


By Jim DeRogatis

Perched on the banks of Lake Erie, its angular glass surfaces reflecting the sun and the waves and looking prettier than anything in Cleveland has a right to, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum beckons to tourists more forcefully than any scenic view, rest stop, or roadside fireworks stand ever could. Driving west from New York to Minneapolis, I had heard it calling to me from as far away as the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border. Like King Arthur's knights to the Holy Grail or Clark Griswald to Wally World, I felt like I was being drawn to I.M. Pei's Pyramid of Rock 'n' Roll Past as if it were my very destiny to visit it.

I knew better, of course. I have spent my career as a rock critic railing against nostalgia and the monolithic version of rock history presented by Baby Boom critics, and the $92 million "House That Rock Built" is the epitome of both. Still burned out by the grueling ordeal of covering Woodstock '94 for The Chicago Sun-Times, I had successfully avoided the opening of the museum the following summer and cheerfully missed such dubious highlights as Sheryl Crow belting out "Let It Bleed" and Slash jamming on "Red House." (These are now preserved on an album called The Concert for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, which was released in late August on Columbia.)

But the breathless prose in my AAA guidebook finally reeled me in. My wife Kim read read aloud about how we could see the Sun studio gear used by Elvis Presley, the psychedelic Porsche driven by Janis Joplin, the cub scout uniform worn by Jim Morrison--these are as close as we get to the relics of saints in these godless times!--and suddenly I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Was my heart really so hard that I could just say "Bah, humbug" and keep doing seventy down Route 90? I turned to Kim and told her to load the Instamatic: "Honey, we're goin' in."

We called for tickets in advance from a Perkins an hour outside of Cleveland. Dial the number listed in information and the tourist books--1-800-493-ROLL--and you're connected directly to Ticketmaster, which proceeds to charge you $5.30 more in service costs than the $25.90 you would pay for two tickets if you just walked right in. Maybe the Hall of Fame honchos haven't heard of the Ticketmaster controversy; more likely, they don't care, and are almost certainly getting a portion of the service fees kicked back. Come to think of it, there's precious little Pearl Jam inside.

There are, however, lots of sharp angles, big white expanses, and tons of chrome and glass. The museum looks like all of those newer airports and shopping malls that were going for a sleek, futuristic design but ended up with the same old sterile public-place vibe. Except that this sterile public place is darker than most, it smells better, and it's louder. Music plays throughout the building, but there are different tunes at every exhibit, so the effect is like visiting an appliance store with a wall of TVs, each of them tuned to a different station. Raucous it is; rocking it's not.

You enter on the plaza level--the only free part of the museum, so it's devoid of attractions--and are directed down to the ground level before being led upward in ever-tightening circles until reaching the tip of the pyramid. The biases of the founders are obvious almost immediately. The ground level is named after one of them--"The Ahmet M. Ertegun Exhibition Hall"--and there are large displays devoted to Atlantic Records (the label he founded) and his close personal friends the Rolling Stones. A few floors above, there's an entire wall paying tribute to Rolling Stone magazine, whose founder, Jann Wenner, is the Hall of Fame's biggest booster. "Rolling Stone has always incited its writers to take risks," I read in the accompanying placard, and I couldn't help laughing: I had just been fired by Wenner because I dared to write a negative review of Atlantic superstars Hootie and the Blowfish and complain when he killed it.

"Rock 'n' roll is a force unlike any other," the museum's promotional brochure declares, "And there's only one place on earth where you can touch its uncontrollable power." This isn't entirely true. While the Ahmet M. Ertegun Exhibition Hall is full of many things--Alice Cooper's prop guillotine! Madonna's conical bustier! Run-DMC's Adidas sneakers! ZZ Top's furry drum set!--you aren't allowed to touch any of them, or even photograph them. Museum spokesman Tim Moore said that some of the people who have loaned memorabilia to the joint have requested that it not be photographed. I'm sure the ban also boosts sales of the official souvenir book at the end of the tour and prevents dissatisfied customers from showing off their evidence.

This isn't to say that I was instantly turned off by the museum. On the contrary, there was plenty to fire my enthusiasm and appeal to my jaded post-punk sensibilities. I found myself rushing gleefully between displays of John Cipollina's oversized amplifiers and primitive guitar effects, Roger McGuinn's prototype 1968 Moog synthesizer, and some of the bricks and stage props from Pink Floyd's legendary Wall. The insidiousness of it all only struck me as I stared at a dummy of George Clinton wearing one of Parliament-Funkadelic's outlandish '70s stage costumes, full of fur and colorful feathers, and complete with "Atomic Dog"-shaped platform shoes.

Robert Christgau once wrote that the theme of all of Clinton's prodigious output is that "the forces of life--autonomous intelligence, a childlike openness, sexual energy, and humor--defeat those of death," which, when you think about it, is a pretty workable definition of good rock 'n' roll in general. But the museum is most comfortable with dead musicians: Jim, Jimi, Janis, and a lot of Kurt, too, since he's no longer around to sport a "Corporate Museums Still Suck" T-shirt. Clinton is one of the most alive people I've ever met. His statue, like all of those in the museum, is roughly the quality of a cheap showroom dummy, but even if it had been made by Madame Tussaud herself, it would convey none of his energy and passion.

The values of our All-American consumer culture aside, clothes, cars, guitars, and amplifiers don't make the man or woman, let alone the music. If I wanted to get close to the life force--the essence--of Clinton or any of the other artists I cared about, I'd have been better off going back out to my car and plugging a tape in the cassette deck. Because the music, unlike the old guitars and Salvation Army cast-offs on display in the museum, is still alive. Everything else is irrelevant, but this isn't even the museum's biggest problem.

Writing in Spin, Elizabeth Gilbert recently poked some well-deserved fun at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The Hall of Fame likes to think it's better, purer, and nobler than the Hard Rock chain--the emphasis is on education, it screams. The curators have chosen the cold medium of video to teach rock's history, even though it may have done more to kill the music than anything else. The constant barrage of images is disorienting and overwhelming. Documentaries in the style of those PBS and Time-Life history-of-rock specials run nonstop in the museum's theaters, and "interactive" exhibits allow visitors to call up images and information by smearing their fingerprints on touch-sensitive video screens. That none of these systems work very well adds a sort of unintended Zen to the experience: I tried to call up Lou Reed's discography, for example, and was rewarded with Randy Newman's.

Even when things are working correctly, the version of rock history that's presented is simplistic and Sixties-centric. The reductionist aspect of it all came rushing home in a display called "The Beat Goes On," which purports to connect the dots between key influences and modern rock groups. I touched the screen to find out where Nirvana came from and learned that the Pixies plus the Melvins gave us "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Similarly, the Stooges plus Glenn Branca equals Sonic Youth, Phil Spector plus the Beach Boys equals the Ramones, and the Velvet Underground plus Al Green equals the Talking Heads. And here I thought innovation was complicated business.

Hidden agendas abound, and history is contorted to fulfill them. The museum needs to maintain the illusion that Cleveland was chosen as the host city because of its contributions to rock 'n' roll, and not just the funding it was willing to come up with. So the curators bend over backwards to include anything with a local angle, whether or not it fits in. Notorious heterosexual and former Clevelandite Trent Reznor is featured in an exhibit of gender-benders influenced by Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and the local fanzine Alternative Press is included among the "magazines that changed rock history" (a showcase which, in any event, is only a quarter of the size of the Rolling Stone display). Unfortunately, Cleveland natives Pere Ubu, universally recognized as one of the first and most influential punk bands, don't turn up anywhere.

Touchy but pervasive issues like drug abuse, racism, and misogyny are also given short shrift. A wall is devoted to a display called "Don't Knock the Rock," and Frank Zappa is depicted as single-handedly saving the music in the '80s from evil right-wing censors (never mind that Tipper Gore was and is an allegedly liberal Democrat). No one seems to have caught the sad irony of the official Hall of Fame maps and brochures issuing a "Parent Alert" stating, "Because some films and exhibits contain mature themes and images, please ask Visitor Services for information regarding suitability of exhibit content."

Just for kicks, Kim called Visitor Services to find out what was considered unsuitable in the temple of the Devil's music. Peppy-voiced Elise advised us to avoid the Mystery Train video--she didn't say why--and added, "There's a picture near the men's rest room of Janis Joplin. She's just covered with beads, so it's kind of provocative."

In addition to a few more breasts and some cuss words, Mystery Train features Plato's famous quote, "When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake." It was odd to ponder this while sitting in a plush, air-conditioned theater surrounded by people who associate revolution with Nike. Moore said that the museum hosted its one millionth visitor in August, a year after its opening. On the afternoon I dropped in, it was almost exclusively a white, middle-aged crowd, full of chubby moms and dads in shorts and T-shirts, many of them pushing baby strollers. These are not the people you parents warned you about; these are your parents.

Mind you, I have no problem with this: I'm about to become a chubby dad myself. But if I ever get as humorless and lifeless as the folks at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, I sincerely hope my kid pulls a Lyle and Eric Menendez on me. In the same video with the Plato quote, token punk-rocker John Lydon defines rock 'n' roll as "giving money to talentless assholes." Not only was I the only person who laughed out loud at that, I actually got nasty stares from the K-Mart shoppers sitting around me.

My irritation at this lack of irreverence only grew as I climbed higher in the pyramid, past the Museum Cafe ("where light, healthy refreshments are served"), past the broadcast studio underwritten by Radio Shack, and up to the top floor, which is devoted to those artists who have formally been inducted into the Hall of Fame, which as a foundation predates the museum by 11 years. The ceremony takes place every January at New York's Waldorf-Astoria--why would Wenner and Ertegun want to travel to Cleveland?--and the tuxedoed fat cats pay $250 a plate for rubber-chicken dinners. They listen to command performances by those they have chosen to honor, and the artists do their best to be gracious right up to the end, when they all join in for a big closing jam that always seems to feature Bruce Springsteen front and center.

The Boss hasn't been inducted yet, but he's a shoe-in for 1998. To make the list for the 12th annual inductions in 1997, an artist has to have recorded by 1971 or earlier. A small, select, and secretive panel met this spring in New York, presumably in a smoke-filled room located--surprise!--in the suites of Rolling Stone magazine to selected 17 eligible names, including the Bee Gees, Black Sabbath, Buffalo Springfield, Solomon Burke, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Dominoes, the Jackson 5, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Mamas and the Papas, the Meters, Joni Mitchell, the Moonglows, Parliament-Funkadelic, Gene Pitney, Lloyd Price, the (Young) Rascals, and Iggy and the Stooges. Ballots were then sent to a larger voting body of some 200 writers, DJs, and industry types, who were directed to choose nine honorees out of the 17. The Hall of Fame Foundation will mysteriously winnow the list further, to five to seven artists, before announcing the inductees in the fall.

Wenner added my name to the list of voters shortly before he canned my ass. The ballot was forwarded in the mail to Minneapolis too late for me to vote, but it arrived with a nifty little "Voter Information Booklet" chock full of useful history. "The Bee Gees have three calling cards when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration: popularity, artistry, and impact," it stated; "nothing will ever come close to the magic of the Mamas and the Papas when they were the Sight and Sound of the Summer of Love," and so on. There was also a handy cassette featuring one song by each nominee (Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," Sabbath's "Paranoid," the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming"). Such is the grasp one must have on rock history when trusted with the task of determining Hall of Famer from non-Hall of Famer.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of this selection process in Cleveland; indeed, the curators would have you think that the honorees are chosen by some Higher Force. The escalators stop just below the tip of the pyramid, and you must climb the final steps to the sancto sanctorum under your own power. It is the only place in the museum where speakers and video monitors aren't blaring, and the only light comes from the thin spots that illuminate the glass walls into which the names of the chosen have been carved: Buddy Holly. Otis Redding. John Lennon. Bob Marley. I stood in the darkness, enveloped by the silence and solemnity. I could sense the spirits of the greats as they were when they made the music that earned our admiration, and it prompted in me a deep and moving revelation.

The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is a mighty mountain of crap.

I turned and started trudging back down to earth. The museum is designed so that before you get to the exits, you must fight your way through the giant HMV chain record store that is the climax and final stop of the tour. CDs of all of the artists in the Hall of Fame are featured at top list price, as well as racks of T-shirts, jackets, and baseball caps and shelves of shot glasses, ashtrays, pins, pennants, coasters, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and fountain pens, all adorned with the official pyramid logo.

I cannot tell a lie--I did not escape without shelling out $11.99 plus tax for an official Hall of Fame souvenir snow globe. As the cashier reached over a rack of Rolling Stone mags to take my dinero, the ATM in the corner caught my eye: It's a rock 'n' roll cash machine, shaped like a giant jukebox. I was mulling over the symbolism of this as Kim and I headed to the parking lot, and suddenly the sound of a dozen clanging cash registers filled the air, followed by a bass riff you've heard a hundred times if you've heard it once. Pink Floyd's "Money" was being piped into the concrete plaza, and I knew then and there that I couldn't invent a better ending if I tried.

(Originally published by The Chicago Reader, New York Press, and L.A. New Times, summer 1996)