(Pictured: Prince and friends burn down the theater at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004.)
On our recent vacation, we visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. A few random observations follow.
—Like the best rock and roll shows, the Hall will overload your senses. Music and video blast in nearly every exhibit area, and when areas are close together, the collision of sounds is cacophonous. I actually found it a little hard to concentrate sometimes.
—Concentration is needed because the Hall is a text-heavy experience. Objects displayed in museums require context, but curators and exhibit designers usually try to keep the text providing that context as succinct as possible. My sense is that the Hall does not concern itself overmuch with that goal. Exhibits are introduced with lots of text on walls; exhibit labels offer a significant amount of detail about the artifacts on display. Some of the artifacts themselves are text-heavy: letters, contracts, lyrics, etc.
—The first gallery you visit honors early influences: those artists who predate the rock era but who helped to shape it. It includes Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, and others, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who goes in this year. But it also includes a couple of perplexing honorees, chief among them Nat King Cole, who made no secret of his dislike for rock ‘n’ roll, and who would wonder why he was there.
—Elvis Presley gets the biggest gallery. The Beatles share one with the Rolling Stones. On the day we visited, however, a gallery devoted to the career of John Mellencamp dwarfed them all. The Mellencamp exhibit is temporary, on display only until early February.
—John Mellencamp has long been #1 on my list of Hall honorees who don’t belong. He didn’t do anything groundbreaking; he isn’t an exemplar of any particular style; he has no lasting influence on artists in his wake. His records sell, but his greatest achievement is Scarecrow, recorded over three decades ago, and it’s been over 20 years since his last single of any consequence. But if the giant building on the lakeshore in Cleveland was the Hall of Sold a Lot of Records, or the Hall of Sticking to Your Job for a Long Time, you’d put Mellencamp (and lots of other inductees) in right away.
—We made it a point to visit the Alan Freed Studio, where jocks on the Sirius/XM Classic Vinyl and Deep Tracks channels do regular shifts. There’s a separate exhibit hall devoted to Freed and his early years in Cleveland. He shares the gallery with Sam Phillips and Les Paul as innovators, and with an exhibit on the history of musical technology. Altogether, it’s one of the most interesting parts of the museum.
—Critics of the Hall are often critics of Rolling Stone founder and Hall impresario Jann Wenner, suggesting that the honorees’ list reflects Wenner’s taste as much as it reflects the inductees’ place in history. Wennerphobes will be neither surprised nor pleased to learn that right now, two entire floors of the museum are devoted to an exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone‘s significance from the 60s to the 90s can’t be overstated; its significance since the 90s probably can be. But there’s no way the Hall was going to ignore the magazine’s 50th, so it’s fine.
—The best part of the museum is the last film Jonathan Demme directed before his death in 2017: the short Power of Rock, which is shown with audio at concert level in a theater dedicated for the purpose. It features performances from various Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, all-star jam sessions that in some cases have become legendary. The single longest segment in the film is from Prince’s induction in 2004, when he was joined by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and on which Prince shows himself the equal of the greatest dudes who ever strapped on a guitar, Hendrix, Clapton, anybody. At one point, Petty is seen whispering to Prince, “You ready to wrap it up?”, to which Prince responds, “No,” and continues to wail.
If you read this blog, you should visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s not really necessary for me to say that; chances are that if you read this blog, you’ve either already been there or it’s on your bucket list. And on the day you cross it off, you’ll be glad you did.