Article 1995-09-02 Cleveland, OH

Finally Reckoning With Rock History

Chuck Berry had the first word and the last at the Concert for the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on Saturday night, nearly seven hours of rock oldies and tributes performed for the 60,000 people at Cleveland Stadium and those watching the live HBO telecast. At 2:15 A.M. Sunday, with Bruce Springsteen at his side, he sang, "It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it/Any old way you choose it." He was a living symbol of rock's heritage being honored and preserved; so is the Hall of Fame.

The concert, of songs by Hall of Fame members, was a show of rock unity. Pioneers from the 1950's (Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis) and figures from the 1960's and 70's (James Brown, Robbie Robertson of the Band, the Kinks, Booker T and the MG's, Martha and the Vandellas, the Allman Brothers Band, George Clinton, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, Jackson Browne) shared the bill, and sometimes the stage, with current hit makers (Melissa Etheridge, John Mellencamp, Jon Bon Jovi, Natalie Merchant, Slash) who played old songs.

There were glorious moments: Al Green singing Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come" and trying to top Aretha Franklin in a duet; John Fogerty belting his Creedence Clearwater Revival songs; Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen trading verses on "Forever Young"; Soul Asylum backing both Lou Reed in "Sweet Jane" and Iggy Pop in "Back Door Man." And there were embarrassing ones: Sheryl Crow singing Rolling Stones songs (by imitating Bonnie Raitt); Jackson Browne trying Bob Marley's "Redemption Song"; the Gin Blossoms attempting the Beatles' vocal harmonies in "Wait." For iconoclasm's sake, Chrissie Hynde, from Akron, led the Pretenders in "My City Was Gone," a song denouncing urban renewal in Ohio — the kind of program that led to the construction of the $92 million Hall of Fame. But at the concert, music that has been the battle cry in generational warfare became, for the occasion, a link between eras.

The concert proved that "you can't lose it"; the museum decides how to choose it. The Hall of Fame, which requires careers dating back at least 25 years for inclusion, is only one exhibit in the larger museum, which presents rock artifacts and information from the pre-rock era to the present. At the summit is the Hall of Fame, a dark, quiet rotunda with illuminated signatures and a tone that hovers between reverential and funereal. But the remainder of the museum is a clamorous, eye-popping display that brings together artifacts and ephemera with films, video and multimedia computer data bases. Despite gaps and quirks, its inaugural installation is a promising start.

The museum has a message: that rock-and-roll is a liberating force, and that the ideas and emotions it reveals may be troublesome but must be reckoned with. Visitors are guided initially toward a film, "Mystery Train," that celebrates rock-and-roll as both a grand synthesis of American music — blues, country, gospel, work songs, jazz — and the antidote to 1950's suburban blandness. In another room, banks of video screens on opposite walls zoom through history, with Presidents and news events on one side, contemporaneous rock on the other. A 185-seat upstairs theater, which will double as a lecture hall, presents a 20-minute film, "Rock Is," that shows both exhilaration and self-destructive excesses, including drug use.

Evocative objects and documents are everywhere. Naturally, there are plenty of well-strummed guitars and flashy stage costumes, most of them contoured to extremely skinny bodies. The museum exhibits Buddy Holly's high school diploma, parts of Otis Redding's crashed airplane, U2's record-company rejection letters, a receipt for $5,000 from Col. Tom Parker to Sam Phillips for exclusive rights to Elvis Presley's career, and detailed notes from Aretha Franklin on how an album should be remixed.

Jim Morrison's mother provided material from his elementary-school years, including a block-lettered page reading "I Love You, Mother" — which takes on resonance in the light of his Oedipal recitation in "The End" — and report cards indicating his need for "a firm hand in the classroom." John Lennon's report card shows that one teacher considered him "hopeless," while a homemade magazine he drew as a child shows that his wry, sardonic humor was formed early. Handwritten lyrics from Jimi Hendrix, Mr. Berry, Mr. Springsteen, Neil Young, Paul Simon and the Ramones, among others, are reminders that rock is the work of people who scribble things down and fiddle with rough drafts.

Like most museums, the Hall of Fame is most self-assured when dealing with the distant past, where there is some historical consensus. On entering, visitors can read about important pre-rock performers from Hank Williams to the Platters to Ma Rainey. Touch-screen computer terminals link rock musicians to two influences each, with capsule biographies and audio and video clips; the Doors, for instance, hook up to Howlin' Wolf's blues and Kurt Weill's cabaret songs. But with rock's explosive growth, and its constant splintering, there's no single narrative for the museum to follow after the 1950's. "This isn't the complete story of rock-and-roll," said Jim Henke, the chief curator, "and I'm not trying to pretend it is."

From about 1960 onward, the museum goes channel surfing through rock history. This is very much a video-era museum. Its film clips are quick-cut montages, impressionistic rather than narrative; for more linear information gathering, visitors can use computer terminals to read biographies and hear songs.

Rock is an audible medium and a performance medium; like African masks, it is best appreciated while in motion. As a result, some of the hall's best material is intangible: a virtual museum of songs, images, voices. One extraordinary exhibit is a room holding old radios, headphones and computer terminals that allow visitors to hear disk jockeys (arranged by decade, region and city) from the 1930's to the 1990's, including, of course, Alan Freed in Cleveland.

There's a wall of blues, rhythm-and-blues and gospel memorabilia across from exhibits devoted to seven city styles: Memphis rockabilly, New Orleans rhythm-and-blues, San Francisco psychedelia, Motown soul, New York and London punk, Seattle grunge, New York hip-hop (which gets extremely sketchy treatment) and Jamaican reggae. The British Invasion and other scenes may get their chance later.

There's an exhibit on obsessive fans, including a sunburst of one collector's hundreds of autographed drumsticks; there's a display of one-hit wonders, explaining how they reached their brief moment of popularity. There are displays from the archives of Sun Records and Atlantic Records. (Although Atlantic's chairman, Ahmet Ertegun, started the nonprofit foundation that runs the museum, his label deserves its place in the museum for its role in rhythm-and-blues and rock.)

And there are wall cases and floor displays devoted to individuals or groups, including the Who, Elvis Presley, the Allman Brothers, Madonna and Michael Jackson (where the identifying label reads, "Collection of Michael Jackson, King of Pop," presumably a condition of the loan). For some reason, the Everly Brothers have two spaces.

The museum's larger exhibits raise questions of emphasis and omission. Its displays depend on its collection; its collection comes from gifts and loans, since its organizers did not want it to become a player in the memorabilia market. And its center of gravity is in 1960's and 70's rock bands led primarily by white singers and songwriters, the kind of music rock critics find easiest to discuss. "In the end, rock-and-roll comes down to the song," one wall label reads, a position that might be argued by fans of dance rhythms or people who just love the noise.

The emphasis is probably a combination of curatorial decisions and the contents of the collections. Because costumes and stage props are simply larger and more flamboyant than other materials, performers who have provided them have an edge. The Rolling Stones, who provided a historical survey of Jagger costumes, are extolled as rock's greatest touring band; the Grateful Dead, who were on the road constantly, turn up only in the San Francisco exhibit and in a memorial row of Jerry Garcia photographs. But the Dead were never as theatrical as the Stones.

There's a big floor display for Z. Z. Top's fuzzy drums and car-shaped bass guitar. Yet Bob Dylan, a far more important figure who has apparently not donated anything, is represented only by a few wall posters, and Van Morrison, another Hall of Fame member, appears entirely absent. All he does, however, is sing.

Because theatricality makes for eye-catching exhibits, the museum overemphasizes rock's connection with fashion. The designer Stephen Sprouse, who is the curator of the costume displays, is drawn to glitter and androgyny. A large exhibit that shows David Bowie and Iggy Pop as deities of a polysexual rock menagerie, includes costumes from such obscure groups as the Dopes and Psychotica.

But while the museum has plenty of sequins and spiked hair, it underestimates rock's T-shirted hordes, whose rebellious machismo led them to thrash-metal bands and gangster rap, the two styles that currently annoy teen-agers' parents and bear the brunt of anti-rock agitation. Neither has much presence in the museum, although earlier rebellions are celebrated.

Because it concentrates on songwriting by individual performers, the museum misses some other possibilities as well. It could examine rock's rhythmic evolution, which would make a fine display of dancing from twist to techno to mosh (glimpsed in the "Rock Is" film) while tracing the beat. It could, perhaps from its existing archives, cast an eye on music-business practices, including the art of the contract. It could look at evolving instrument and recording technology, from 12-string guitars to computers. It could dissect a song as an electronic collage as well as an artistic statement.

Still, the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and Museum has to start somewhere, and it succeeds in its main goal: to capture rock's energy and silliness as well as its serious social impact. Now that what Mick Jagger once called "the phantom temple of rock" has been built and organized, it can easily add a few new riffs.

By Jon Pareles via The New Times.
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