The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

By Jim DeRogatis

Long before I ever set eyes on I.M. Pei’s great glass pyramid on Lake Erie, I had heard the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum calling to me, like the Holy Grail to King Arthur or Wally World to Clark Griswold. Driving from New York to Minneapolis, I heard it as far away as the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border.

I knew better, of course. I’ve spent my career as a rock critic railing against the monolithic, nostalgic version of rock history presented by baby-boomer critics, and the $92 million “House That Rock Built” is its epitome. Still burned out by the grueling ordeal of covering Woodstock ’94 for the Sun-Times, I had successfully avoided the opening of the museum the following summer and cheerfully missed such 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 just released on Columbia.)

It was the breathless prose in my AAA guidebook that finally reeled me in. My wife, Kim, read out loud 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 a pang. Was my heart really so hard that I could just keep doing 70 down I-90? I turned to Kim and told her, “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 dun you $5.30 more 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. They’re 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 chrome-and-glass angles, lots of big white expanses. The museum looks like all of those airports and shopping malls that went 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, different tunes at every exhibit. The effect is of visiting an appliance store with a wall of TVs, each of them tuned to a different station.

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 tighter and tighter circles until you reach the tip of the pyramid. The biases of the founders are obvious almost immediately. The ground floor 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 for writing a negative review of Atlantic superstars Hootie & the Blowfish (or more specifically, for complaining publicly when he replaced it with a nicer one).

“Rock ‘n’ roll,” the museum’s promotional brochure declares, “is a force unlike any other, and there’s only one place on earth where you can touch its uncontrollable power.” That may be, but the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is not that place. While the Ahmet M. Ertegun Exhibition Hall is full of relics–Alice Cooper’s guillotine! Madonna’s conical bustier! Run-D.M.C.’s Adidas! ZZ Top’s furry drum set!–you aren’t allowed to touch any of them, or even take pictures of 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 and deprives dissatisfied customers of visual evidence.

Still, I found myself rushing gleefully between certain displays–John Cipollina’s oversized amplifiers and primitive guitar effects, Roger McGuinn’s 1968 prototype Moog synthesizer, and some of the bricks and stage props from Pink Floyd’s legendary Wall. The insidiousness of it all only struck me when I stopped in front of a dummy of George Clinton dressed in one of Parliament-Funkadelic’s outlandish stage costumes: furry jacket, psychedelic braids, orange pants, platform shoes shaped like “Atomic” dogs.

Robert Christgau once wrote that the overarching theme 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. The fact is, even in America, clothes, cars, guitars, and amplifiers don’t make the man or woman, let alone the music. If I had wanted to get close to the life force of George Clinton or anyone else represented in the museum, I’d have been better off going back out to my car and plugging a tape into the cassette deck.

The Hall of Fame likes to think it’s better, purer, and nobler than the Hard Rock chain–the emphasis here is on education, it screams. To teach rock’s history, the curators have chosen the cold medium of video, 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 the machinery is operating as intended, the version of rock history that’s presented is 60s-centric, and where it tries not to be, it’s ridiculously reductionist. 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.” 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 because it was desperate enough to pay for it. So the curators bend over backwards to include anything with a local angle, whether or not it fits in. Notorious heterosexual and former Clevelander Trent Reznor turns up in an exhibit of gender-benders influenced by Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and the Cleveland-based glossy fanzine Alternative Press turns up among the “magazines that changed rock history.” (Cleveland’s Pere Ubu, universally recognized as one of the first and most influential punk bands, doesn’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 having saved the music from the evil right-wing censors of the Reagan era–never mind that his main foe, Parents’ Music Resource Center founder 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, which include 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 devil music. A peppy factotum 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, the 20-minute “Mystery Train” video features Plato’s famous quote, “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” It was odd to ponder this in a plush, air-conditioned theater, surrounded by people who associate revolution with Nike. In the same video, token punk 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, but I actually got nasty stares from the Kmart shoppers sitting around me. These were not the people your parents warned you about; these were your parents.

My irritation at this reverence only grew as I ascended in the pyramid, past the Museum Cafe (“where light, healthy refreshments are served”), past the broadcast studio underwritten by Radio Shack. The top floor is devoted to those artists who have been formally honored by the Hall of Fame Foundation (a separate but related organization in New York that 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?–where 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 shoo-in for 1998. To make the list for 1997, an artist has to have recorded by 1971 or earlier. A small, select, and secretive panel convened by the foundation met this spring in New York, in a presumably smoke-filled room (located–surprise!–in the suites of Rolling Stone) to select 17 eligible candidates, including the Bee Gees, Black Sabbath, Buffalo Springfield, Solomon Burke, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the doo-wop group 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 9 honorees out of the 17. The Hall of Fame Foundation will mysteriously winnow the list further, to 5 to 7 artists, before announcing the inductees next month.

Wenner had added my name to the list of this year’s voters shortly before he canned my ass. The ballot was forwarded in the mail to Minneapolis too late to vote, but it arrived with a nifty little “Voter Information Booklet.” “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 cassette featuring one song by each nominee (Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'”). Such is the grasp one must have on rock history to be entrusted with the task of distinguishing Hall of Famer from non-Hall of Famer.

Not surprisingly, there is no explanation of the selection process at the museum in Cleveland; indeed, the curators would have you think that the honorees were divinely chosen. The escalators stop just below the tip of the pyramid, and you must climb the final steps to the sanctum sanctorum under your own power. It’s the only place in the museum where speakers and video monitors aren’t blaring, and the only light comes from 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 to get to the exits, you must fight your way through a giant HMV chain record store. CDs by all of the artists in the Hall of Fame are featured (at the highest list price), as are 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. Spokesman Moore recently called to let me know that the museum hosted its one millionth customer–er, visitor–in August, less than a year after its opening.

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 Stones 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 when suddenly the sound of a dozen clanging cash registers filled the air, followed by a bass riff I’ve heard a thousand times if I’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.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kevin Kurtz.