Does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Do Anything Right?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Hall of Lame, Part 2 In March I went to the 15th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria and found it, as I wrote then, "the very, precise and complete antithesis of rock 'n' roll." The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was started by Jann Wenner, Ahmet Ertegun and other industry figures in 1983. The museum, in Cleveland, opened in 1995. Cleveland, as many before me have remarked, is a funny sort of place to have sited what is the unofficial national museum of rock 'n' roll. A connection to Alan Freed is the primary stated excuse; it is also true that for a not-so-big city Cleveland has cranked out more than its share of famous folkies and rockers, from Phil Ochs to Pere Ubu, Joe Walsh, Chrissie Hynde, Devo, the Dead Boys and Trent Reznor. A crumbling Lake Erie waterfront in desperate need of reviving provided Cleveland's civic and business community with the financial rationale.

    Also, I suspect that for Jann Wenner there could have been a compelling marketing argument for siting the heavily Rolling Stone-sponsored museum in the heart of the American Heartland, which by the 1990s was the last great reservoir of an audience for straight-up, old-fashioned rock. Call it Reznorland, a big, flat obstructionless market of white Midwest fratboys and farmboys and their older brothers still pumping their fists in the air when the Journey revival concert comes to the state fair. It would help explain why Reznor mysteriously appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone over and over and over in the 1990s, years after he was having any impact on rock culture besides appearing over and over and over on the cover of Rolling Stone.

    And finally, while New York or L.A., Detroit or Memphis or San Francisco might've seemed a more logical home for a rock 'n' roll museum, you only build an attraction like this as a tourist magnet, and Cleveland sure needed the tourists more than any of those other cities?except maybe Detroit.

    The hall stands on the shore of Lake Erie, a vast inland sea that stretches off, flat and the color of lead, to all the horizons. I'd been told it's the ugliest building in Cleveland, and it certainly is an eyesore (designed by I.M. Pei), but I'm not sure it's the ugliest. Cleveland, like most other big-little cities in America, has had a number of modern and postmodern monstrosities inflicted on its skyline, in a fit of urban renewal and "renaissance" that was utterly disrespectful of the crumbling charm of its stately beaux-arts downtown. But yes, it sure is an ugly building. And the lakeshore site, next door to a working pier (I watched a big, rusty tanker called, romantically, the Millenium [sic] Hawk being offloaded) and near one of the city's two big sports stadiums, makes no sense as a place to celebrate rock 'n' roll. A maritime museum or city aquarium would make a lot more sense. Why put the Rock Hall there, instead of, say, somewhere on Euclid Ave., which still has a few actual rock clubs on it, or over in the fake-riverfront bars-and-restaurants area called the Flats, the sole purpose of which is to gather crowds of people looking to have a good time? Sticking it on the lakeshore, off to one side from the rest of the city's downtown life (such as that is), is just the first of many unsettlingly decontextualizing decisions.

    It was rainy the Saturday I went, and the high-ceilinged, glass-walled entrance hall did in fact feel like an aquarium, damp and echoing. Staff with boomingly amplified voices split visitors into tour groups (busloads of Midwest high school students, big heifer-kids from the Heartland of White America, milk-fed, mostly blonde, glowingly pale) and individual ticket-buyers. It was a most un-rock 'n' roll-looking crowd. Lots of gray-headed retirees and middle-aged beer bellies, lots of strollers getting in traffic jams with wheelchaired grannies. I saw exactly one couple, in their early 30s I'd say, that I could visually identify as "hipsters." All the rest were indistinguishable from a crowd amassed for a baseball or football game. No, I'm not saying that only hipsters are allowed to appreciate rock. But if you went to someplace where you were going to encounter real rock?a club, say?you'd see a lot more hip-looking young people and a lot fewer Farmer Brown old folks. It gave me the distinct impression that many of them weren't there out of an intrinsic interest in rock 'n' roll history, but simply because it was another attraction on the extremely limited itinerary of things to do in Cleveland. If you're in from the prairie states and Cleveland's as near as you're getting to a Big City, you go to a ballgame; go drink a lot of beer one evening in the Flats; if you're highfalutin, you get tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra or go to Playhouse Square to take in the roadshow production of Phantom of the Opera; and then you kill a Saturday morning at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some of the crowd I saw, like the literally wheelchair-bound grandmas and the white-haired senior citizen couples, couldn't possibly have been rock 'n' roll fans, not even Elvis fans. They were there because it was something to do in a big-little city where there just isn't much to do.

    Luckily for them, the Rock Hall does a terrible job of evoking anything remotely like an authentic rock 'n' roll experience. It's just a popular-culture museum, like any other popular-culture museum. It could hold antique farm equipment or Civil War battle scenes or hot rods or textiles or NASA space vehicles. It has the same distancing effect upon the viewer, drops your energy to the same low-key, keep-shuffling boredom level. It's as true to the spirit of rock 'n' roll as a Hard Rock Cafe?one in which there are way too many kids and you can't get a drink.

    As it happened, they'd just installed (in the "Ahmet M. Ertegun Exhibition Hall") the dismal Tommy Hilfiger-sponsored "Rock Style" show I saw at the Metropolitan Museum a few months ago. It's a collection of stage outfits worn by dozens of rock, pop, soul and rap performers over the years, and it is, as I wrote back then, "a sham and a dispiriting bore." It makes slightly more sense in the context of the Rock Hall than it did in an art museum, but still. Rock style? You want to know from rock style? In the year 2000, rock style is Birkenstock running ads in Rolling Stone touting the "J. Garcia limited edition sandal (quantities while supplies last)." Rock style is David Bowie appearing on the cover of Men's Fashions of the Times this spring modeling a brown tweed sportscoat?brown tweed?a sportscoat designed for accountants, insurance salesmen and hog-feed merchants. Jann Wenner wouldn't be caught dead in such a sportscoat. Ahmet Ertegun would die first. But there was Bowie, with that chameleonic boyish grin that has carried him so far, wearing his hair long again, not hippie long but 70s pop star long?David Cassidy long. I guess it's supposed to make him look 20, 30 years younger. It doesn't. He looks exactly like the fiftysomething zillionaire entrepreneur geek he's become.

    The attempt to totemize clothes and objects associated with some few hundreds of rockers is, of course, the chief modus operandi of the Rock Hall & Museum. What the Hilfiger display attempted to do for rockers' clothing the rest of the hall attempts with a variety of other exhausted-looking ephemera and effluvia. It's like a walk-through eBay. Or like a bad natural history museum, where random artifacts from unrelated lost civilizations?a Northwest Indian rattle, a West African mask, a jade figurine from East Asia?are all thrown together in a meaningless jumble. Decontextualized and wantonly aggregated, they're just objects, drained of any use-value, meaning or emotional resonance. Ultimately, such collections say nothing about the objects or the cultures they were raped from; they speak only of the collection itself, the acquiring and cataloguing and labeling of objects.

    Here's a tom-tom Keith Moon once played. It's a drum, like any other drum. Without the identifying placard, you wouldn't have the foggiest idea it's supposed to be a special drum. And even when you know it's a drum Keith Moon played, the drum itself just sits there behind its security perimeter, powerless to move you, to instruct. Let's be clear about this: the spirit of rock 'n' roll does not reside in a tom-tom drum once touched by Keith Moon like a wood nymph in a hollow log. It's the most infantile form of magical thinking to pretend that it does. And the visitor has to accept the museum's word that Keith Moon did in fact touch this very drum, thereby transferring to it some sort of ineluctable rock 'n' roll mojo; the visitor has to believe, like every memorabilia collector trawling eBay, that this isn't just some tom-tom the museum staff bought at a used instrument store and stuck a misrepresenting label on. As with many collections of artifacts, it's the label itself that has the juice here, not that undistinguished tom-tom drum.

    Here's a pair of big black boots worn by someone in Alice In Chains. Here's an exercise bag filled with hotel keys collected on the road by one of the Eagles. Here's a mic stand the Temptations used. The spirit of rock 'n' roll inhabits none of these things. They're just things. In the case of the bagful of hotel keys, they're stupid things, things no visitor to a museum should be looking at just because some idiot in a generally lousy 70s rock band collected them; they make you stupid to be looking at them. The best that can be said is that the museum does contain a nice assortment of used guitars, played by everyone from old bluesmen to contemporary rockers. But they look sad and mistreated hanging on the walls behind glass. Guitars are musical instruments, they cry out to be played, not stared at (by, one must presume, mostly non-musicianly viewers) like...well, like a bag of hotel keys. If there's any spirit of rock 'n' roll inhabiting those guitars, it's begging you to smash the glass, pull that ax down off the wall, strap it on, plug it into a big stack of Marshalls and fucking play the thing. It's a key to how wrongheaded, how nonmusical the Rock Hall is, that no one associated with the institution understood what an anti-rock 'n' roll gesture it is to crucify all those instruments like that.

    At the most absurd, one case displays Jim Morrison's Boy Scout patch. At the most ghoulish, on one wall are mounted some twisted remains of the plane Otis Redding was killed in. Wrenched out of context, simply stuck on a wall in a hallway between more flashy multimedia exhibits, even those scarred remains, which should be a frightening or saddening reminder of the mortality of even pop stars, lose all emotional impact. Again, it's the lack of context that drains all the juice from these things. Rock 'n' roll is all about context, as Joe Strummer says in one of the hall's several film and video presentations. Removed from its place and time, it crumbles, it withers and fades away. The visitors push their strollers and their wheelchairs past rows and rows of this junk, pausing briefly, staring blankly, chewing gum, blinking, yawning, scratching their necks or their fat butts, and then stroll on, obediently, following the signs, traveling the chutes-and-ladders system of escalators and stairs that eventually dumps them, with a terrible inevitability, in the gift shop, through which you pass to get the hell out of the place. And even the gift shop is a lousy gift shop, just an HMV outlet where you can buy the same CDs you already have at home, and tacky Rock Hall keychains. Just more objects, and none of them remotely close to evoking real rock 'n' roll.

    Does the Rock Hall do anything right? Well, I liked the video and film installations. Because they feature interviews with and live performance footage of actual rock 'n' rollers, they give you a better feeling for the history than any of the objects displayed. Still, you could stay home and see the same footage?and much more?on your tv. No need to trek to Cleveland to see it.

    When I walked out of the Rock Hall I wandered along the lakefront down to that area called the Flats, where the Cuyahoga River meets the lake. It's a small area of fish restaurants and fratboy bars, and a couple of rock clubs. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, one of these clubs was housing an all-ages hardcore show. Just standing on the sidewalk at the open door I got more rock in five minutes than I had in three hours inside the Rock Hall.

    Why does the Rock Hall offend me so? Could it be simply that it strikes too close to home? After all, this is my past they've put on display there, the history I share with my boomer cohort. It's depressing as hell to see it laid out looking so bland and drained of its magic. I feel violated. This must be a little like what an American Indian feels seeing the bones of an ancestor on display.

    But it's not all of it. I do not believe a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should exist. To its very core, I believe, it is antithetical to the spirit of rock 'n' roll, a multimillion-dollar monument to the sad fact that the original rock generation, my generation, has completely forgotten what makes rock cool or fun or even "important," and has to resort to the cheap, old-fashioned and inherently conservative "hall of fame" sham?a trope most associated in America with baseball?as a very imperfect way of reminding themselves of what they once loved. But the Rock Hall is a completely inaccurate representation of what that was. If there are two adjectives that most definitely do not apply to this building or the concept behind it, they are "cool" and "fun."

    The Hall of Fame tries to reform rock 'n' roll, tame it, reduce it to bland, Middle American family entertainment; it drains all the sexiness and danger and rebelliousness out of it. Rock 'n' roll is not just any other American pastime, equivalent to a sport, hard as many players and promoters of 70s-style stadium rock have tried to make it that; anyone who appreciates rock 'n' roll must want to resist all the athletic idioms inevitably employed by a rock "hall of fame," all the implied notions that Rock Hall inductees are somehow rock's "champions," who were quantifiably better at the sport of rock than other rockers were because they "scored" more "hits" or some such nonsense.

    The Hall of Fame operates according to the tastes and diktats of powerful industry figures and "experts"; but rock 'n' roll is, at its best, a grassroots, out-of-the-garage, populist music, maybe not democratic in spirit but certainly anarchic. (Anarchic both in the true sociopolitical sense of self-organizing and antiestablishmentarian, and in its vernacular meaning?"all fucked up.")

    Who decides who gets in and who doesn't? By what criteria? How do you decide who was a truly great rock star, worthy of an eternal place in the great hall of heroes, and who was just an also-ran? Clearly, despite those 1000 ballots sent out to a global network of "experts" (are there 1000 rock 'n' roll experts in the world?), the dominant criteria are the tastes and predilections of Jann Wenner and Wenner's cronies. Fleetwood Mac and James Taylor were shoo-ins, and I'm sure they can easily go on inducting Eric Clapton every year as far as Wenner's concerned. Think the Cro-Mags are ever going to be inducted? The Dropkick Murphys? Manitoba's Wild Kingdom, Mighty Sphincter, the Sick F*cks, Furious George, that little no-name hardcore band I heard in the Flats that afternoon? They haven't even inducted the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges or Ozzy Osbourne.

    Overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, the Rock Hall preserves a vision of rock as Jann Wenner likes it: mainstream, commercially successful and, whenever possible, bland and nonaggressive. Yes, of course it does its nods to punk rock and rap and heavy metal, but such outre forms of the music are presented very much as adjuncts and addenda to the main story, and the main story is Beatles-Stones-Bowie-Springsteen-Billy Joel.

    The only nod the museum gives to lesser-knowns is a condescending and ultimately insulting wall of plaques commemorating "one-hit wonders." Characteristically, the museum's experts have singled out maybe a dozen of "the best" of the one-hit wonders, allowing hundreds, nay thousands, of others to keep languishing in (implicitly deserved) obscurity. A good argument could be made that rock 'n' roll?and certainly pop music, chart-topping singles music?is an industry built on the backs and dreams of one-hit/two-hit/three-hit wonders. Even an elitist view has to admit that many of the most successful artists in the history of the form are not much more than one-hitters. What do you call Britney Spears? What, in the end?be honest?do you call a Chuck Berry or a Little Richard? Four-hit, five-hit wonders? Does that make them four, five times more "important" than, oh, ? & the Mysterians or Jay & the Americans? I'm not saying they're not more "important"?but surely that's not quantifiable by the relative number of "hits" they had. How many "hits" did Nirvana have? I mean in terms of songs that the average potbellied, ballcap-wearing visitor to the Rock Hall, or his baby-buggy-pushing wife, could name? One, maybe two, at best three? Does that mean Britney's more important than Nirvana? How about ABBA, Cher, Billy Joel, Backstreet Boys?

    You really insist on having a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? You don't get I.M. Pei to design you one, and you don't let the Jann Wenners and Ahmet Erteguns dominate it as a museum to themselves, and you don't let it become a whited sepulcher of a mausoleum to a popular art form that is implicitly dead. Nobody asked my advice, but if they had I would have told them to buy a working rock club somewhere, a place that's already a living piece of rock 'n' roll history. Buy CBGB from Hilly Kristal if he'll sell it. Or buy one that's gone bust?don't I remember that there was, in fact, a failed last-minute effort to transform the Fillmore East into a rock history museum to preserve it? You put your museum on one floor?preferably down in the basement?and keep the performance space open. Bring in all sorts of rock acts, new and old, subsidizing as necessary. Make it a living museum to the spirit of rock 'n' roll.

    And for Christ's sake, at least serve beer.